Molly Kilete, Abuja The Nigerian Air Force (NAF) has declared its readiness to deploy Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to the Niger Delta region to secure oil and gas pipelines and other critical oil installations owned by Shell company in the country. The deployment of the UAVs, according to the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal…
In their hasty decision to patch up the emerging cracks in the union of ethnic groups known as Nigeria, Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo, senior government officials and former national leaders have interjected in the ongoing public debate on the future of Nigeria by singing a unilateral, invariable song that says the unity of the country is and must remain non-negotiable and inviolable.
I find the government’s position odd. It flies in the face of international agreements signed by Nigeria. It exposes our cowboy approach to governance. It shows that, although we might believe we are in a democracy, we are actually operating a despotic form of government in which citizens are to be seen but not heard.
The suppression of people’s rights to express their views constitutes sowing the first seed of a future revolution. It is the sign of a failed state desperate to hang on to life in a sinking ship, which the captain knows will eventually go under water. To suggest that people have no right to freely express their views about how they should be governed and the arrangements under which Nigeria should be restructured is to deny the citizens their right to free expression.
As Nigeria is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, it is iniquitous for government officials to violate openly the letters and spirit of that universal declaration. When a government signs an international agreement that binds the citizens and the government, the least the government can do is to uphold the agreement.
Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka stands out, as one of the few enlightened citizens who have challenged the government’s idea that Nigeria’s unity is non-negotiable. Speaking at a colloquium held in Kaiama, Bayesla State, last Friday, 14 July 2017, Soyinka systematically dismantled the government’s argument with logic. He said: “We must stop confusing the argument, mixing up the argument. When people especially former leaders, especially those who bear enormous responsibility speak on the question of breaking up or not breaking up, it always sounds hypocritical and dogmatic and dictatorial and that statement is that the unity of Nigeria is non-negotiable. No! That for me is a falsity. Anything is negotiable. The right of people to determine their future is what is not negotiable. Most nations came into being through negotiations.”
Soyinka clarified some of the misconceptions in the ongoing debate about the need to restructure Nigeria. He said: “Sometimes when people say ‘negotiate’, what they really mean is restructure. What the argument should be, what the question should be is should Nigeria break up? My answer to that is no. But that Nigeria as it stands is non-negotiable, to me it is a fallacy, a nation got to be negotiated. Negotiation includes ensuring that there is no marginalisation, negotiation has to do with control of resources, negotiation has to do with the restructuring in a way the components, the constituents are feeding an over bloated centre to their detriment. So, Nigeria is negotiable. The language we should use is; what are you willing to sacrifice, what efforts are you willing to make to ensure that Nigeria remains intact. That is the citizen question.”
I will draw on the seminal book — Four Theories of the Press (by Fred S. Siebert, Theodore Peterson, and Wilbur Schramm, 1956) — to illustrate the key characteristics of an authoritarian state to underline why Nigeria, even in the current situation, is no different from an oppressive country. In such a state, truth is envisioned to be “not the product of the great mass of people, but of a few wise men… in a position to guide and direct their fellows.” In that environment, people who wield power see themselves as the only human beings who possess knowledge of truth or reality. A view most predominant among the ruling class is that there is only one channel through which truth could be considered, framed, understood, visualised, devised, or conceived. That means they are the only conduit through which ordinary citizens can perceive the truth.
On a scale of preference, the state is positioned to be above individual members of society in an authoritarian state. No one can rise to achieve their purposes in life without the support of the state. So goes the thesis of authoritarianism. This is precisely why senior government officials in Abuja have been echoing one another, preaching the gospel of forced unity, the idea that Nigeria cannot stand unless the nation remains, as it was patched up 100 years ago. Paradoxically, the unity that is being promoted has been tested, stretched to a breaking point and is now held together by a tenuous rope that could snap any moment from now.
The right to self-expression is a natural right, just as every citizen’s right to communicate must not be encumbered or hindered. Democracy is all about freedom of choice, freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion, and freedom to communicate. You do not solve a problem by gagging public discussion. You do not solve a problem by sweeping it underneath a chair. It is only in Nigeria that citizens are being informed that they cannot discuss their future, that they must continue to live under the current arrangement, whether they like it or not. This authoritarian view suggests the citizens are living in a penal complex or top security prison in which they have no right to express their ideas. It is like we all are living in solitary confinement.
The libertarian theory of the press advocates freedom of citizens to express their views regardless of whether those views are truthful or false. In fact, libertarians do not accept that the state is more important than individuals, who reside in it. John Milton, one of the founding fathers of libertarianism, was influential in developing the concepts of “the free market place of ideas” and the “self-righting process”.
In his argument, Soyinka advanced the unimpeachable view that citizens must be free to discuss their future and the nature of the country in which they reside. He argued that, in order to address growing feelings about marginalisation of various ethnic groups, Nigeria’s unity must be discussed widely and openly. No one can fault Soyinka’s logic. It is founded on the principle of justice or fair play.
Soyinka’s views must be seen as a direct challenge to all those who have been spreading the idea that Nigeria’s unity is sacrosanct, untouchable and, therefore not open to public discussion. Prior to Soyinka’s intervention, senior government officials had perpetuated the view that there was nothing wrong with Nigeria as presently constituted and that even if there was a problem, it would not be solved by calls for reorganisation of the country. It is very much like arguing blindly that even if something is broken, it is useless to pull it apart just to restructure it.
Within the public sphere, there is widespread view that Nigeria has ruptured and cannot continue on the false assumption that business must continue as usual. Business cannot continue as usual because people’s lives are at stake, people’s livelihood has been seriously endangered, people’s future has been placed on hold for too long, and various ethnic groups have reached a point in which they no longer see themselves as valued members of a country that regards them as burdens rather than assets.
In this prevailing environment, it is important to discuss the way forward. Discussing the future is not synonymous with fragmentation. Rather, it is an opportunity to address longstanding grievances and to strengthen the foundation of the country, if everyone agrees it is the best way forward.
You cannot use force to establish peace. You cannot pretend there is unity by shutting down all vehicles for public discussion. Peaceful coexistence achieved through coercion is no peace. It will not stand the test of time. It is like constructing a house on quicksand. Such a house will be an entrapment in which people will find it difficult or impossible to get away when the contraption begins to collapse.