Thursday, 16 October 2014

Identity Albatross and the Dearth of Courage

Identity Albatross and the Dearth of Courage
During the last presidential media chat, when the issue of the over two hundred and seventy abducted Chibok girls came up, the President and Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Dr Goodluck Ebele Jonathan (GEJ) remarked to the effect that upon the occurrence of the kidnap, he requested to be furnished with the names and pictures of the victims. He was, however, told that because of their Muslim background most of them would not ordinarily have their faces shown, hence pictures taken. He said he would later learn from a certain list that most of them, about 80 percent, were infact Christian. To the best of public knowledge, the list that came out which the President probably referred to was made available by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) as presented by Evangelist Mathew Owojaiye, a Kaduna based northern Christian leader. It is interesting to note that we are talking about a group of girls kidnapped from a school while sitting for the West African Examination Council (WAEC) examination: this means that the school should ordinarily have their records, including passport photographs, and that since they are WAEC candidates, WAEC should equally have their most current identity records. The president, however, took the explanation he was given, as he himself indicated, inspite of the fact that, to an ordinary onlooker, he only had to request for all the 2014 registered candidates of Government Secondary School, Chibok – Borno State, from WAEC headquarters in Abuja. As it stands, nobody knows of, neither did the president in his media chat allude to, any other list than the one made available by CAN as at the time of the chat with him. In other words, facts were not made available, and were not demanded for, for reasons of identity.
This piece is not about the administrative decisions taken by the president, and their quality, concerning information about the abductees: it is more about the reality that has become the lot our national life in Nigeria regarding the diverse identities that people this country and how they have affected the way it is and has been run for a while now. In the face of the end of the Cold War with the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union and Communism, Samuel P. Huntington, in his 1992 American Enterprise Institute lecture titled the Clash of Civilizations, advanced the theory that people’s cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War era. This has proven to be true as politics today is defined in terms of identity almost globally. In the Middle East, it is Israelis versus the Palestinians, Shiites versus Sunnis; in Iraq it is Shiites versus Sunnis, Kurd versus Arabs; in India it is the Hindus versus the Muslims; in Myanmar, Malaysia and Indonesia it is the Buddhists versus the Muslims; in Europe it is the locals versus the immigrants. There is also the fact that there is generally a contestation between Islam and secularism – or secularity, depending on who is speaking on what. All of these different identities have defined modern day politics around the world with very dire consequences and with huge costs to lives and property.
Identity politics and contestations are not new to Nigeria, and the world at large. In what is today known as Northern Nigeria, the pre-Western colonial times were characterized by serious identity contestations between the Muslims of particularly the Sokoto Caliphate and the many smaller animist populations. It continued into the colonial era until the dawn of independence when the north, under the charismatic leadership of Sir Ahmadu Bello, had to close ranks in order to confront the south in the oncoming national elections. New identity lines emerged along regions through to post-independence period upon which a brutal thirty-month civil war was fought. Lately, these regional political identities have again emerged very strongly – if they really ever blurred at all.
Northern Nigeria, from the 1980s, has witnessed a steady rise in identity political contestations along religious lines. With time this has mutated along indigene-settler identity lines, without losing the religion factor, and all of these have sparked off violent conflicts that have continually deepened the faultlines to precipitous points.
Unfortunately, many northern leaders, instead of courageously finding means to positively deal with the dangerous trajectory, have actually taken advantage of it for personal political gratification. Because of this, reports of several commissions set up to look into some of the various crises in the north have been swept under the carpets and this has further worsened the situation as justice has not been seen to have been done or truth pursued which will form the basis for reconciliation and forgiveness. People still harbour bitterness over such crises as the Kafanchan riots of 1987, the Zangon Kataf crisis of 1992, the many Tafawa Balewa crises, the Reinhard Bonnke motivated killings to mention but a few; all of these because of the lack of courage to rock the identity boat.
The advent of the fourth republic, while holding within it a lot of promise, also carried with it its own share of uncertainties which include the identity baggage and conundrum, also influenced by global events. It was therefore not surprising that votes were canvassed for and won on the basis of such identities as we saw in Zamfara State where Ahmed Sani became governor on the promise of instituting Shari’a in the State if elected. Though already elected, many other northern governors fell into the fray of Sharianization just to gain political mileage, the consequences of which became very dire and further precipitated Nigeria’s nationhood journey. By the way, because of the intransigent flaw that has characterized successive elections in the country, even declared winners have found themselves left with no choice but to always compromise in order to win some legitimacy; therefore they have found themselves abysmally bereft of the incentive needed to address issues and face governance forthrightly, especially as they border on the spikes of identity, hence driving society further into the trenches of sectarianism.
But never, perhaps, in the life of this country has identity politics taken this gladiatorial centre stage at the national level like now. It is made even worse by the fact that we are currently facing a vicious insurgency and, as a nation, we have found it almost impossible to deconstruct the simplest problem because of our thick identity veils through which everything has come to be viewed. A healthy debate appears to no longer be possible as one runs the risk of either offending “one’s side” or the “other side” as one is construed not on the merits of one’s argument but on what identity side one belongs to.
It is against this background that, when comments such as those of GEJ on the facts about the Chibok girls are considered – facts which are supposed to serve in strategizing for the recovery of the girls – one cannot help but conclude that Nigeria has not been very blessed with courageous leadership on the whole. This has been the reason why we have not had accurate census results; this has been the reason why we have not been able to adequately police our borders; this has been the reason why our civil service, which is supposed to be the fulcrum of growth and development, has continually stood in the way of anything that looks like progress due to the lack of courage to purge it. One can go on and on. This has been the reason why we cannot come up with facts and figures on virtually anything, no matter how simple and innocuous, in order to guide public policy formulation.
How can the Commander-in-Chief claim that he was told that he could not have the pictures of almost three hundred abducted girls, sitting for a trans-national examination, on account of religion and then he lets it go? Whose boat is the C-in-C afraid of rocking in this situation of insurgency? Or is he cashing in on some identity window that the situation and the yarn must have provided him? This is not healthy for a nation in such dire reality as Nigeria.
We crave for bold and courageous leadership now more than ever at all levels of government and society: leadership that will never hide behind or cower before any identity.

Published on NIGERIAN NEWSDAY; May 2014

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