President Buhari is back from medical vacation and Nigerians are rightly thrilled about his return after more than one hundred days. With the understanding that the President would not have ventured back without his doctors’ clearance, many are relieved that he has been declared medically fit for resumption of duty. They also understand that he needs to take it easy. Therefore, nothing much can be read into the news of the cancelation of the Wednesday meeting of the Federal Executive Council. The President certainly has the best wishes of his fellow Nigerians for a full recovery.
Back to the welcoming hands and voices of jubilant admirers and grateful citizens, the President wasted no time in signaling his readiness to deal with some of the major issues that have roiled the nation in his absence. To be fair, many of the challenges that he was distressed about abroad did not sneak in after he left the shores of the country. Acting President Osinbajo did not drop the ball on the challenges in the President’s absence. Rather, these issues had been slowly but surely creeping into the body politic. Nnamdi Kanu was in detention. Boko Haram was degraded but still vicious. Kidnappers were on the loose. Militants were determined to ruin the economy in pursuit of resource control agenda.
It is true that bad news gets exaggerated in their escape to other lands and the president may have been subjected to a barrage of social media fake news. Now, he will have a first-hand information to place matters in proper perspective.
The foregoing observation notwithstanding, the President is right to take seriously the challenges that he referenced in his speech and it appears that many Nigerians agreed with the content and tone of his address. The injunctions from the bully pulpit were well-received. As one distinguished senator observed, the lion king has roared from the throne and his obedient subjects are in awe of the majesty of his utterances.
Except that the President himself is the first to acknowledge the incongruity of the metaphor. We do him no favor when we adorn him in the unflattering robe of a ferocious king of the jungle roaring down orders. It denies him the legitimacy of a hard-fought and well- won democratic race, which must always be present to our thinking and action. The reality of our democratic dispensation presents some important takeaways from the President’s address.
First, the president was distressed that some social media commentators “crossed our national red lines by daring to question our collective existence as a nation.” He thinks it is a step too far. There are a couple of points for reflection on this concern of Mr. President. One is that agitation of any kind is the oxygen of democracy which a well-ordered state does not have to worry about because its institutions can hold their own.
A few weeks ago, this column discussed this issue under the title, “Understanding secessionist struggles.” After examining the secessionist attempts of Scotland and California and the responses of their various governments, I ended with the crisis generated by the detention of Kanu for his secessionist struggle. I asked rhetorically if the crisis can be effectively resolved through the legal system or through a thoughtful process which takes account of the political context in which the crime is committed and addresses the fundamental issues it raises.
I reminded readers that Great Britain tried to deal with the Scottish independence movement with devolution before the English ventured again into Brexit crisis but that the California and Texas movements were largely ignored by the U.S. government because those movements had no oxygen to sustain them. I referred to the Eastern Consultative Assembly (ECA) which had restated one more time the grievances that caused the agitation for secession. The group identified the perceived injustice of “oppressive census figures”, “asphyxiation through state and local government creation, and “opposition of the Nigerian government to peaceful restructuring. I then suggested that from the ECA’s perspective, once these grievances are addressed, the agitation will cease.
Furthermore, on the same point of red lines and questions about our collective existence, we should see any such questioning, not as an occasion for call to arms, but as an opportunity for self-examination and soul searching. A child does not cheerfully question his or her family identity and there is no smoke without some fire causing it. Therefore, when citizens cross a national red line, it is the responsibility of leaders to look inward and seek reconciliation.
Second, President Buhari insisted that “every Nigerian has the right to live and pursue his business anywhere in Nigeria without let or hindrance.” This is to the point and the President has risen to the occasion. Yet it is a sad reflection on the state of the union that the President needed to remind us about this fundamental principle of a state which craves the loyalty and love of every citizen. The expression of an interest to secede on the part of a group is a notice to the government which it can handle appropriately. It is not a notice to other groups within the state. Therefore, other groups cannot morally or legitimately take upon themselves the duty of the state. In this wise, the Northern youths and the elders that supported them erred.
Third, the President acknowledges that “ there are legitimate concerns” and that “every group has a grievance.” This acknowledgment is the beginning of political sagacity, the end of which is providing adequate responses to the concerns. President Buhari appears to get it that such concerns cannot be swept under the carpet of national unity if we do not want them to pollute the environment with dangerous mold.
Fourth, in what appears to be an unacknowledged Eureka moment, President Buhari praised “the beauty and attraction of a federation” in that “it allows different groups to air their grievances and work out a mode of existence.” This is a big deal. Mr. President appreciates the beauty and attraction of a federation. We have a democracy, which is also beautiful. But the beauty of our democracy is enhanced by the federal system.
I only have a friendly amendment to Mr. President’s observation here. Two features of a federation are most impressive. It recognizes the fundamental differences between the groups of people that are federating. Second, it allows the different groups to work out a mode of existence that is acceptable to all. If, at some point after this agreement, there are grievances, it allows them to resolve those grievances through the institutions it had set up for the purpose. Therefore, working out an acceptable mode of existence is pivotal to the success of a federation.
Fifth, the President identifies “the National Assembly (NASS) and the National Council of State (NCS) as the legitimate and appropriate bodies for national discourse.” There could be various interpretations of this, and not all will be agreeable to many people. It does not help that NASS has not endeared itself to many Nigerians who perceive it as a self-serving body.
What is more to the point, however, is that national discourse cannot be the exclusive preserve of these bodies. While it is true that NASS is responsible for lawmaking and NCS is an advisory body to the President, the two do not have the monopoly of wisdom on matters of national importance. And sometimes they have used their positions to promote self-regarding agendas at the expense of the nation.
If, as observed above, working out a mode of existence is pivotal to the success of a federation, this is the responsibility of all component groups within the federation. And while it is acknowledged that we now have NASS and NCS as governing institutions, the fundamental issue of working out an acceptable mode of existence should normally precede the establishment of those governing institutions. We have therefore put the cart before the horse. The solution is to demand that these institutions listen to and receive counsel from the different groups concerning the mode of existence acceptable to them.