Editor's note: Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria's revered former president, took a look at the COVID-19 pandemic that has spread across many states of the federation as he spoke at the 2020 Sobo Sowemimo Annual Lecture held at the Abeokuta Club, Friday, June 26, 2020.
There is no doubting the fact that the pandemic has affected Nigeria, but as an experienced leader, Obasanjo dissects the issue and proffers solutions:
When the President of Abeokuta Club invited me through a letter by the General Secretary of the Club to give this talk, he gave me a guide by suggesting a title – COVID-19 And Nigeria Security Issues: The Way Forward. COVID-19 is a health and security issue and I will like to deal with that first before going to the general security and polity issue.
But before I go into the Lecture, let me at the onset thank and congratulate the President and all the members of this premier socio-cultural Club for establishing an annual Lecture Series in honour and memory of Chief Sobo Sowemimo who spearheaded the establishment and founding of Abeokuta Club when we were looking for what we could do to improve life and living in Abeokuta. And let me particularly thank you for inviting me to give this year’s Lecture on such a current, relevant, timely and engaging subject - COVID-19 And Nigeria Security Issues. You are living up to the expectation of the founding fathers who believed that the Club must be in the vanguard of dealing with relevant social and cultural issues as they manifest themselves. Mr. President of the Club, your order is my command.
I will not want to engage in the controversy of the origin or genesis of COVID-19 as I believe that when the dust is settled, epidemiologists and other scientists globally would be able to work together to give us the authentic history and beginning of COVID-19 for our education and lesson for the future. Suffice it to say for now that we find ourselves in Africa in general and in Nigeria in particular in a situation of a pandemic we are ill-prepared for and poorly equipped for. We, fortunately, had the benefit that it had ravaged China, Europe and the US before it became a serious problem in our continent and in our country. We learned some lessons of how those advanced societies attempted to cope with the pandemic. We learned some lessons and we had some time to prepare for the onslaught. We also had the cooperation and collaboration of World Health Organisation, WHO, an organization that had done great work in the face of inadequate global collaboration to work together in order to stem the tide of the menace of the pandemic as countries seem to be working in silos.
Here in Nigeria and particularly in Ogun State, we must commend the efforts of the governments for the measures they had taken to deal seriously with the issue after the initial politicized and badly handled palliative measures. The idea of leaving the states to deal with the issue mainly at their level on the principle of subsidiarity was a good one. It allowed each state with its limited resources and facilities to gear itself up and to issue instructions and regulations on restrictions based on the reality of the state. For example, while some states had night curfew, Ogun state had alternative travelling days for markets and economic transactions on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays while in the last week, it was extended from Monday to Friday to allow those who survive on daily livelihood from markets to be able to earn a living.
Although restriction is being lifted, we are not out of the woods yet. Awareness-raising must continue and we must disabuse the minds of the ordinary people who are being made to believe that COVID-19 is not real or that it is the disease of the rich. They must be conscious of the fact that the disease has no social or economic limitation or barrier. It can afflict anybody no matter his or her age, gender, profession or trade, social or economic standing. We must not let down our guard because we may not have reached the peak yet. If the epicenter has moved from China in Asia to Europe to North America and now to Brazil in South America, Africa may or may not escape being an epicenter. And even then, we must be prepared for the possibility of a second wave. The UK’s claim of inventing a cure drug, dexamethasone, has not been disputed. In fact, it has been recommended by WHO for treatment in acute cases and we should be equipped with such drug. It is also hoped that a vaccine will soon be available as some human trials are already going on. When that happens, we should quickly be equipped with it, as COVID-19 like flu may never completely disappear from the surface of the earth. It may only be rendered weak and feeble and preventable with vaccine. But meanwhile, we should scrupulously observe the regulations and restrictions: hand-washing with soap for at least 20 seconds, sanitizing, maintaining 1metre (3feet) social distance between yourself and others, wearing masks and avoiding large congregation or gathering. In short, keeping safe.
Six areas need quick attention now and in the immediate post-pandemic. The first is food availability and security. The second is employment and job security. The third is change in the pattern and style of living including travelling. The fourth is innovation, science, technology, digitalization and Artificial Intelligence. The fifth is local content, raw materials and substitutes. The sixth is diversification of the economy and enhancement of export commodities. It is up to us to take these six areas very seriously. With good leadership and right policy and with the public and private sectors working together, and the civil society joining hand, all the six areas can be taken care of and we can safely put the pandemic behind and move the country forward. I hope that Africa, as a continent, will emerge economically stronger from COVID-19. For us in Nigeria, we have no alternative but to get it right. Otherwise, the future will be worse than the present that is uncertain and bleak with economic downturn and pervasive insecurity.
