The death of an African American, George Floyd, at the hands of a white policeman in Minneapolis has sparked ten days of fierce demonstrations across the United States. It has also elicited global outrage, including a protest in Lagos on Monday. But in one of those conversations on social media, a lady wondered why most of our people are ever quick to jump into matters happening in the United States while ignoring worse situations within their own country. She cited the growing number of extrajudicial killings by our police which are largely ignored by the same people obsessed about the death of Floyd in America.
For sure, we have had our own ‘Minneapolis moments’ in Nigeria. On 10th May (only three weeks ago) in Karmo, a suburb of Abuja, a 52-year old businessman, Solomon Eze was killed by a policeman, leading to a protest that was quickly brought under control. Tina Ezekwe, the teenage girl who was shot in Lagos by two police officers died last Thursday. On 15th April, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) issued a report on the first two-week lockdown period ordered by President Muhammadu Buhari to contain the spread of COVID-19 in Abuja, Lagos and Ogun States. According to the NHRC, there were “eight documented incidents of extrajudicial killings leading to 18 deaths” between 30th March and 13th April. These killings were allegedly carried out by personnel of the Nigerian Correctional Service, Police and Army. Interestingly, as at the date of NHCR report, COVID-19 had killed 12 Nigerians as against 18 by security personnel!
But there is a difference between police killings in the United States and what has been happening in Nigeria. In the former, the brutality takes a racial coloration primarily against blacks while in the latter, it is more a matter of human rights abuse resulting from faulty weapons training and basic orientation deficiencies. Besides, the real issue in the United States is not just the killings but the inequality and injustice that breed such tragedies in the first place. In fact, most of the people currently protesting the Minneapolis killing may simply find Floyd a symbol of their collective anger. When you have a divided society along race, ethnic, class, colour or religious lines, and the leadership is deemed to be complicit, the tragedy is what you now see on the streets of America. That is also where a lesson can be drawn by President Muhammadu Buhari who marked the 5th anniversary of his government last Friday.
While no president should be held hostage by those who maliciously reify ethnic or religious prejudices or those who still bellyache five years after suffering an electoral defeat, the pursuit of equity in the distribution of opportunities in a plural society offers not only emotional satisfaction and a psychological sense of belonging to all groups but aids national cohesion and development as well. The perception that President Buhari gives scant regard to our diversity when making critical appointments is at the heart of the crisis of his administration, regardless of whatever may be its concrete achievements. Three recent developments, including the one mentioned by Colonel Abubakar Dangiwa Umar (rtd) in his open letter to the president, highlight this problem.
One, the Minister of Police Affairs, Alhaji Muhammad Maigari Dingyadi, who hails from Sokoto State in the North-west, proposed for the president a Board of Trustees for the Nigeria Police Trust Fund. For chairman, he picked a retired Inspector-General of Police, Suleiman Abba from Jigawa State. And then for the position of Executive Secretary, he could only think of his kinsman from Sokoto, Ahmed Aliyu Sokoto in a heavily tilted eight-member board. The president did not see anything wrong with such a composition before approving it for announcement on 6th May.
Two, despite the absurdity of an agency established to enthrone fair play in a federal system subverting its own ideal, President Buhari has nominated Fareedah Dankaka (from Kwara State) to chair the Federal Character Commission (FCC). This is against the background that in March 2017, the president had appointed Mr. Muhammad Bello Tukur (from Taraba) as the Commission’s Secretary and Chief Executive Officer. So, the FCC that is established to “promote, monitor and enforce compliance with the principles of proportional sharing of all bureaucratic, economic, media and political posts at all levels of government” already has a leadership that is sectional.
Three, two months ago, the National Judicial Council (NJC) in line with their principle of seniority, recommended Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem to the president for confirmation as substantive president of the court of appeal. Since then, there have been surreptitious moves by the Attorney General of the Federation and Justice Minister, Abubakar Malami, SAN, to deny Domgban-Mensem the office and elevate the number two man whose religion and ethnicity conform to certain expectations. To achieve this, I have it on good authority that Dongban-Mensem has repeatedly been offered the Greek gift of a promotion to the Supreme Court (the ‘Justice Ayo Salami formula’) which she continues to decline. Rather than send her name to the Senate for confirmation, the president last week merely extended Dongban-Mensem’s appointment in acting capacity for another three months.
These are just three of several examples of issues that many, including members of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) in government, feel uncomfortable about even if they do not say so publicly. But Umar, who in 1993 resigned his commission following the annulment of the June 12 presidential election by a military government of which he was a prominent member, has spoken for them. “At the expiration of your 8-year tenure in 2023, your achievements will not be measured solely by the physical infrastructure your administration built. An enduring legacy would be based on those intangible things like how much you uplifted the spirit and moral tone of the nation…All those who wish you and the country well must mince no words in warning you that Nigeria has become dangerously polarized and risk sliding into crisis on account of your administration’s lopsided appointments which continue to give undue preference to some sections of the country over others,” Umar wrote.
As President Buhari enters the critical sixth year of his administration, he needs to pay more attention to what people are saying. It is good to construct bridges, railways and other infrastructure but as Umar has warned, when it comes to legacy, it is most often intangibles that endure in people’s consciousness. For instance, Buhari may finally give the South-east the Second Niger Bridge that his predecessors could not. That will be a great feat but we may need to remind him that General Ibrahim Babangida built the Third Mainland Bridge without which one cannot imagine how Lagos would be today. And he, more than any other leader, past or present, should be credited with building Abuja. Yet, what most people remember of Babangida is that he annulled the June 12 presidential election!
