Nigeria: Has the Nigerian State Failed?

opinion

Popular anger is easily deflected or channeled towards separatism by pointing at structural obstacles in the way the state is organised.

Whatever the response to the question regarding the current status of Nigeria, then, it is hard to deny that the pressures at the seams of the national fabric have become more severe of late. The economy does present a raft of problems in this sense ― the dreadful state of government finances, burdensome national debt levels, and a deterioration of the indices that point to growing poverty.

Is the Nigerian state failing? Part of the problem with providing useful answers to this question is the difficulty in agreeing on what it means for a state to "fail". Not even a descent into mayhem, as in Afghanistan and Yemen, put states beyond the pale. For we have evidence of states recovering from seemingly intractable civil wars. Colombia, for one, seems to have found a way around its FARC problem. Moreover, the constitutional notion of states permitting to their constituent members the right to "self-determination, up to and including secession" suggests that one ought not to rue the breakup of states (even violent break ups), to the extent that these sundering gives vent to popular will. In spite of all this, academics are wont to situate failed states along a continuum described at one end by the state's loss of legitimacy to the inability and/or failure of state institutions to function properly at the other end.

Whatever the response to the question regarding the current status of Nigeria, then, it is hard to deny that the pressures at the seams of the national fabric have become more severe of late. The economy does present a raft of problems in this sense ― the dreadful state of government finances, burdensome national debt levels, and a deterioration of the indices that point to growing poverty. Deep, the current trough may be, but the ebbs and flows of our economy simply mirror the fortunes of the global market for crude oil. Though one may argue that structural reforms to the economy could have severed this umbilical cord, the sense of tragic consequences from government's failure or inability to act is more noticeable at the political level. Here, the Federal Government's gradual loss of its monopoly of (the means of) violence has allowed non-state actors contest for and government cede territory, leading to a loss of legitimacy in the affected areas, and in relatively more secure parts of the country, where the citizens nonetheless fear that they are next in line.

Whereas these other movements arose in purported defence of sub-national rights that were perceived as either being violated or observed in the breach by a Federal Government supposedly comprised of other nationals, and thus organised against them, the new "movement", if we can call it that, differs slightly.

Over the past four years in major parts of the country's north, brigandage has reached industrial levels, in terms of its cost to lives and property, the diversity of its operations, and the audacity of its preferred forms of expression. Yet, folks with longer memories will point to episodes as far back as the circumstances leading to the emergence of the Oodua People's Congress (OPC), its subsequent activities and of imitators from other sub-national groupings as evidence of how, when things appear to change in Nigeria, they remain the same. But with this important exception. Whereas these other movements arose in purported defence of sub-national rights that were perceived as either being violated or observed in the breach by a Federal Government supposedly comprised of other nationals, and thus organised against them, the new "movement", if we can call it that, differs slightly.

The Hausa-Fulani in Nigeria have always advertised their ease of access to the apparatuses and infrastructures of the Nigerian state, and anecdotal evidence abounds of their political dominance, if not hegemony, including the apocryphal design of a vehicle license plate bearing the legend "Born To Rule". One could argue that the policy suit emanating from this rule ― a slew of affirmative action programmes ― continue to underscore both the incompetence and fragility of this rule. But, clearly, having ruled, or indirectly controlled the levers of political power in the country for far longer than any other sub-nationality, it is difficult for defenders of the current state affairs in the country to construct a coherent narrative around political alienation and marginalisation.

Obviously, there is need for a new narrative. Legitimise the violent forms that this popular anger is taking ― by rejecting the "bandit", and "criminal" labels that the media and the commentariat associated with it has tried to attach to the activities of this new non-state actors?

Difficult? Yes. But not impossible. For populism has always thrived on victimhood. In less diversified societies, the elite and their fancy ways are indicated as responsible for ordinary folks' woes. In polities as diverse as ours, popular anger is easily deflected or channeled towards separatism by pointing at structural obstacles to a constituent people's access to power in the way the state is organised. And where, as in today's circumstances, popular anger is directed at an elite that has long advertised its access to and control of power, what to do?

Obviously, there is need for a new narrative. Legitimise the violent forms that this popular anger is taking ― by rejecting the "bandit", and "criminal" labels that the media and the commentariat associated with it has tried to attach to the activities of this new non-state actors? Deflect it ― by belabouring older narratives of difference: "south" versus "north"; "Christians" versus "Muslims". Anything, but accept that the northern elite's much bruited about rulership of Nigeria has not resulted in good governance in any part of the country over the years. This is the dilemma, the burden, that the Buhari government bears.

On past experience, though, it is unlikely to be the pickle that will do the Nigerian state in.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant, can be reached @IfeanyiUddin.

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