Over the last two weeks or so, there have been comments and remarks about the state of insecurity in the country occasioned by criminality and acts of lawlessness that are brazen and outrageous with seeming government powerlessness to act effectively. These with other willful and unhelpful acts of government at the centre had made some Governors to devise means of enhancing security within their States and their geo-political zones. Other people had called for correction, according to them, of the ‘Mistake of 1914' while others are talking of proclamation for the ‘Sovereignties and Self-determination of Indigenous Peoples of Nigeria’. I believe there is need for a bit of clarification and understanding of the situation to avoid confusing the situation further.
First, I believe that all ethnic groups who form the constituents of Nigeria are all indigenous to Nigeria. And the United Nations Declaration of 2007 on Indigenous Peoples may apply in countries like the United States of America, New Zealand, Australia and similar countries where there are distinctions between indigenous and settler peoples, but does not really apply to Nigeria. Our problem is of a different nature emanating essentially from government’s orientation, policies, competence, performance and delivery and gross inadequacies in these areas. Some people describe it as ‘collapse of governance at all levels!’ When what was not happening before begins to happen, you must try to find out why. And as far as security is concerned, governments carry lion share of the responsibility if not the entire responsibility as individuals can only act within the laws made and enforced by governments.
My personal conviction is that with the experience we have had operating the current constitution where we have seen some important aspects of the constitution being breached willfully and wantonly and with the centre seemingly being overwhelmed by the issue of security, with crying need from different quarters for reform of the basic structure of Nigeria’s federating units, there is need for the repositioning of our country for the purpose of unity, equity, competence, good governance, security, stability, healthy competition, justice, fast socio-economic development and making Nigeria undisputed regional leader. And as a regional leader, Nigeria must always be at the table and be an effective contributor to global decision-making process and adequate share in worldwide division of labour and global resources, I remain firmly convinced that without reform of federating units, as I will like to satisfy those who may not like the word ‘restructuring’, Nigeria will remain insecure, unstable, non-progressive and stagnated at best or disintegrated at the worst. I have not lived for the demise of Nigeria nor for its destruction or incapacitation in any form. Rather, I have lived to make and see a great and united country.
I shrink from the use of some words and language, i.e. mistake of 1914; Nigeria as a geographical expression or its existence is an artificiality. There is no country that does not have history of togetherness, build-up, reform or structural and component building as a geographical expression. What matters is how the leaders and the led work together harmoniously, cooperatively, inclusively and equitably together. Such togetherness must be devoid of domineering spirit or tendencies, disregard or disrespect of any component and with observance of, and respect for fundamental human rights. Merit, competence and sincerity must be maintained by leaders at all levels to keep things running selflessly, honestly and with utter dedication for the best for all and not for a few or a section. If any proclamation is meant to achieve this objective, I wish it every success. I cannot see myself as a builder of Nigeria becoming a destroyer of it but neither will I do anything or fail to do anything that will perpetually suppress and enslave my children and their children in the land of their birth, Nigeria, which I love, nor will I want other peoples’ children to be so enslaved or shackled and their horizon limited by the place of their birth in Nigeria which is God-ordained.
The issue of Nigeria’s future as a result of our current security situation must not be taken non-seriously as I see it as a matter of life and death for our country which must not be toyed with. I very much believe that God created Nigeria to lead the black race as the Americans lead the white race for now and the Chinese lead the brown or yellow race. We must do everything to actualise the plan of God for Nigeria not minding the great crises of the past and gross under-performance, incompetence and failure of the present. This makes me ask the question, “Is 1914 a mistake or the act of God through the instrumentality of man?” I do not believe God makes a mistake and He has His hands in the affairs of any man or woman and in the affairs of any nation. God is purposeful and His mystery may not be easily comprehensible. Nigeria, to me, is a creation of God for justice, fairness and equity amongst its component parts.