This then brings us back to the United States. The killing of a black man by a white police officer did not start with the election of President Trump. In August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, an African American teenager, Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer under President Barack Obama. That killing gave rise to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and protests that swept across the United States at the time. “What is true about this moment that was also true in 2014 is that these are the symptoms of a centuries-old virus of white supremacy in America,” said Brittany Packnett Cunningham, co-founder of the ‘Campaign Zero’ movement against police violence, last weekend.
Although the late civil rights leader, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is being quoted profusely, especially by those who deride the looting and arson that accompany some of the current protests, Heather Gray, a former director at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, puts the issue in clearer perspective. Borrowing extensively from King’s book, ‘Stride Toward Freedom’, Gray speaks to the difference between the nonviolence that he (King) preached and the pacifism that some now advocate in the face of injustice. She then quoted what King wrote, which is also a warning for a society like ours where moderates are increasingly being ‘radicalized’ by the choices of those who believe temporary power gives them the latitude to misbehave: “It must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. If one uses this method because he is afraid or merely because he lacks instruments of violence, he is not truly nonviolent. This is why Gandhi often said that if cowardice is the only alternative to violence, it is better to fight.”
For a society to thrive and all citizens be at peace with one another, the leader should be seen as fair to all, regardless of real or manufactured differences. While Trump may therefore not be directly held accountable for the death of Floyd or the contradictions within the American society that lead to such killings, his rhetoric and body language before and after coming to power have emboldened white supremacists who see his government as theirs. When a leader promotes one ethnic group, race or religion above another, he/she unwittingly encourages divisions that make progress difficult for any society. As it is in America so it is for Nigeria where perception is now strong that the current administration is less than even-handed in the allocation of national offices and privileges.
Given my own experience as a former presidential spokesman, I know how emotional our people can be about distribution of appointments, even when the benefits go to individuals rather than to their ethnic or religious groups. But one thing is certain: The country cannot pull together when some parts feel alienated or unwanted. This is where honesty is important if we must tackle this problem. While Aso Rock may be compiling its list of appointments by numbers, some other people are also looking at what they consider bigger and more strategic positions being concentrated in a certain section of the country.
If you believe the data from the presidency, the Southwest accounts for 33.7 percent of all appointments under the current administration as against 19.5 percent by the North-west. The South, according to the presidency chart, accounts for 54.2 percent of all appointments and the North, 45.8 percent. Of course nobody has provided a breakdown of these appointments. But we all know how statistics can be deployed for mischief. As someone quite correctly asked, which appointee takes critical decisions: The DG/CEO of an agency superintending over thousands of employees and resources that are more than those of ten ministries combined or a member of the board of a moribund federal parastatal that hardly meets? Put more directly, how do you compare a special assistant in the office of the vice president with the Director General of Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) or Chairman of the Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS) in a patronage system?
With a post-Buhari Nigeria being tacitly prepped for geo-political, sectarian and ethnic convulsions due to the mismanagement of our diversity, What the present situation demands is not subterfuge from information managers. What is required is more balance and sensitivity, including in how appointments are processed and announced so as not to play into the hands of politicians who could also be using them for their own self-interest. As we are now learning every day from the United States where President Trump battles rioters who defy his Twitter rants, if you fail to run an inclusive system in a diverse society, you end up with citizens who ‘can’t breathe’ as a result of the excesses of others. And when that happens, you open the door for anarchy and disorder in which everyone loses.
Murdered in the Church
The rape and murder of Vera Uwaila Omozuwa, an undergraduate of the University of Benin, inside a church premises evokes the memory of ‘I Spit on Your Grave’, a 1978 rape and revenge horror film. The gruesome fate of Omozuwa inside a space that is supposed to be sacred is similar to the criminal debasement that the female central character suffered in the movie once listed by TIME magazine as one of the ten ‘most ridiculously violent’ movies of all times. That is why the perpetrators of that most heinous crime in Benin must be caught and brought to justice.
That we have not done enough as a nation to combat sexual violence against women and girls is evident from the growing number of rape cases, including of little children. Perhaps the reason why this particular tragedy has attracted national attention with prominent people in the society wading in is because of the crime scene: a house of God. According to Ms Osai Ojigho, the director for Amnesty International in Nigeria, rape now happens “even in the spaces that women and girls should be safest from gender-based violence, the home, the schools and now places of worship”.
The real challenge in Nigeria is that there is hardly any institution that victims can trust with their plight, leaving them with neither comfort nor protection. That explains why many shy away from drawing attention to their pain due to the stigma of reporting such incidences. Even at the police station, they are often derided with stupid questions that are only meant to further ridicule and dehumanize them. The society offers little comfort either. Most often, victims are made to ‘settle’ with their tormentors. Lawyers and family members have been known to moderate such agreements.
These cases are rampant because perpetrators know they can easily get away with their vile acts, which has unwittingly encouraged our culture of impunity that manifests in several dimensions. I highlighted one of those dimensions in my latest book, ‘NAKED ABUSE: Sex for grades in African Universities’. But there are more sinister ones. With the growing number of girls being lured or forced into ‘baby factories’ where they are constantly raped to impregnate and give birth, we must do more as a nation. So, when the anger over the latest tragedy in Benin has simmered and the hashtags are forgotten, policy makers must sit down with critical stakeholders in the gender sector to find solutions to curb these sexual crimes that continue to create unsafe spaces for our women and girls in Nigeria.
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