Northeast under Siege (2): Diagnosis
Wisdom demands a forehand diagnosis of danger and prescribing measures to forestall it. The first part of this series published last week gave a narrative of recent happenings around our friend Saleh. It was meant to serve as an illustration of the state of insecurity in the Northeast. Today, the second part attempts to diagnose the problem discussing briefly the contributing factors. The last segment coming up next week will focus on the prescriptions.
In the present article however, the basic assumption is that the robbery cases are a manifestation or say symptoms of a disease whose undercurrents have taken time to accentuate themselves over the past thirty years. Despite our effort to be comprehensive in outlook, it will not be surprising if the reader still finds that our diagnosis has overlooked certain important aspects of the problem. It is also possible to find that we have paid insufficient attention to some important issues and given undue attention to what the reader may consider trivial.
Pardon us. The problem is sociological, resulting from endless interaction of factors. In addition, the discussion is not intended to be an academic dissertation but a contribution to a debate on one of the most pressing issues requiring urgent attention in the region. We have no doubt that other contributors will highlight such analytical lapses. The overall aim is to furnish policy makers with the complete background information on the problem. That, in case they will perchance be humble enough to use information from “pages of newspapers” in addition to that classified as “TOP SECRET.”
The Peaceful Old Days
Nigeria has been one of the most peaceful countries on the African continent. Apart from the brief civil war, a whole century is coming to pass without a major crisis. Even in Nigeria, for reasons related to its pace of development and culture, the Northern part of the country has been exceptionally peaceful. One could recall only petty thefts, which have also been ancient practices in all societies. No doubt before the advent of our colonization, there was a lot of violence in form of wars and raids on villages for slaves and other oppressive pursuits.
But since the advent of colonialism, there has been a dramatic change in state of personal security in the North. In fact, one of the most tangible benefits that we, as Northerners, earned form colonization and which we should be sincere to mention, was the tremendous increase in personal safety. Until recently, a traveler was safe once he crossed the Niger. He becomes increasingly secure with every kilometer he covers northwards. All this was possible not because people were well-off. Indeed poverty and disease were then more entrenched in the society than today. The difference was that governments then were responsible. Due attention was paid to curb excesses through prompt punishment by leaders whose modesty earned them the authority and respect they needed to enforce laws.
The Oil Bomb
With the inception of the oil boom and its attendant implications of urbanization, opulence and massive consumption, this state of security started to become threatened. Man is usually happy with any economic development that will improve his condition of living. If they are not well founded and sustained however, most such developments will create more problems than they can solve. The socio-cultural equilibrium of societies that embraced them becomes severed.
That was precisely our experience with the oil boom. Throughout its reign, we spent more on consumption than investing in ventures that will improve our condition of living permanently. The culture of consumption became entrenched. A renowned Pan-African Hausa poet, Abubakar Ladan, once described this trend. Pardon our amateurish rendition of his masterpiece:
A villager entered a city!
With a rubbish-sweeping gown
And skin layered with dirt, clumsy,
If he sees, afar, a girl selling cake
He would call her and fill his ‘tank’
Until he breathes with difficulty
Even youth who would have ordinarily remained farmers could not resist joining the tremendous tide of urban migration. They came in search of better paying jobs like petty trading and manual labor.
Though problems like armed robbery were not witnessed in the North during the Gowon and Obasanjo eras, their seeds were nevertheless planted throughout their regimes of consumption. The first two years of the second republic shared the continuation of the boom as much as its leaders shared the consumption pattern of the previous administrations. In fact, the management of this resource by the politicians of the second republic makes a good study in classical extravagance. Cities all over the country were teaming with both alien and indigenous populations, all coming to share the “national cake” exemplified by the flamboyant living of the politician. These cities were no where to be compared with their present ghost state.
Suddenly, the tide turned for the worse and the wind of fortune changed its direction, away from Nigeria. The world was suddenly shocked to hear the country begging for assistance from the World Bank in the early eighties.
