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I’m Against Nigeria Breaking Up, But... —Fani-Kayode
A former Minister of Aviation, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode, spoke with Associate Editor, BANKOLE MAKINDE and Abuja Bureau Chief, OKEY MUOGBO on contentious national issues. Excerpts:
How was growing up like?
It was a wonderful experience. I had the privilege of being born into a well-respected political and legal family, which goes back a number of generations and of course, this had its advantages. We placed a lot of value on education. My great grandfather, my grandfather and my father had all been to some of the top universities in the world, including Durham University (where my great-grandfather studied Theology) and Cambridge University (where my grandfather and father both studied Law). Intellectual vigour and the acquisition of knowledge was very important to us. That was the sort of background that I came from and that I grew up in. It was a childhood of cherished values, hard work and discipline.
From a very early age, my siblings and I were expected to read widely, to be well-versed in the Arts and to maintain a high degree of self-respect, dignity and decorum at all times. Most importantly we always had to excel at school. That was the barometre for our progress. If we did well at school we were given anything that we wanted but if we didn’t, we were punished. My early years were filled with the fondest memories and considerable drama. It was a childhood of pageantry and privilege and it was filled with warmth, joy and love. My siblings and I were truly blessed. We had the very best of everything. I thank God for my parents for the wonderful education, upbringing, opportunities and life that they gave to me.
How were your schooling years like?
My family left Nigeria and went into exile in 1967. I was seven years old then. I went to school in the United Kingdom. I had the privilage of attending some of the best and most expensive private schools in the UK each of which was steeped in hundreds of years of history and tradition. I went to the famous Harrow School, which was at that time, and in my view still is, the best private school in England (Eton comes a distant second). It is a school which, till today, is reserved exclusively for the children of the British elite and members of their top families. After a few years at Harrow and after doing my ‘O’ Levels there, I went to another excellent private school (this time in the rural west county of England) called Kelly College. Like Harrow, Kelly was an elite boarding school, but unlike Harrow, it was very far away from everywhere and was hidden in the deep English countryside. I loved the place and I did my ‘A’ Levels there. After finishing at Kelly, I went to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London to study Law and then after that, I went to Cambridge University to study even more Law. After Cambridge, I came home and went to the Nigerian Law School in 1984 and I was called to the Bar in 1985. I went back to school in 1993 when I left Nigeria to attend the famous Action Chapel Bible Seminary in Accra, Ghana, for two years. That was where I was awarded my degree in Church History and Theology.
What really is the problem with this country?
There are so many problems, but I think that the fundamental issue is that we have never been able to answer what is commonly referred to as the nationality question. That is the problem with Nigeria. We are a nation of people who do not know their own history, who and what we are, how we came about, what we were meant to be, why the British lumped us together, what we really want for ourselves and what direction we are meant to be going. Simply put, the nationality question is this: what is Nigeria? Are we one united and indivisible nation made up of numerous ethnic nationalities? Or are we a collection of incompatible ethnic nationalities that have been forcefully cobbled together into an artificial entity despite the fact that we have no cultural or historical affinity, no common aspirations and no truly national identity? These are the questions that need to be answered and we have to go back to the beginning if we really want to find those answers.
The easiest and most convenient thing for me to say is that bad leadership is our problem but in my view, it is not only bad leadership. Apart from bad leadership it is also a structural and fundamental problem of nationhood. We need to answer the nationality question and that means we need to understand what Nigeria was meant to be, how it came about, who put it together and for what purpose this was done. And we need to accept the fact that we have been wobbling along without answering these questions to our own detriment. We need to accept the fact that we must answer the nationality question before we can effectively forge ahead, establish a truly united nation and achieve anything truly meaningful as a country and as a people.
I believe that one of the most insightful contributions that Chief Obafemi Awolowo ever made to the intellectual and political discourse on Nigeria was in 1947 when he described the country as a ‘mere geographical expression’ in his famous book entitled: Paths to Nigerian Freedom. That is the starting point and once we accept that fact, then we can begin to understand why we have so many problems. Yet, this does not mean that the country should break up.
