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New directions

I doubt there has been a moment in its nearly 50 years of history as an independent nation that Nigeria has appeared so vulnerable and looked so wretched, even in the terrible periods of military dictatorship. Eleven weeks ago President Yar’Adua left the country to receive medical treatment in Saudi Arabia and, apart from a brief interview with the BBC, he has not spoken to the country since. He also failed to formally hand over to the Vice-President, Goodluck Jonathan – therefore leaving the country in limbo and, to all intense purposes, leaderless.

With calls for him to hand over power coming from all sections of Nigeria – the National Assembly, media, political activists and the people – President Yar’Adua finally bowed to pressure to formally hand over to the Vice President. But it is not just the absence of the President that is cause for concern. Violence is taking place on numerous levels against a backdrop of a culture of militarism that has never really gone away, despite 10 years of democracy. 

Before he left, Yar’Adua oversaw an amnesty deal which resulted in some 20,000 Niger Delta militants agreeing to hand over their weapons in exchange for $400 a month and the promise of jobs and training for all. That is $8 million a month – money which could have gone to developing the non-existent infrastructure in towns and villages. The Government claims the amnesty was intended to create an atmosphere conducive to bringing development to the region. Dr. Timiebi Koripamo-Agary, a member of the Presidential Amnesty Implementation Committee, says the programme offers the best hope for the changes the militants are agitating for. 

‘This amnesty offers them the opportunity to be free people and gives them the right to speak on behalf of themselves and for the issues that they have been agitating and fighting for,’ she says.

This makes as much sense as giving me a plane to fly when I haven’t a clue how to pilot it. Prior to the amnesty, the militants were letting their guns do the talking. Now that no one is listening to them again, they have decided to take up arms once more. However, there are so many militant groups it is not clear whether this is all of them, some of them or just one group – such is the chaos and misinformation that is flying around the country. There is much confusion. Media reports say that some militants are claiming that the Vice President has no mandate to speak for them, whilst others are threatening to take up arms if the Vice-President is not made acting President.    

The threat of the renewal of attacks on oil installations and kidnapping is compounded yet again by more violence in Jos, Plateau State. This violence is being blamed on religious tensions between Muslims and Christians, but it is far more complex than that. The conflict centres on the use of fertile land: land for farmers pitted against land for cattle grazing, with the added high levels of unemployment and overall poverty also fuelling the violence. 

Police officers have also been implicated in the violence, with reports that they were escorting Muslims to safe areas whilst leaving Christians to fend for themselves. The human rights record of the Nigerian police and other security forces is abysmal. Last year, soldiers were caught on video publicly killing civilians who were lying on the ground. In June last year soldiers of the Joint Task Force were also caught on camera executing two militants in the Niger Delta – two of hundreds, if not more, over the years. No single soldier or member of the police force has been held accountable for these and thousands of other murders and rapes –  even when caught on camera as in Choba in November 1999.

Between June and December last year 76 bodies were left at the morgue in Enugu by the Nigerian Police; some estimates are double that. Some of the men are listed as ‘armed robber’, ‘suspected armed robber’ or ‘unknown thief’. The police commander claimed they do not execute people (‘We are in a democracy now’) – it’s a wonder he did not choke over his words.

In August 2007 Damien Ugwu, then of the Nigerian Civil Liberties Organization (CLO), spoke about the ‘endemic police torture in the Nigerian justice system’. CLO estimated that five people a day are being extra-judicially killed by the police, with young unemployed men being the most vulnerable. He went on to say that torture chambers exist in most Nigerian police stations and that torture is routinely carried out there. From such reports it seems police executions are not only on the increase but take place in the full glare of the public. And only last week Dipo Dina, a candidate for Governor of Ogun State, was murdered in what is believed to have been a politically motivated assassination. 

The culture of militarism in post-independent Nigeria has it foundations in the first coup d’état in 1966. Since then a succession of coups, counter-coups and military dictatorships have fuelled the production of violence which is now embedded in the political and social structures. Militarism is manifested through the unaccountability of all the security forces; government policies that seek militaristic solutions in response to civil disobedience; deployment of soldiers against civilian populations; human rights violations such as extra-judicial killings; attacks against journalists and media censorship; kidnappings and armed robbery; rape and forced prostitution of women.

But for once Nigeria has done the right thing. The decision of the President to hand over power following pressure from the Nigerian people has set a precedent of ‘people power’. Who knows what could be achieved by this potentially massive force of will? Just possibly this could spell the beginning of a new direction in Nigeria’s history but even if it does, there is a long hard struggle ahead.

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