Ethno-religious divides and challenges facing Nigeria

My friend and Comrade, Onyeisi Chiemeke, post on his Facebook timeline:


I am reading two books now. One is titled: Who Financed Hitler? It was written by two siblings; James and Suzanne Pool. One key argument of the book is that most evils (Jos on my mind) are fueled by the rich and powerful from far and wide. For instance, how many people know that the great Time Magazine gave Hitler, Man of the Year Award in 1934? This was outside other editorial supports. The lesson here; the media is too critical to society, to be believed hook, line and sinker. Further the Ford Group and many wealthy Jewish families also invested heavily on the Hitler’s project. Why did they finance Hitler? The book provided the answers. Except that it is a very voluminous book – more than 500 pages. The second book is Michael Parenti’s, Blackshirts and the Reds. Incidentally it focused on Hitler’s twin partner then in Europe; Mussolini. The core of Parenti’s argument, is that without a core revolutionary civil society as it happened in Italy, democracy will not be defended because the rich do not defend democracy but rather collaborate to uphold dictatorship. I used deliberately the words ‘core revolutionary civil society’ so that we do not abuse words. I am not talking of’ Facebook civil society as that was not what Parenti was talking about. Parenti’s book is less than 200 pages and, in my opinion, easy to read.


Given realities facing us today in Nigeria, this post naturally begs the questions: who are the people responsible for Plateau killings? Who are the victims? What led to the killings? So far, all we hear is that the Fulani herdsmen are the killers and the victims are Beroms who are those that were killed. Partly on account of cumulative public anger against Fulani herdsmen who are being alleged of perpetrating recent similar killings in Benue, Kaduna, Zamfara, etc., the Fulani herdsmen Vs Beroms narrative is very popular. Partly because of its popularity, we are all being compelled to take side based on factors of ethno-religious considerations. With the Fulani herdsmen expectedly Muslims and Beroms Christians, Nigerians are responding to the tragic situation based on ethno-religious divide. 


It is this same analogy that is being used to indict President Muhammadu Buhari since he is a Fulani man. As the President of the Federal Republic, besides having to carry the burden of the inability of the security agencies to stop all the senseless killings, he is being accused of being sympathetic to the killers (so-called Fulani herdsmen). Without doubt, as citizens, we have every right to be angry about these killings and we could equally feel displeased about actions or inactions of our government. But to make blanket judgements that indict everyone simply on accounts of ethno-religious orientations is to say the least dangerous. Perhaps, also to make similarly blanket judgements that presents a particular religious or ethnic group as the victim is equally dangerous. 

Two issues raised by Chiemeke in his Facebook post are: 1) the media is too critical to society, to be believed hook, line and sinker; 2) without a core revolutionary civil society as it happened in Italy, democracy will not be defended. Unfortunately, here we are as a nation whereby our only source of information is the media. With our level of organization or disorganization and deregulated Nigerian media and coming with little or no alternative credible or objective sources of information, every report is sacred. Given active online community that operates more with the techniques of terrorists, messages are being syndicated ostensibly to pollute citizens’ understandings and perspectives and as a result we are faced almost with incontestably ordained reports.

It could be tempting to proceed to apply the interrogative question in Chiemeke’s post about who is financing the predominant activities of Nigerian online communities who operate as bloggers? Tempting as it is, it will not change the reality, which is that they exert strong influence in the information flow, which most Nigerians believe hook, line and sinker. Does that therefore make all the Fulanis and Muslims, including President Buhari and those of us who are either Muslims or Fulanis whether directly or through ancestral lineages or both, accomplices to the murder committed by the criminals in the Plateau, Benue, Kaduna, Zamfara, etc.? Or does that make Beroms and Christians whether directly or through ancestral lineages or both, victims?

We could conveniently answer these questions based on sentiments and emotions dictated by our ethno-religious backgrounds. The incontestable fact is that even when we would want our choices to be guided by objective information, it is hardly available, at least not in the Nigerian media spaces. Somehow, one is completely at a loss as to what really happened to the vibrancy of journalism profession in Nigeria? It was such vibrancy that accounted for a media tradition that was highly contested. From the 1960s to 1980s, we had strong competition driven largely by the Lagos – Ibadan press, which in so many respects contested the establishment perspectives promoted by press sympathetic to Federal Government both during the 1st and 2nd Republics, as well as the military regimes of Ironsi, Gowon, Murtala and Obasanjo.