I think we have gone too far for that. I do not believe in the breakup of the country, especially when over two million people died in our civil war in an effort to keep us together. It would be a great disservice to the memory of those that paid the supreme price to keep us one for us to now say that we want to break up. What I do believe, however, is that in order to strengthen our unity, we must answer the nationality question and we must renegotiate the terms of our so-called federation. This is especially so if we want the country to continue into the distant future.
That is what we need to do, and the reluctance to do this and do it quickly is our problem. We have over 300 distinct and proud nationalities in this country each with their own culture, history, religions faiths, identity, insight, worldview and understanding and we cannot just wish that away. And as Chief Awolowo said in that same book, there is as much difference between a Fulani and an Igbo as there is between a Turk and a German. We need to accept, appreciate and understand that as a starting point and then take things from there. The situation is compounded and made worse by the fact that everything is concentrated at the centre.
All the power, money, coercive arms of government, government patronage and largesse is concentrated in the hands of the Federal Government. In this country, there is no devolution of power, no true federalism, no autonomy for the regions or states and worst still, some regions are living off the means, resources, hard work and sweat of others. This breeds resentment and division and the fact of the matter is that it is not only inequitable, but it also slows down the pace of development for all. This is because some regions and zones are just so far behind others. The truth is that such an iniquitous arrangement is ultimately bound to fail. This is because everybody is depending on the centre for everything and once that is the case, every single one of the various nationalities in this country will be prepared to do anything to be able to control that all-powerful centre and hold it for themselves.
Whoever holds the centre and controls the reigns of power at the federal level has effectively become the landlord and demigod of over 160 milion people and this should not be the case. Once you have that type of ridiculous arrangement, the quest and fight for who controls that centre becomes a do-or-die affair. In such an atmosphere, there can never be lasting peace and harmony among the people and neither can we really progress as a nation. That is our problem. We are reluctant to go on an honest and diligent quest to discover our national identity, answer the nationality question and accept the unassailable fact that we need to convene a Sovereign National Conference at the soonest to restructure our country, to renegotiate the terms of our union, to confirm the secularity of our state and to give every single nationality in this nation, no matter how big or small, a greater sense of belonging and a larger stake. Yet, if we want the country to continue into the distant future as one nation, we must do these things.
Sadly, Nigerians do not like to hear the truth and they do not often take the pains to analyse problems very deeply. We are in complete denial about our situation and the complexity of the issues that bedevil us. We just sweep everything under the carpet, bury our heads in the sand like the ostrich, pretend to each other that all is well and keep trudging on wishing away all our problems and trying to survive. Yet, this cannot solve our problems and it cannot be the way forward. The bitter truth is that whether we like to admit it or not, the Nigerian people are more divided today along regional, ethnic and religious lines than they have ever been since our civil war. And if we are not careful and we keep on going like this, we may end up fighting a second civil war which will make the first one look like child’s play.
Is there no hope for the country to become one truly united nation?