Let me lay more emphasis on the issue of security which in itself is serious enough to make restructuring imperative. The South-West governors cried out and devised Amotekun as a solution or part-solution. We are yet to see how successfully that will be operated. Other zones are clamouring for a solution because in no State and in no geopolitical zone is life and property safe and secure. Criminality is the order of the day. And it cuts across the entire nation. Insecurity is one issue of commonality among Nigerians no matter their tribe, language, religion, geographical location, gender, age or social position. If we are all held hostage by criminality of Boko Haram, terrorists, herdsmen/farmers, bandits, kidnappers, militants, armed robbers, then we all have common ground to seek common solution by putting aside governance collapse, incompetence, failure, insincerity and insensitivity and chart a new stable, enduring and generally sustainable basis and platform for Nigeria federation. What is permanent and constant in life are change, reform and re-adjustment. To avoid change when it is necessary is to avoid progress. Inflexibility is a sign of a sick mind especially in the face of overwhelming evidence for change. People often refer to history and the past to justify their rigidity. My position has always been, remember history but don’t be shackled by it nor become its hostage. For me, I don’t want to inherit the enemies of my father, that is part of history. My father’s time and life are different from mine. Circumstances do change and only fools will not know and acknowledge that. Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe and other past leaders have lived their lives at their own times. They have done their best and they should be respected for their service. And if in our own time we only have to live the way they lived and only be guided by what they believed and did without any change, then we might as well not have been born because we add nothing to improve the situation and to make the society better. That will be utterly wrong and unfortunate. If we all have to agree to make Nigeria our country, and not only Yoruba country, Ibo country, Fulani country, Ibibio country, Gbashama country, Urhobo country, etc., we have to change our mindset, our attitude, our orientation and embrace inclusiveness and equal opportunities, equity, justice and love. If we only dwell on others’ mistakes of the past and cover up our own, Nigeria will be at best stagnated or at the worst destroyed as an entity. Those who cannot feel comfortable in the company of other ethnic or religious groups, have no business in aspiring to leadership of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious nation like Nigeria. They will do great harm to the entity and, in fact, become security risks.
The Northern Elders Forum, through its spokesperson, Akeem Baba Ahmed, had declared President Buhari a failure on account of persistent insecurity within the nation. I leave out economy which is in the doldrums and fighting corruption where you see more heat than light and which is festering like a bad sore. Leaders in politics, private sector, religion, traditional institutions and civil society have cried out against pervasive insecurity in our land. Salihu Garba, in his open letter to Arewa governors and legislators, has a lot to say. But he begins with, “Only insane people can sit and watch their people being killed, women and young girls raped, and sons abducted by some ragtag bandits, kidnappers or insurgent group, whose motivations have been built on demonic ideology, easy access to firearms and our collective failure in providing the desired community-based shepherd leadership and a fit-for-purpose security system”. He cautioned the north on excessive dependence on the Federal handouts and security agents. He raised a number of issues and made suggestions that are in the domain of devolution and restructuring with collaboration, cooperation and solidarity. No one in his or her right senses will go against most of the points Salihu raised in his letter to strengthen Nigerian unity and oneness and enhance performance through devolution and restructuring. He went on, “Our docility and indifference to insecurity always baffled me, considering the fact that we have the knowledge, good-willed people and the opportunity to serve our people with all honesty and sincerity of purpose, but we have failed to do so and so often as if we are under some sort of spell or curse”. Whatever it is, we have a new opportunity now. He concluded, “Let’s together make the message go round until we see results - a peaceful and prosperous Arewa and Nigeria at large”. That, to me, is what reform of federating units and restructuring is all about and not about break-up or disintegration. Insecurity brought about by widespread criminality of Boko Haram, insurgents, herdsmen/farmers conflict, terrorists, bandits, armed robbers, militants, kidnappers, abductors and human traffickers is a new phenomenon that is ravaging the entire country. The causes are many but the solution is beyond the capacity of the government which seemed to be at the end of its wit. Positive action is required from all well-meaning Nigerians from across the board as we are all victims and hostages.
It is evident that no ethnic group nor geopolitical zone and not even the Fulanis in Nigeria are collectively satisfied with the present situation in spite of president Buhari being a Fulani man. I am, of course, discounting invidious and irredeemable Fulani fundamentalists and hegemonists. I believe that you find such people within any Nigerian tribal or ethnic group. We must not adopt a position of mindlessness ‘do nothing’ and allow a few to wreck our present and our future. Together, we can have Nigeria of our dream. And I believe that there are Nigerians in all walks of life, from all ethnic groups, religious groups, cultural groups, political groups and across age and gender who will work genuinely and sincerely for emergence of a new Nigeria based on principles of democracy, equity, justice, mutual respect, egalitarianism, good governance, federal character, and extol merit and competence.
