By Alex Otti
‘‘A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within’’ – Will Durant
“There is a fine line between free speech and hate speech. Free speech encourages debate whereas hate speech incites violence.” Newton Lee.
The Emir of Kano, Muhammadu Sanusi II is as cerebral and courageous as they come. He is unafraid to speak truth to power. I am proud to call him my brother from another mother. Fate brought us together in 1996 when both of us worked together as part of a transformation team in one of the then old generation banks. He stood out as one of the most brilliant members of the team. A few years later, we were again, both appointed to the board as executive directors of another old generation bank. Being that his role was Risk Management and mine was business, we almost always clashed, holding different views, mine being about business promotion and his, business “prevention”. Our friendship improved with every clash. I remember one day, after a heated debate in the credit committee, I went over to his office to share from his lunch and a staff came in to see us eating together and almost fainted. She had actually come to enquire from Sanusi if there was any quarrel between the two of us that we were bringing to the office, only to see us eating together!
As Central Bank Governor in 2009, Sanusi had attended the presentation of Sir Olaniwun Ajayi’s book titled: “Nigeria, Africa’s Failed Asset?” I shall take liberty to extensively quote from Sanusi’s speech at the event.
“ Sir Olaniwun Ajayi has written a book. And like all Nigerians of his generation, he has written in the language of his generation.
“My grandfather was a Northerner, I am a Nigerian. The problem with this country is that in 2009, we speak in the language of 1953. Sir Olaniwun can be forgiven for the way he spoke, but I can not forgive people of my generation speaking in that language.
“Let us go into this issue because there are so many myths that are being bandied around.
Before colonialism, there was nothing like Northern Nigeria. Before the Sokoto Jihad, there was nothing like the Sokoto caliphate. The man from Kano regarded himself as Abakani. The man from Zaria was Abazasage. The man from Katsina was Abakani. The kingdoms were at war with each other. They were Hausas, they were Muslims, they were killing each other.
“The Yoruba were Ijebu, Owo, Ijesha, Akoko, Egba. When did they become one? When did the North become one? You have the Sokoto Caliphate that brought every person from Adamawa to Sokoto and said it is one kingdom. They now said it was a Muslim North.
“The Colonialists came, put that together and said it is now called the Northern Nigeria. Do you know what happened? Our grand fathers were able to transform to being Northerners. We have not been able to transform to being Nigerians. The fault is ours.
Tell me, how many governors has South West produced after Awolowo that are role models of leadership? How many governors has the East produced like Nnamdi Azikiwe that can be role models of leadership? How Many governors in the Niger Delta are role models of leadership? There is no evidence statistically that any part of this country has produced good leaders.
You talk about Babangida and the economy. Who were the people in charge of the economy during Babangida era? Olu Falae, Kalu Idika Kalu. What state are they from in the North?….
“The problem is: everywhere in this country, there is one Hausa, Ibo, Yoruba and Itshekiri man whose concern is how to get his hands on the pile and how much he can steal.
Whether it is in the military or in the civilian government, they sit down, they eat together.
“So, anybody that is still preaching that the problem of Nigeria is Yoruba or Hausa or Fulani, he does not love Nigeria. The problem with Nigeria is that a group of people from each and every ethnic tribe is very selfish. The poverty that is found in Maiduguri is even worse than any poverty that you find in any part of the South. …..
“There are good Yoruba people, good Igbo people, good Fulani people, good Nigerians and there are bad people everywhere. That is the truth.
“Stop talking about dividing Nigeria because we are not the most populous country in the world. We have all the resources that make it easy to make one united great Nigeria. It is better if we are united than to divide it.
“Every time you talk about division, when you restructure, do you know what will happen? In Delta area, the people in Warri will say Agbor, you don’t have oil. When was the Niger Delta constructed as a political entity? Ten years ago, the Itsekiris were fighting the Urobos. Isn’t that what was happening? Now they have become Niger Delta because they have found oil. After, it will be, if you do not have oil in your village then you can not share our resources.
“There is no country in the world where resources are found in everybody’s hamlet. But people have leaders and they say, if you have this geography and if we are one state, then we have a responsibility for making sure that the people who belong to this country have a good nature.
“So, why don’t you talk about; we don’t have infrastructure, we don’t have education, we don’t have health…..?
I went to great lengths in the foregoing quote, in order to put my thesis in proper context. A local proverb has it that stubbornness destroys the child, while silence destroys the elder. Bear in mind that decades and centuries after we have departed from this earth, our forebears will come down harshly on our deeds and judge us objectively on what part we played in the fortunes of our society. Let all those who are in a position to say or do something, do so now. The threat to our nation is existential and the urgency could not be fiercer!
I am sure the Emir could not imagine that about ten years down the line, the new generation of Nigerians has not only institutionalised the position that he condemned, but has sunk deeper into it. The generation before us made progress from their ethnic nationalities. At that time, the worrisome situation was that as opposed to being Nigerians, they were busy being Northerners, Westerners and Easterners. Sanusi, in his optimism, had expected our generation to transform from being all those to being Nigerians. The sad truth is that today, we are back to being Hausas, Fulanis, Igbos, Yorubas and many more divisions. We are back to our little hamlets and primordial petty interests now dominate our thoughts and deeds.