Once in a lifetime, strong-willed leaders like former President Olusegun Obasanjo may emerge that can manage such artificial amalglamations as Nigeria and hold them together by the sheer force of will. This is very rare, but it does happen from time to time. A lot of people don’t give Baba Obasanjo enough credit for what he achieved in this country almost miraculously. You can have a strong leader, who somehow emerges, holds everything together and pulls the nation forward regardless of our strong differences and internal contradictions. We have seen other instances of this in world history. A good example is Yugoslavia, where for many years, a great and powerful leader, Colonel Broznin Tito, did precisely that. Yugoslavia was essentially a balkanised and exceptionally volatile melting pot of many different ethnic nationalities and religious sects and faiths. The area was actually called ‘the Balkans’ for many years simply because of its fractured, diverse and unstable nature. You had Muslims, Catholics, protestants and Greek orthodox Christians all in the same space, vying for supremacy and seeking to dominate the area. Worse still, they all had a long and bitter history of vicious wars among themselves in that same territory. Yet, when Tito took power under the garb of a benvolent socialist dictator, he worked wonders and literally kept the lid on the keg of gunpowder. He held together the Serbs, the Bosnians, the Monte Negrans, the Croats, the Kosovars, the numerous Christian sects, Muslims and all the other nationalities that made up that culturally, racially and religiously diverse country by the sheer force of his personality, the provision of inspirational and exemplary leadership and with a very firm hand. Yugoslavia flourished in peace and prosperity under his leadership for many decades. However, as soon as Tito died, things quickly fell apart and the ancient religious and ethnic divisions did not only come to the fore, but also ended up transforming what was one of the most beautiful areas of Europe into a frightful arena of fratricidal butchery and a cauldron of fire. One of the most brutal and vicious civil wars that Europe has ever witnessed was fought there throughout the 90’s and it was as a consequence of the brutal conduct of that war that phrases such as ‘ethnic cleansing’ was introduced to the English Language. The first ever cases of ‘ethnic cleansing’ were committed in the old Yugolavia after the whole place exploded. The bitterness, hatred and mutual suspicion among the various natiionalities and between Christians and Muslims in that area had festered and brewed for so many years until the whole lid blew off after Tito’s death. When the war eventually came, it was sudden, it was horrific and it was a brutal descent into butchery and madness. It was simply terrible and for many years, the world watched silently as they just killed one another like flies. By the time it was all over, what was once the old Yugoslavia had been broken in no less than five new countries.
I sincerely hope and pray that no one honestly believes that this sort of thing can never happen in Nigeria. We already had one civil war and many believe that the underlying causes for that war are still very much there. Worse still, we are beginning to see the same sort of animosity, bitterness and resentment brewing and unfolding among the various ethnic nationalities and religious faiths in the country today as we witnessed in Yugoslavia before the outbreak of an all-out civil war. Obasanjo did very well from 1999 till 2007 in keeping us together through the sheer force of his personality, his firm hand and his understanding of the complexity of our nation. He was totally detribalised as president; he led by example; he encouraged us to ignore and put aside our ethnic and religious differences; he held us together; he provided good leadership; he ensured that the economy flourished and he fought corruption. He did all these wonderful things for our country and under him, we witnessed the whole concept of Nigerian nationhood being forged and being given birth to. People were beginning to forget about the sordid past and he did all that he could to ensure that the rest of us stopped thinking along ethnic and religious lines. However, by 2007, Obasanjo’s mandate ran out and he had to go and unfortunately after he left power, we went back to precisely where we were before he got there. Everyone is quietly talking about division now. They do so in hushed tones, but that is what they are talking about. All we see and hear about are bombs, mass killings and the most barbaric type of terrorism that we have ever known in our history being unleashed on our people. We have to answer these fundamental questions about our nationhood. We must determine who we are, what we are and on what terms we shall continue to remain as one nation.
The major problem today is, indeed, the Boko Haram issue. How do we tackle it?
For me, it is a very simple issue and it goes like this: There are some misguided people in our country who are hell-bent on establishing an Islamic fundamentalist state and on introducing 17th Century Islam throughout the North. They also intend to wipe out Christianity and to eradicate what I call true Islam in that same region. They are committed to using terror to effect that purpose, and they are not interested in taking prisoners or talking to anyone.
They are determined to kill as many Nigerians that do not share their religious beliefs and worldview as possible in order to effect their purpose and I believe that the only answer to such people is to meet them head on with the full force of the Nigerian military and state. They must be identified and brought to justice and it is the government’s sole responsibility and duty to do that. I say this because it is obvious to me that you cannot put out a raging fire by pleading with it, bowing before it or running away from it. You cannot fight fire by cringing in front of it in the most servile and pathetic manner and continously whimpering ‘please, let us negotiate.’ You can only fight fire with large amounts of water and you put it out by applying that water promptly, fearlessly, vigorously and courageously. And if they bring out the guns, you must be prepared to bring out larger, better and more deadly weapons and you must be prepared to use those weapons without batting an eyelid. That is leadership.