The boom turned into a bomb. Adjustment back to poverty is always painful. To those sitting on the thin margin of criminality, say it is impossible. In Nigeria it did not take time for them to give up the yokes of morality and embrace violence. But violence, once allowed to manifest, is also hard to subdue. Instead, it multiplies in a sequential fashion especially under laxity or provocation. This country has witnessed prolong period of administrative laxity. In it also, especially unending years of economic adjustment policies and looting of the treasury have unjustifiably provoked violence repeatedly. On its part, violence had no option but to take its toll.
An Oasis in the Desert
Nigeria is undoubtedly the richest country in the West African neighborhood. It is also the only “big brother” country where every black African is embraced as a citizen. We enjoy saying it to the hearing of whoever cares that Africa is the centerpiece of our foreign policy. Belief in these notions, noble as they may sound, has adversely endangered our security.
We do not have a common identification despite our racial and ethnic differences. Also, the borders of the country are artificially drawn to such an extent that, except for our official language, little difference is observed between either side at any border point. In some cases the resemblance in appearance, language and culture are so remarkable to reduce the difference of nationality to a simple geopolitical gimmick. Perhaps nowhere is this cultural homogeneity better expressed than in the Northeast.
This confusion over identity has exacerbated the porosity of our borders. But this could not be the sole factor. For example, It is difficult for a Hausa man from Illela in Sokoto State or from Daura in Katsina State to simply live unnoticed anywhere in Niger Republic. The impossibility has to do not only with their small population or their identity cards but also with the patriotic vigilance of their immigration personnel. Contrarily, in Nigeria it is easy for any “African brother” to get an international passport or to integrate into the local population to the extent of acquiring land without raising the eyebrow of the authority. Note that in Borno Sate, there is always a controversy over the true nationality of their political figures. The recent civilian governor like their second republic speaker of their house of assembly is neck-deep in the identity crisis.
The implication of this is that we admit not only the good from our neighbors, but also the bad and the ugly. Also, the potential gradient of crime becomes reduced to our disadvantage. The long period of instability in Chad, for example, has led to the influx of weapons and crimes into the Nigerian side of the Chad basin. At a time, there was considerable evidence and support for the theory of immigrant armed robbery in the Northeast, like those in Lagos in the eighties. However, recent witness accounts have denied the theory of its absolute reputation. It is now at best partial. Survivors talk of encounters with people speaking typical Nigerian dialects and having local accents.
The Price of Dictatorship and Corruption
When looting the treasury and the preservation of their positions became the primary concerns of leaders; all other matters in the society are relegated to trivial status in their minds. We must appreciate that these leaders are also human beings and their ingenuity, formidable as it may appear, has its elastic limit. They have only one mind. So it will be difficult for them to address different issues of contrasting polarities on the same plane of thoroughness. More so, when they are occupied with material acquisition and preservation of power. These two related evils have never coexisted with justice and steadfastness.
Nigerians had a good dosage of such leadership since 1976, except for the brief spell between 1984 and 1985, to be fair to Buhari and his late lieutenant. It is therefore natural if we observe a significantly positive correlation between lack of public accountability or dictatorship on the one hand, and crimes on the other. In the same vein, the increase in rate of crime could be regressed to a significant measure of fitness with the degeneration of leadership values. A licentious dictator deprives a country not only of its resources but also its resolute on accountability and self-respect. As he loots the treasury, he intensifies the poverty of its citizens thereby extending the frontiers of crimes like the one in question. As his corrupt practices become manifest, he gladly encourages his subordinates to do the same such that he does not remain the only one on the devil’s side. In case he is called to account one day, he can conveniently implicate others.
Under a morally degenerate leadership also, judicial structures become weakened and the state of criminal retrogression becomes tolerated as a norm. No one has the strength to punish or enforce laws designed to tame the animal in men. It is not a surprise therefore to notice that after over twenty years of such degeneration and despite the insurmountable expenditure on security, Nigerians are robbed of the primary guarantee of governance: security of their lives and properties.
Let us be a bit blunt to state that many people believe that there is a complicity of some of our law enforcement agents in perpetration of armed robbery. People are generally afraid to say it though it carries an element of truth. There may not be better evidence than the fact that on more than one occasion, law enforcement personnel have been caught participating in such operations. Though some of the stories may not be true, the police themselves, like any other regimental organizations, will not find it difficult to concede the presence of fifth columnists among them. Well, this trend is not peculiar to Nigeria. But the balance of analytical fairness demands that it be mentioned.