The tradition of the Lagos – Ibadan press snowballed into the second phase of Nigeria’s military rule between 1984 and 1999. Confronted by obvious draconian situation, that tradition qualitatively produced what came to be referred to as Gorilla journalism with The News, Tell Magazines and Tempo being the pioneering establishments. Both the Lagos – Ibadan press and the Gorilla media provided sources for credible alternative information at the time. Young, intelligent, committed and selfless journalists got recruited by the media establishments that promoted this brand of journalism. 

Above all, these media establishments provided opportunities to many patriotic Nigerians who are committed to nation building. The activities of mass-based organizations (civil society) that are committed to nation building find expression in these media. Activities and positions of organizations with respect to policies of government such as Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) and their allies became promoted by this brand of progressive journalism. With delight, one can recall the anti-IMF loan campaigns of the NLC during the 2nd Republic and the reigns of Gen. Muhammadu Buhari – 1984 – 85 (Nigeria Not for Sale); the NANS campaign against commercialization of education – 1984 – 1986 (Education is a Right: Not a Privilege); campaign against structural adjustment program by both NANS and NLC between 1985 and 1994. Perhaps those organizations are the ones being referred to as core revolutionary civil society in Chiemeke’s Facebook post. I am borrowing from Chiemeke’s post very loosely largely because we are at a point when nationalism is extremely revolutionary and identity politics based on ethnic and religious pride is radically anti-establishment.

The unfortunate reality today is that whereas some of these organizations are still existing, we hardly see them meeting to deliberate on critical national challenges. At best they issue press releases, which may just be reflective of the sentiments of their leaders, which could as well be driven by ethno-religious emotions and sentiments. Unfortunately, too, communication from designated public functionaries saddled with such responsibilities hardly go beyond press releases with the attendant risks of being coloured by ethno-religious sentiments. It is quite worrying that this is our national reality. What has happened to the Lagos – Ibadan press and their capacities to provide objective information? What has happened to the Gorilla media that operated underground? Why is any of our media unable to deploy a team of journalists armed with Gorilla journalism tools to uncover those herdsmen that our security agencies are unable to capture? Why is it impossible for national organizations such as NLC and NANS to convene meetings, take decisions and use those decisions to mobilize Nigerians and our government to respond to the challenge in a way that strengthens our unity?

Perhaps, these are not the right questions to ask. Maybe we are decidedly divided! How could this then possibly assist any of the constituent parts of our country as presently constituted? As a young student in the 1980s, I was attracted to Marxist studies and one of the strong lessons that encouraged me to commit myself to Marxism was on the issue of the national question. In one of the Faculty Seminars in the then Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, following a paper presented by Prof. Bonaventure Swai, from Othman Dan Fodio University, I remember with pride the intervention by the late Dr. Mahmud Tukur to the debate of whether revolutionaries should lead the campaign for secession and national self-determination. Quoting V. I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin, the late Tukur made the point that revolutionaries must recognize and acknowledge their nationalities. Where their nationalities are confronted with challenges of oppression, repression and domination by other nationalities, it is obligatory that they participate in the struggle for the liberation of their people. He however emphatically asserts that one of the strong roles of every revolutionary based on Leninist studies is that the struggle for national liberation must not be allowed to assume the form of hegemonic domination of one nationality over the other. 

The intervention by the late Tukur challenged me to find literature by Lenin, Stalin and other Marxists on the national question. I will not claim to have understood everything about Marxist position on the national question but I am clear that I must not seek to join any form of campaign for the domination of any nationality whether by the Fulanis or any other tribe. In the same vein I must not tolerate or entertain any criminal label to a whole ethnic group on accounts of criminal activities of a small group just because they are from the same tribe. We must rather seek to mobilize all Nigerians across all divides to push our government, especially the security agencies to find all the criminals, irrespective of where they come from, and bring them to justice.

As ordinary citizens we can make these demands. But as organizations, we must go beyond these demands to some actions. For instance, if we want Nigerians to be mobilized across divides, the best way to express that is to convene a meeting that bring members from across the divides and get such meetings to adopt positions that express strong unity of the membership. Why is NLC, TUC or any of our civil society organizations unable to do this in the wake of the agony before the nation after the Plateau killings? If the NLC, TUC and other organizations are unable to do this, why is any of our political parties not able to convene meetings of any of their organs to present a united position?