That is strength. That is what presidents are meant to do when confronted or challenged by an evil and relentless enemies like Boko Haram. Throughout the civilised world, no responsible government ever negotiates with terrorists.
Nobody sits down and talks to those who kill innocent women and children and bomb churches and mosques. As a government, you are not meant to appeal to such people. You are not meant to encourage or appease them by consistently displaying weakness. You are meant to meet them in the field of battle and fight them with everything that you have got. As a government, you are supposed to crush them and send them to their maker and to an early grave and not tolerate them, seek to talk to them and sheepishly ask them why they are killing your citizens. It is not done that way at all and it is completely erroneous for anybody to say that it has been done like that anywhere else.
But negotiations have worked elsewhere in other parts of the world. Why can’t they work here too?
Did Kamal Attaturk of Turkey negotiate with Islamists in his country?
No, he did not. Instead, he recognisaed them for the evil that they were and wiped them out, killing hundreds of thousands of them in order to save Turkey from their contagion. Did Bouteflika of Algeria negotiate with the Islamists in his country? No, he did not. He wiped them out by killing hundreds of thousands of them and thereby saved Algeria from their cancerous evil. Are the Pakistani or Afghan governments of today negotiating with the Islamist Taliban in their respective countries? No, they are not. They are fighting them vigorously in the field and they are attempting to defend the lives and property of their people.
As a matter of fact, both governments have enlisted America and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO’s) help to assist in that fighting. Negotiation is nice, but that is only when the other side is prepared to listen and be reasonable.
When it comes to negotiations, people often cite the examples of Northern Ireland (Irish Republican Army), Afghanistan (the Taliban), Spain (ETA) and all such places, but in none of those places did negotiations begin from day one and while innocent people were still being killed, bombed and maimed. Not one.
In every single one of those cases, the relevant governments spent many years fighting the terrorists into the ground, protecting their citizens from terror, breaking the will of the terrorists and their ability to function effectively and waiting until they sued for peace and begged for negotiations. And such negotiations would only come after a ceasefire had been agreed upon, honoured and observed. In the case of the war between the British government and IRA in Northern Ireland, the fighting raged for almost a hundred years before there was any talk of negotiation and before there was an eventual settlement. For those one hundred years, the British were certainly not negotiating with anybody, and they killed and jailed as many members of IRA as possible. The same thing happened in Afghanistan. The Taliban government that once ruled that country was toppled and sent packing by America after 911 because it was sponsoring terrorism all over the world. As a government, the procedure is that you first of all address the issue by confronting the terrorists with a greater force and you certainly don’t start the process by appealing to them to talk to you at the outset. You must negotiate only from a position of strength. The policy of negotiating from a position of fear and weakness just doesn’t work and it is premised on ignorance, cowardice and insensitivity to the suffering of your own people. It also represents an abdication of the government’s sworn duty to protect those people and the territorial integrity of our nation from enemies from without and within. Worse still, it encourages those enemies to inflict even more harm on our people with utter impugnity and that is exactly what Boko Haram has been doing. Even in Spain, the government fought the terrorist organisation called ETA for almost 50 years before anybody spoke about negotiation. You fight them first, meet them bullet for bullet and drive them into a corner and it is after they have been driven into that corner that they will sue for peace and ask for negotiations. You don’t, at the outset, while they are still butchering your civilian population, say ‘let us negotiate and let us talk.’
President’s don’t beg when faced with evil. It is not done that way at all. The more a government cries for dialogue and discussion with terrorists and those who believe that you don’t have the right to exist or to live your life the way you wish to live it, the more evil we will see from the terrorists.
There ought to be zero tolerance for terrorism and there is a precedent for this.
