Nigeria’s response to the onset of murder ous mass violence has evolved through phases of co-optation, brutal reprisal, appeasement, and state incapacity. The two options that have never quite been attempted with conviction are effective accountability and civic inclusion. Through phases of anti-terrorism, counter-terrorism and, now, interminable and metastasizing counter-insurgencies, the country has found itself mired in chronic mass violence as the only language of political dialogue. With many reluctant to acknowledge how the country quite ended up in this denouement, it is important to look back briefly in order to look forward.
Outlawry in post-colonial Nigeria has a long and tawdry history. Stephen Ellis, who spent a lifetime researching and analysing this in some detail, recounted in his final book, This Present Darkness: A History of Organised Crime in Nigeria, when the spike started: “Shortly before the civil war, when government broke down in some parts of the Western Region and there was a blurred line between political violence, crime, and organised insurgency.” Many would argue that Nigeria has been one long insurgency since then in what has been – on close inspection – a long war against the logical consequences of chronic leadership failure.
The post-war continuation of the error that we can shoot our way out of this failure of both leadership and national inclusion can be traced back to the public executions by firing squad of armed robbers, which began at the former Bar Beach in Lagos on April 26, 1971. The spike in armed robbery in Nigeria coincided with the mismanagement by the Yakubu Gowon regime of demobilisation in the aftermath of the Nigerian Civil War. With neither preparation for post-military life nor skills to survive in the rough and tumble of civilian existence after the war, the tens of thousands of hurriedly demobilised men found alternative uses for their arms and skills, often not in the most civil way possible. Public execution did not end armed robbery. If anything, violent robbery escalated in both frequency and brutality.
The onset of presidential politics in 1979 did not just make civilians of soldiers, it also made civilians of armed robbers, who provided the violent brawn to complement the political brains of politicians in savage electoral brigandage. The numbers confectioned by this criminal tag-team, as acknowledged by the Bolarinwa Babalakin Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the Federal Electoral Commission (otherwise known as FEDECO), often received judicial benediction from election tribunals. Senior police officers, including former Inspector-General of Police, Sunday Adewusi and former Police Commissioner in the old Anambra State, Bishop Eyitene, both now sadly late, compiled infamous records of electoral joint enterprise with these merchants of violence.
With the return of the military to government in 1983, we had a gradual escalation of violence to the point where, by the mid-1990s, the regime of General Sani Abacha fully deployed criminal gangs and networks against peaceful civic advocacy in the Niger Delta. In institutions of tertiary education, vice-chancellors in various universities and rectors of polytechnics did the same. By the time the country returned to civil rule in 1999, the politicians were happy to resume their marriage with violence and its unlicensed suppliers. This time, as former senator Shehu Sani recalls in the title of his book, in addition to using them to rig elections, they were also freely deployed as tools of political assassination.
The Galtimari Report recommended that the government should “beam their searchlight on some politicians who sponsored, funded and used the militia groups that later metamorphosed into Boko Haram and bring them to justice.” In its White Paper issued in May 2012 on the report, the Federal Government accepted this recommendation and directed the National Security Adviser to co-ordinate compliance. One decade later, nothing has come of this recommendation.
Instead, what followed has been a descent into sovereign abdication followed by capitulation. Three years later, in 2015, the crisis in north-east Nigeria had become a source of earnings not merely for elements in the security services but also for mercenaries imported by government and paid with public funds. This, notwithstanding that Nigeria was one of the prime movers behind the Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa adopted in 1977, which criminalises mercenarism and renders liable to punishment all persons involved in it.
Prof Odinkalu, a lawyer and teacher, can be reached via email@example.com