Instead, we are all acting as individuals based on our ethno-religious sentiments. All our organizations and perhaps government structures have issued press statements, largely influenced by the sentiments of the drivers of the organizations or government agency. When it is convenient to us we will quote the statement by Barrack Obama in Accra, Ghana about building institutions and not having strong leaders. When we need to express that in responding to national challenges, we fall back to our ethno-religious conclaves and act as individuals with some claimed superiority. We go to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. to post gory images and shout to high heavens about how complicit our leaders are on the killings of innocent citizens, how hopeless and ineffective our security agencies are because of the failure to protect lives and properties, which is the primary purpose of government, but in the end unable to take the basic step of rising above our emotions. 

It is important to return to the issue of the vibrancy of the Nigerian press. The reality was that it did not just happen; it was a product of strong intellectual currency that existed in the country. Many of the committed journalists that became the foot soldiers of the Lagos – Ibadan press and later Gorilla journalists who served as correspondents and reporters and handled all the patriotic undercover assignments were groomed from Nigerian institutions of higher learning in the then vibrant student movement. Interestingly, many of those old foot soldiers are today’s drivers and managers of information in government and many political establishments. Why are they unable to deploy their investigative skills and provide alternative information that could potentially unite our people to confront all the criminals, be they herdsmen, kidnappers, whatever? 

Every day we are unable to provide this alternative information that unite our people or project a platform that is a source of united action, we contribute to diminishing ourselves based on which our leaders can only be our true representatives. The reverse would be the case. The point is that we can’t be merchants of crisis and expect to harvest peace. The challenge therefore at the level of media management is that we must seek to recruit patriotic Nigerians and get them to, at all times, work to find all the information needed to expose all acts of criminality whether by public officials or private citizens. It could be much easier to publicize any information regarding the criminal conduct of a public official. But when acts of criminality do not involve public officials the tendency is that they are less attractive. Therefore, in order to make them popular and easier to publicize, some links with public officials, real or imagined, are developed. 

One thing that needs to be recognized especially by information managers of government is the fact that the so-called new media that operate as bloggers in the country were predominantly shaped and promoted during the PDP Presidential Campaign of 2011 and 2015. Just recall the so-called door-to-door Jonathan campaign. I don’t think the challenge is to waste time trying to expose where funding for such campaign come from. The truth is that that campaign corrupted a large population of the Nigeria online community. It weakens their capacity, destroyed their initiatives and diminished their humanity. This is also the case with the conventional media, including those media platforms hitherto driven with the Gorilla journalism practice (The News, Tell Magazines, etc.). Journalists across board need to be predominantly induced financially. This is where those of us that make claims to revolutionary principles need to rise to the challenge of creating a new generation of Nigerian reporters that could commit themselves to going to troubled spots to find all the alternative information that could demonstrate our humanity in a very strong way. How do we respond to the factors of inducement? It is a practical challenge that needs to be tested on the field. The potentials are there but needs to be mobilized and directed. 

Just as we express our displeasure with the inability of our government to be proactive on a number of these cases, we need to also express our displeasure with all our national civil organizations for being unable to rise to the challenges facing us. In 1986, following the ABU killings of four students, the government of Gen. Babangida dissolved the leadership of NLC for calling for a national protest against the killings. The NLC leadership under Comrade Ali Chiroma didn’t just call for the protest through press releases. There was a meeting of the National Executive Council comprising leadership of all the NLC affiliates and all the states and FCT Chapters, which took the decision. Today, an estimated more 100 lives were lost in Plateau, there is hardly any report of any meeting of any national organization – NLC, TUC, NANS, NBA, etc. All you hear are isolated opinions of claimed leaders condemning the killings, calling on security agencies to find the killers and bring them to justice, etc. etc. After all these, what next? Wait for the next strike and amplify the same messages?

All our parties are more focused in politicizing the matter. Perhaps our political leaders need to be reminded that our nation needs a strong national agenda for reconciliation. It would appear that the absence of such an agenda naturally pushes our citizens to interpret all national development within the narrow marginalization prism. Interestingly, this is one aspect that manifests itself daily also in micro-organizational lives. Just look all the intra-organizational dynamics of all our platforms such as NLC, TUC, NBA, NANS, NUJ, political parties, etc., you are bound to find strong currencies of our divided nation in varying forms. The task of reconciliation therefore is a matter, which should be all-encompassing. It is the foundation we are able to lay within our micro-organizations that would determine how far our national leaders can run with it. While the politicization temptation could be strong, we need to prioritize the development of alternative initiative based on commitment to promote good investigative contestation that goes beyond the current narrow ethno-religious orientation.


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