During the time of Obasanjo, he levelled the town of Odi in Rivers State because the leaders of the Niger Delta area did not produce or apprehend the militants that had attacked and killed Nigerian soldiers and policemen. After that, the killing of soldiers and policemen stopped immediately in the Niger Delta area up until the time that Obasanjo left power. That is what firm, decisive and strong leadership can do and Obasanjo did not shirk away from using his power when he had to. The former president sent in the military and Odi was hit from the sky, from the sea and from the land with the full force of artillery and the whole city was levelled in a matter of hours. The only building left standing was the bank. It was a very harsh thing to do, but it was necessary and effective, and most importantly, it worked. Immediately after that, did you ever hear of one soldier or policeman being killed in the Niger Delta area again? The answer is no.
Yes, the militants continued to bomb pipelines, they continued to kidnap people and they continued to agitate for resource control, but they did not kill people anymore. The killings stopped until Obasanjo left because he had established a precedent and he had sent a strong signal that he was prepared to destroy everything in sight in order to protect the lives and properties of the Nigerian people from the tyranny of terrorists and killers. I believe that the only answer to Boko Haram is to accept the fact that they are evil; that they feed on blood; that they are a group that are determined to wipe out everything that we believe in and cherish and that they must be fought to the ground. No sensible leader would sit down with murderers, shake their hands and tell the world that they are ready to negotiate with them simply because in doing so, they would be shaking a set of accursed hands that are soaked with innocent blood. Unless our government fights them vigorously, the rebellion and insurgency of Boko Haram will never stop.
But there are some people like Alhaji Datti Ahmed and others who claimed they knew who Boko Haram members are and that they are willing to represent them in any negotiations with the government. Shouldn’t this peaceful course be followed?
Well, that particular initiative died before it was even given life because the following day, Boko Haram publicly warned the government that they were not prepared to negotiate with them and they also warned Alhaji Ahmed not to hold himself out as their friend or representative. You see, attempting to appease bullies and tyrants never works. History proves that. The British tried it just before the Second World War when Neville Chamberlin, who was Prime Minister at the time, attempted to appease Adolf Hitler. He appealed to and implored Hitler and he asked for negotiations with him. Meanwhile, Hitler continued the carnage that he had unleashed on Europe, broke his every word to Chamberlain and literally ate up the whole of Europe before his very eyes. There was only one man in the British Parliament, Sir Winston Churchill, who had the courage to say that you do not talk to people like Hitler; you do not negotiate with them; you do not trust them and that there could never be any compromise between light and darkness or between good and evil. And of course, eventually, he was proved right and later became the Prime Minister himself after Chamberlin fell due to the failure of his appeasement policy. At the end of the day, Chamberlin’s appeasement led directly to the Second World War and put Hitler in a very strong position in Europe before the war actually started because he had bought time and he had consolidated his position before the British got into the fray. That war cost the world the lives of 50 million people (that were killed during the conflict). If Chamberlin had not attempted to appease Hitler from the beginning and if he had taken a hardline approach from the very start, we may never have had the Second World War and Hitler may have been deterred from indulging in any further aggression. The moral of the tale is as follows- the longer we keep calling for dialogue with the evil called Boko Haram, the more we feed and encourage that evil and the more our people will be killed.
Who do you think are those sponsoring Boko Haram? Because the Federal government declared that it has their identity, yet nobody is doing anything about it?
I do not know who is sponsoring Boko Haram, but what I do know is that there are many people within the system that have sympathy for them and covertly support and encourage them. Some indirectly defend their actions on the pages of newspapers by attempting to rationalise those actions and others openly claiming that they are fighting for justice. Others say that it is because the South has too much money and the North does not have enough, as if to say that poverty is an excuse for mass murder and genocide. Others say it is because their leader, Mohammed Yusuf was killed by the police and when they say that, I wonder what that has to do with bombing of our churches, media houses, UN building or the massacres of Christians in Jos. Was it the Christian churches, the media men, the UN or the people of Jos that killed Yusuf? Such rationalisations and subtle attempts to justify the barbarity of these beasts disgust me. Then, you have the relative silence of most core Northern leaders about the activities of Boko Haram. Why do they not condemn them more or do more to fight and expose them? Is it out of fear? Or is it that some of them are secretly encouraging and supporting these animals? I really don’t know, but it is very worrying.