We have not only retrogressed significantly, we have also added a fresh dimension to it. We now seem to hate each other and the hatred looks so deep rooted and its embers are being fanned daily by the kind of unprintable words we use on each other. These days, it is not unusual to read and hear people using all sorts of foul and intemperate language on any one who dares to hold a different position, more so if that person is from a different ethnic group and to a little extent, speaks a different language or practices a different religion. The language of 1953, seems to have become a child’s play relative to the language of 2019. The messenger is now more important than the message.
Our headline today was taken from an exchange between a Yoruba commentator, Akin and a Northerner, Ahmed, over the unacceptable murder of Mrs, Funke Olakunrin, daughter of Pa Reuben Fasoranti on July 12, 2019. The debate between the duo was so hot that they resorted to calling each other names and moved to the realm of abuse and intemperate language which ended with one of the parties ordering the other to shut up…… The argument centered on whether it was Fulani herdsmen that committed the murder or not. While the incensed Ahmed was arguing that Akin had drawn conclusions without any investigations, Akin accused him of insensitivity and being a herdsman himself concluding that he was a member of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association, propagating Fulani domination across the country. I am unable to present the other things they said to each other for purposes of decency.
The social media is awash with this kind of debates and abuses. The way some of those debates go, there is no doubt that if some of the participants could see each other, it could end up in fisticuffs or worse. Columnists like yours truly are not left out in the abuse industry. Some people acquire fake names and nomenclatures and position themselves to attack those they have one perceived problem or the other with. Some of their comments will immediately show that the commentators did not read the column as they would have no bearing with the subject matter being discussed. Some of them are hired by opponents and placed on stipends with the sole purpose of going into the social media space to smear someone and impugn their character. Unfortunately, seeking redress in a court of law which should be the solution is only possible if one knows for sure who is up against one. But where some of those commentators use pseudo names or fake names, it would be difficult to bring them to book.
The democratisation of the media space, which in itself, should be a good thing seems to have given teeth to the hate speeches and verbal violence. Today, everyone becomes a media practitioner once he or she has a smart phone. And from the comfort of one’s house or kitchen or even toilet, one could send messages to virtually everyone. The cost is basically the cost of acquiring data. Because it is possible to do that, people have also devised means of conjecturing and dishing out information that is false. Such information could travel at the speed of the internet looking like the truth. This can precipitate a lot of violence if not war. Welcome to the freaky world of #FakeNews.
The younger generation is most guilty in this cowardly New World. But we also have some members of the older generation who are even more culpable than the younger generation. Some retired Professors and otherwise respectable leaders have come out publicly to take very strange but divisive positions that seem to stoke our fault lines in a way in which, if not properly handled will fast track the outbreak of violence and civil strife. It is also very true that the government has done very little to reign in the upsurge of banditry, killings and kidnapping in the country. One wonders how the resort to intemperate language, threats and hate speeches can guarantee peace in the land.
It is our considered view that we must address the impending crises in the country. We must honestly and transparently do that without delay. In order to achieve this, we must get to the root of the problem and we, therefore, ask, why? This is where we need to tell ourselves some home truths. Those who cannot stand the heat are urged to quietly and quickly get out of the kitchen. The truth is that there is a general collapse in leadership, role models and integrity. We have become so engrossed in the protection of narrow partisan interests that we have forgotten the basic virtues of fairness, equity, fair play and merit. We are a country devoured by quota, Federal Character and other euphemisms that actually mean the trouble with Nigeria.
We must de-risk this country, particularly now that our economy is getting more and more fragile. We should not wait for investors to start voting with their feet before we act. Government must rise to the occasion and stop all the banditry. There is a lot of blame for the government which it must assume responsibility just as it would, were things going well with the society. Government must listen to the voices of diversity and ensure that there is inclusiveness in all its policies and actions. It is very easy to proffer excuses for any action taken but it is important to listen to the voices of the weak who are marginalized by such policies and actions.
The most urgent task is to ensure security and stability. Our roads are no longer safe to travel and the story everywhere is banditry, kidnapping, rape and oppression. Once there is insecurity, it subverts economic growth and development. Poverty and attendant social ills will begin to manifest. While that is on, the government must begin to meaningfully engage the people in addressing the issues of opportunities and poverty. The next line of engagement is to discuss the terms under which we shall peacefully coexist with each other. There is this reluctance to hold a discussion around restructuring. We don’t think this is right. Government must create a platform for people to dialogue except if we have decided that we are going to be ruled by force. I personally have a lot of issues with the unsustainable democracy we practice and I have been making this point on this platform. Our democracy that has us spend 70% of our budget paying salaries and allowances cannot take us very far. A system that has 469 federal lawmakers and close to 1000 state law makers, together with 36 Governors and Deputy Governors with uncountable commissioners, Special advisers, Assistants etc is unsustainable. We must talk about these and take decisive action to address the waste. At the end of the day, we must realize that everything still revolves around the economy. To the extent that people cannot trust that the system can protect their economic interests, there cannot be peace. The earlier we sat down to discuss, the better for us. We must replace hate speech with free speech, and violence with debate as Newton Lee would say.
This article was first published in Thisday