Nigeria is facing the most serious security challenge in its history. It is facing an even bigger challenge of social disintegration, anomie, signalling the disintegration of community. At its root is the breakdown of religious authority and hierarchies as children seek different religious affiliations from their parents. At the same time, there is a decomposition of socialisation and moral education within the family. This is accompanied by galloping urbanisation in which poverty and ghettoes provide an atmosphere in which the disconnected individuals wallowing in misery can see the engagement in mass atrocities as acceptable and indeed desirable behaviour. The precariat has emerged as the most important actor to emerge from the process and they have nothing to gain from good behaviour and everything to gain by disruptive action. Meanwhile, the ruling classes are so absorbed by their looting of the national wealth that they are not even aware they are sitting on a time bomb.
The state of the Nigerian State is serious and each day we appear to be sinking deeper into the abyss. The evidence that we are not being effectively governed is clear and the traditional task of running the State is not a priority concern for the ruling class. Indeed, strictly speaking, the usage of the term ruling class is questionable because although we have occupants of the offices that embody State power, the tenants of such offices are not engaged in running the State. The State as we know it from political science literature does three things.
First, it extracts resources from citizens through various forms of taxation. This assumes that the State knows those who reside in its territory and is able to track them and make them fulfil their fiduciary obligations. Many within the younger generation will be surprised to learn that there was a time when the Nigerian State tracked and monitored each adult to ensure that they pay their tax. They also tracked each nomad and made them pay tax, jangali as it was called, on every cow they owned. In addition, people were made to produce cash crops – cocoa, palm oil and groundnuts, and State institutions called marketing boards bought the produce cheaply, sold it abroad and put the profit in State coffers.
The system of state administration established by the British system of Native Administration had a four-tier structure. First there was the “residents” who were in charge of public administration and gave directives for state policy. Then there was the Native Authority starting with the first-class emir, oba or obi through to district, village and ward heads who knew, monitored and collected taxes from the people. Finally, there was the Native Treasury where the monies were disbursed and the Native Court that were in charge of sanctions. It was an efficient system of monitoring, tracking and extracting taxes from people for the benefit of the United Kingdom. That was the State that we inherited from the colonial powers and all we added was for the beneficiaries to become the new ruling elite.
The second role the State plays is that of using the resources it has extracted from residents and citizens to provide public goods such as security, social services and infrastructure for the welfare of inhabitants. In States where taxes are extracted from the people, there were usually demands and pressure on the State to deliver because citizens have paid their taxes and expect their resources to be used for their benefit. The available resources were not very much but they were used more effectively to deliver public goods.
The third role the Sate plays is that of regulation, making laws for the good governance of the country and sanctioning those who breach the laws through the judiciary and law enforcement agencies. Thanks to the colonial legacy and thirty years of military rule, the objective of the laws was to oppress and control the people. The laws however did not apply to the ruling class, as impunity became the order of the day. Mega corruption by the ruling class was fine but it became criminal for journalists to expose what the ruling class was doing.
In his definition of the State, Max Weber makes the point that the first rule is that thing called the State must have the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence in society. We find ourselves in a situation in Nigeria in which private citizens have access to vast arsenals and use it against citizens and against security forces while for their part, security forces use their own arms in an illegitimate manner killing and maiming citizens in an extra-judicial manner. We know that there is no State in the world where you do not have illegal arms in the hands of private citizens but when the quantum of such arms goes beyond a certain level and such private armies are able to attack security forces at will and the response of the security forces is to turn on ordinary citizens, then the State is in question.
Our Constitution defines the purpose of the state as the protection of the security of Nigerians and the pursuit of their welfare. Nigerians however know that they have to pay for their own security guards and even the bulk of the Nigerian police personnel are used to provide security, not for the people, but for individuals who can afford to pay for their services. Nigerian citizens are forced to provide their own electricity with millions of generators they purchase to power their houses and pollute the atmosphere. Nigerians go to the stream to fetch water or buy it from water vendors. The water is not potable and poisons families through water borne diseases. The elite is able to pay for personal boreholes in their houses and the result is that they wipe out underground water sources for future generations while surface water is not captured and treated but is left to flow into the sea. Of course, health and education have largely been private and the state is completely disdainful of Chapter Two of our Constitution that directs it to provide for the welfare of citizens.
The most serious feature of the Nigerian State is that no institution today has the mission and capacity to monitor, track and govern what is going on in our communities. From colonisation to the 1980s, this was done by traditional rulers. Under military rule, they were stripped of their powers and responsibilities at the same time the local government system was being dismantled and completely stripped of resources by State governors. The result was that rural Nigeria became an ungoverned space. Even the police were withdrawn from rural Nigeria and refocused on providing VIP guard services to the men of power and wealth. It was in this context that the precariat did their research and discovered new routes out of their poverty and the precariousness of their lives by being Niger Delta militants, Boko Haram jihadists, cattle rustlers, rural bandits, kidnappers and highway robbers. Today, they are sucking billions of Naira out of Nigerians who are being pauperised while their masochists are making fortunes
In our context in which the State has essentially abdicated its responsibilities, community members need to start acting together to save themselves. The first step is to start reconstituting the capacity and authority of traditional rulers. Community leaders and members must start working with their tradition rulers to assess their situation – who lives in their communities and neighbourhoods, what are their means of livelihoods and what activities – helpful or harmful are they engaged in. In essence, some form of community surveillance must be re-introduced. It is only when communities start discovering and discussing their problems that they can start working out how to solve them.
The task before us of the reconstruction of the Nigerian State can only happen when our communities regain the capacity to act and to make effective demands. We cannot allow our political community to continue to crumble and suffer the outcome of State collapse, which Thomas Hobbes had assured us will make our lives “nasty, brutish and short”. Rebuilding the State must take the form of a new approach based on proactive communities being able to impose effective demands on those who occupy state offices.