Nigeria’s Dark, Bloody October

If anybody needed some dire sign that Nigeria has little to show for the first fifty years of its life, a particularly disturbing and bloody one was given last Friday. In the course of the official celebration of a hollow anniversary, several car bombs detonated in Abuja – barely half a mile from the hub of the ceremony – and killed some twenty innocents.

Let us pause for a minute to remember those who perished in this senseless, cruel act of violence. May their souls find eternal rest.

And now this: In the aftermath of the chilling explosions, Goodluck Jonathan’s administration vowed to find and prosecute the perpetrators. One hopes this is not a case of following a script. When Dele Giwa was assassinated with a parcel bomb in October 1986, then military dictator Ibrahim Babangida promised that the killer(s) would be netted. Twenty-four years later, nobody has answered for that heinous crime. In similar manner, then President Olusegun Obasanjo swore that the murderers of former Justice Minister Bola Ige would be unmasked. Perhaps Mr. Obasanjo is still looking for those assassins.

If Jonathan truly wants to identify those behind the Abuja bombs, his task would seem, on some level, easy. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) was quick to claim responsibility. In an e-mail statement distributed to the press, the group regretted the loss of innocent lives, but said “the irresponsible attitude of the government security forces” was to blame. The organization disclosed that it had given the government a five-day notice about the bombs.
South African authorities are arraigning Henry Okah, the group’s South Africa-based leader, in court. MEND has stated that it issued several warnings to the government – including a notice an hour before the explosions.

In targeting innocent bystanders, MEND has greatly diminished its moral stature even as it increased its political profile in Nigeria and around the world. In the current calculations of geopolitics, the capacity to threaten and deliver deadly terror earns global attention.

The Jonathan administration ought to tell Nigerians whether it had, indeed, been forewarned by MEND. If Jonathan’s government had received warnings but chose to carry on with its (questionable) party, then Nigerians would be right to ask questions about the administration’s fitness. The first irreducible function of a government is to provide a safe and secure environment for citizens. Nigerian governments, at the state and federal levels, routinely flunk this test. But if it turns out that the Jonathan administration failed to act in the face of the kind of detailed notification that MEND claimed it gave, then this negligence would rise to a criminal height.

In an altogether strange gesture – a day before MEND apologized for the deaths – Mr. Jonathan went before a gathering of ECOWAS nations in Abuja and absolved the organization of all blame. He claimed – apparently on nothing more solid than mere speculation – that some terrorist group was behind the deadly explosions.

Such speculation should be beneath a man in his position. It suggests one of three possibilities. One: that Jonathan was willing to play politics on a matter as grave as the bloody events of October 1. Two: that he is, perhaps, in profound denial. Or three: that his security advisors are feeding him fiction in lieu of solid intelligence.

If Jonathan is so deeply misinformed about such an important issue as the source of the bombs that killed his fellows, then we must conjecture that other members of his security team have no clue either.

In the end, the bombs provided a bloody exclamation that defined Nigeria’s fiftieth birthday. The explosives ought to serve as a wake-up call. Nigeria, long betrayed by its leaders and citizens, is now flirting with Al Qaeda-style terrorism.
Truth be told, all this mess is man-made, the product of years of vampires and scoundrels running – and ruining – Nigeria.

The handwriting is clear: Unless enlightened Nigerians stand up to reclaim and reshape their country, such bombings are likely to grow in frequency as well as impact. There’s the risk, in fact, that we’re looking at the traumatizing keynote to the next fifty years of Nigeria’s existence – or its demise.

Jonathan might have averted this needless loss of lives and property if he had hearkened to the voices – within the country and outside – that cautioned against throwing a party – a mindlessly expensive and obscene one – to celebrate an anniversary that merely pointed up a nation’s colossal mediocrity. Jonathan’s insistence on proceeding with that jamboree exposed his poor political instincts. In conception and scale, the party revealed poor taste; it also demonstrated that, like most Nigerian politicians, Mr. Jonathan misjudges both the depth of indignation and the index of suffering in the country.

Until the October 1 explosions stole the headlines, the buzzing news was the kidnap of school children in Aba, Abia State. One minor happy note was that the kidnappers, in the end, chose to release their hostages on October 1.

Last week, I spoke to a man whose family has fled Aba and taken refuge in Enugu. He gave a narrative of a major commercial town reduced to a ghost town thanks to an infestation of armed robbers and kidnappers. “Armed robbers and kidnappers have become the government in Aba,” the man said. “The armed robbers now tell you when they will visit your street – and they arrive on that exact date and time. If you want to live, you must keep serious money in the house for them to collect.” Kidnappers, though operating more covertly, also seem to meet with little or no obstacles.

Before our very eyes, Aba and several other Nigerian cities, to one degree or another, have become mini-Somalias, zones of lawlessness. As Nigeria’s ruler, does Jonathan have any immediate strategy for combating the virulent scourge of kidnapping? Does he lose any sleep when he witnesses Aba – and other towns – descending into anarchy?

In the end, the only enduring way to dispel bombs as a way of life in Nigeria and to stem the rising tide of robbery and kidnapping is to reinvigorate Nigeria with policies that will massively create jobs, humanize the Nigerian space – by providing sound healthcare, solid education and basic infrastructure – and demonstrate an awareness of what it truly means to be a leader. Leadership is not about throwing parties. It’s not about buying new jets. It’s not a matter of inviting a huge contingent of Nigerian politicians to enjoy a junket to New York, at the expense of the vast majority of Nigerians whose life expectancy totters at below fifty years.

True leadership is about realizing the depth of the problems facing one’s nation, and then challenging yourself to tackle them. In the case of Nigeria – as the MEND bombs and the kidnappers of Aba demonstrate – the challenge has reached a critical, crisis level.

Written by
Okey Ndibe
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