Prof. Usman Yusuf, in his article titled, “Silence in the Face of Evil is also Evil” dated June 15, 2020 has this to say, “Today, I write about the worsening and neverending insecurity and bloodletting in Northern Nigeria (Arewa) and the deafening silence of many of us who should speak up loud and clearly on behalf of our voiceless people”. Prof. Usman Yusuf listed twelve signs and points of features of insecurity in Arewa message to President Buhari as follows in concluding his article: “1. We are under siege by armed terrorists; 2.Our land is drenched in blood; 3. There are mass burials all over the region; 4. Our women are being raped by bandits; 5. Our people are held captives in forests all over the region; 6. Our traditional rulers are being killed; 7. Our livestock have been rustled; 8. We have been made poorer by terrorists; 9. Our farmers are not safe to till the land; 10. Our people are displaced to IDP camps; 11. There is growing anger in the land; 12. Now is the time for urgent action”.
I will not hesitate to say that in this statement, Arewa message, spoke the minds and made a presentation on behalf of the majority of right-thinking Nigerians and not Northern Nigerians alone. We are all bothered and burdened. The beginning should be seeking to know why the criminals are doing what they are doing and with that knowledge, we can begin to work out a permanent solution that will move criminals from crimes, and take away insecurity for all of us. Federal security architecture as organised and operated by the present government cannot give any individual or group hope, let alone assurance of security within Nigeria. Our destiny is in our own hands. In reform and restructuring, security architecture, structure and arrangement must devolve more security responsibility on the community, local and state authorities.
Unfortunately, I have recently observed from some writers on the security situation in the North, the feeling or attitude of ‘it serves them right’. We must not gloat at the difficulties or misfortune of others, rather we must emphathise. Wherever there is insecurity in Nigeria, it must be of concern to all of us. It should not be the attitude of ‘am alright Jack’ or ‘it serves them right’. I believe it should be ‘we are all in one bad boat and we must put all hands on deck to fix it’. Maybe now that we are all feeling the pinch, the collective fixing will be understood and be easy to accomplish. Insecurity in any form and in any part of Nigeria is insecurity for us all. I have also heard it nuanced that the ‘North’ will not make the mistake of Jonathan again, meaning no Southerner will be seen as President of Nigeria again. And, of course, no Middle-Belter! What a dangerous and destructive idea and position for anybody to take! Such notion will prove those who regard 1914 as a mistake correct. But pursuing such an agenda may unleash colossal insecurity and violence of unimaginable proportion on the country. I know, for sure, it was such mentality that permanently divided Sudan.
From about the beginning of this month of June, there have been agitations and protests of a revolutionary nature in Mali. Not that I am afraid of revolution, no, not at all, but I love and cherish peace and, of course, not peace of the graveyard. If I am concerned about the security issue in Mali because of possibility of flow-over to other parts of West Africa, I should be more concerned about security in any part of Nigeria.
There was a time when armed robbers prowled the West and the Mid-West in Nigeria and the arrested ones were tied to stakes and publicly executed. At the time, the North was comparatively unaffected. There was also a time when kidnappers, militants, and human traffickers ravaged the East and the South-South, again the North was relatively unaffected; there was a time when terrorists, bandits, girls kidnappers, herders/farmers conflict, and cattle rustlers invaded the North-East and North-Central, and core North was relatively safe. Now, no part of the country can claim to be safe from the menace and insecurity caused by terrorists, armed robbers, human traffickers, kidnappers of all sorts, cattle rustlers, insurgents, bandits and herders/farmers conflicts. We are all challenged to put our thinking caps on, join hands and seek solution together, otherwise we will be destroyed piecemeal. There is no time to stand and stare or just to continue to call on governments that are ineffective. Let us take initiative and spearhead actions that will involve governments and the governed and will devolve security architecture, apparatus, arrangement and responsibility in subsidiarity.
Papering over the obvious cracks in Nigeria’s polity is not the answer, tearing up or seeking disintegration is also not the solution, remaining silent makes us accomplices and irresponsibly so. The solution lies in men and women imbued with courage, nationalism, patriotism, commitment, foresight and love in critical mass, to spearhead the crusade for new Nigeria. Let us launch and promote such a crusade on the slogan “Security Matters To All; No security, No Nigeria”. And the time is now. Delay is postponing the evil day. Failure to act now will lead to more frustration, greater despair, and larger mentality and feeling that may lead to action of ‘break it all up’. May God forbid that! And may God, who I have always described as a Nigerian, save Nigeria. But we should be mindful that God’s patience has limit of elasticity. Hence, we must not continue to tempt Him. May God save and bless Nigeria which is His creation and which He endows with adequate human and natural resources for the security, development, welfare, well-being, progress and happiness of ALL its inhabitants. God is not to blame, He has played His part as He has well catered for us, and what we make of it is ours and if we fail, we must blame ourselves.
Keep safe from COVID-19 and may God protect all Nigerians and bless us all.
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