We also witness their lack of commitment to fight armed robbery. In the Northeast, armed robbers always have the courage to operate in broad daylight sometimes just some few meters away from police stations or checkpoints. All police and army reactions so far have a “fire brigade” approach. Their momentum is always brief. Many of them seize the opportunity to specialize in blocking highway traffic and extorting motorists.
Sometimes the police complain that they are too poorly equipped to face armed robbers. Though we do not underrate the sophistication of the weapons used by some of the armed robbers, on several occasions they may not be carrying any at all. This is usually the case with the ubiquitous trend in village banditry called kwanta-kwanta. They usually carry only sticks and knives. The more sophisticated ones may have only one or two hunting guns.
Consider also the perennial Panshanu robbery on the Jos – Bauchi highway. It is usually carried out within 10 km from the divisional police command at Toro. But not for once was there a rush to confront the armed robbers who may operate sometimes up to three times a day. As mentioned in the first part of this article, armed robbers recently operated for over 12 hours on a Federal highway in Yobe State unchallenged by the police. The new governor of the state has resorted to recruiting hunters and local vigilante groups. This measure, in our judgment, is a vote of no confidence against the police.
Decline in Religious Instruction
The bulk of the population in the Northeast is Muslim. According to Islamic culture, all children have the right to moral education that is usually achieved in the family and at the Qur’anic schools. Later when they become adults, this education is continued through part time schools of jurisprudence. There are also other similar avenues entrenched in ritual practices like the Friday sermon when the Imam, the chief custodian of morality in the society, addresses the congregation of worshippers weekly on good conduct.
Even early Christian missionaries have played a tremendous role in polishing the behaviors of their converts. The result was the willingness on the part of the majority of individuals to honor the sanctity of life and property preached by these revealed religions.
Somewhere, the preachers themselves got infected with this virus of material acquisition as its epidemic ravaged the fabric of the society. This slight bent on the part of our clergy has undoubtedly eroded our confidence in them and, by extension, in what they preach. Despite the recent surge in religious education through the Islamiyya schools and the proliferation of churches, neither the Words of the Qur’an nor those of the Gospel have enjoyed the obedience they deserve from their followers. “In God We Trust”, so the Americans print on their dollar. But meet with them privately, they will concede the fact that “the only God they know is the dollar.”
Otherwise, can you imagine that Alhaji Tanko’s attackers had the faith to pray in a congregation right inside his mosque just few hours before their operation? Also while they violently knocked off the security lights of the house, they had the modesty to patiently climb up a ladder and remove the candles of the mosque, keeping them safely on the ground. Welcome America. You are right here!
Finally, no diagnosis of the poor state of our personal security is complete without indicting the public for its negligence and collective cowardice. For quite sometime, the ordinary Nigerian believes that his personal security is the sole responsibility of government. There could be some element of truth in this. Some of the strict legislation on possession of firearms might have helped to entrench this wrong notion. As a result, it was very easy for a handful of teenagers with only a den gun to threaten the security of our friend Saleh together with over five thousand people in his village.
People, under the name of civilisation, have even abandoned the spear, the bow and arrow, and a myriad of mystical empowerment. In African terms, such men have become women. We hereby recall the story of the villager who refused to run away when armed robbers ambushed the vehicle he was riding on a highway. Back home, he was a veteran. He regretted his defenceless position. The armed robbers shouted at him, saying: “You man, won’t you run away.” He simply admitted: “Today we have turned women, you are the men.” They sympathised with his dilemma and let him safe.
It is daily becoming clear to us that as individuals the responsibility of our personal security first rests on our shoulders, more so when the devils come knocking. To our friend Saleh, this was the reason why he had to go as far as collecting charms in addition to other security measures. For those who could not survive such attacks, we pray may their souls rest in peace. However for their survivors like Malam Tanko, it was wisdom acquired the hard way. Please take care.
June 15, 1999