THE FALSE NARRATIVES OF ETHNIC AGITATIONS AND HOW TO STOP THEM
Calls on young people to organise, get involved in politics and make a difference for good.
“Very many poor people mean that there is a pool of individuals who have no stake in society and so it is our business to ensure that people have a stake in society”.
Remarks made by the Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, at the Institute for Security Studies Seminar Themed: Unity in Diversity, On August 2, 2017.
Let me say how honoured I am first to share this platform today with General Yakubu Gowon who is rightly described as a living symbol of Nigerian unity. But I believe that his greatness lies in his policy of ‘no victor no vanquished’ when he began the process of healing a nation, bruised, damaged and embittered by a 3-year civil war.
There is no question at all that great leadership comes from some sort of self-sacrifice, great leadership comes from some sort of compassion. I want to thank General Yakubu Gowon for playing that role at a crucial moment in our history.
I am glad to see that he is here today, again to advise that we must not repeat the errors of the past. I must also commend the Institute of Security Studies for providing this important platform for reflection on the subject of the corporate existence of Nigeria and its diversities.
It is easy to take for granted the work that thought leaders such as the distinguished faculty here do. But we must remind ourselves that often the difference between tragedies of human conflict, hate and disunity is what is said and done or what is not said and done by those charged with thinking and planning for society in crucial times.
I believe it is the bounding duty of institutes like this to dispassionately interpret and apply sociological circumstances and especially history to present the choices and alternative pathways for our nation and its people.
For example, let us just take history; reading and hearing history is a much different experience from being a part of history. Both have their advantages and drawbacks.
The witnesses of the horrors of war will not wish it on their worst enemies, even recalling it may bring back the trauma of that period. The mental and physical scars of war are sometimes so deep that rational thoughts on the subject is impinged.
On the other hand, those who only read or heard history may have the advantage of approaching life without the bitterness and burdens of history, but they are often so far removed that they tend to minimise or even dismiss the ramifications of history.
My wife turned 50 last month and I had to say to her that any one of her age was born in the year the civil war began and that such persons including those who are under 40 are probably largely responsible for many of the inflammatory statements that we are hearing today stoking up war.
As you can imagine, I endangered my dinner that evening! But I think that it is true that the farther away one is from the horrors and deprivations of war, the less impact it has on one’s thoughts, one’s motivations and one’s worldview.
We must not allow dangerous amnesia that leads nations unwittingly to the fatal repetition of tragic errors.
Permit me to share a few thoughts, some of which emerged from my interactions with the thought leaders from the Southeast and the North in the wake of secessionist threats by some youth groups in the Southeast of Nigeria and the ultimatum issued by some youth groups in the North.
I want to look at what I describe as false narratives; the first false narrative is that we often say countries formed the way ours was formed are doomed to fail. In other words, countries formed without a deliberate agreement of people to come together are bound to fail. This is what some people have said, that Nigeria is a mere geographical expression and for that reason it is not likely to succeed as a united whole.
But those who say so do not know that even the expression, mere geographical expression used in relation to a country was not first used in relation to Nigeria. As a matter of the fact, it was the German statesman Klemens von Metternich who used this same expression for Italy. He simply summed up Italy as a mere geographical expression exactly a century before Nigeria was born. Italy is still a mere geographical expression but still a nation.
So we must not be misled by those in some pseudo-intellectual way suggest to us that the mere fact that we did not deliberately one day hold a conference to come together means that we should not or cannot stay together. Indeed we can.
Most countries of the world came together by some accident of history, one way or the other, many were put together, many were forced together, but the wise have stayed together, the wise have remained united.
The second false narrative is that one particular ethnic or religious group is more responsible for the Nigerian problems than the other, or for that matter that one is superior to the other.
My experience is exactly the opposite. As a matter of fact, I have found and I have repeated this several times that whenever you look at a charge sheet, that is a sheet where people have been charged with an offence especially those who have served one way or the other in the Federal Government of Nigeria, charged with stealing or corruption, you will never find one ethnic group alone represented. You will always find an equal representation of the ethnic groups. There is complete unity in this business of stealing.
You will also not find one religious group, you will find that there is nobody arguing about religion when it comes to these matters.
The truth of the matter is that where we have won, it is where we have not paid attention to religious or ethnic differences; our football teams – because we want to win we do not ask ourselves questions about whether the people are from one side of the country or from another or whether they are Moslems or Christians or whether they do not believe in God at all.
All we are interested in is just the score, just win. I want to say that that is exactly where we should be as a nation today. We should just be telling ourselves – just win, just score, it does not matter where you are from so long as you are in government or wherever you are, just win for this nation and we do not want to ask questions of where you are from.
Another false narrative is that we are better off when persons from our own ethnic group are in charge, that we are better off. The experience of history and our experience is of course the exact opposite of that, as a matter of fact, what history has shown us, what the facts have shown us is that no ethnic group has necessarily been better off either economically or even socially merely because a member of its ethnic group was the leader of this country at that time. There is no fact to support that whatsoever and that is how it has always been.
The fifth narrative which I want us to look at and which I also believe is false is that those who make discharges of marginalisation are altruistic. Those who say my ethnic group has been marginalised, my religious group has been marginalised, that they say so for altruistic reasons or altruistic purposes. I want to say that is not necessarily the case. As a matter of fact, most times when people say for instance that the Southwest has been marginalised, what they are saying is I have been marginalised, appoint me because I am from the Southwest. That is simply what it is.
Whenever people make this charges of marginalisation, it is usually self-serving.
I sat with the President once when two members of the National Assembly came to him and said that, we, referring to states in the North have been marginalised. They went on to explain why; they mentioned some states had no senior ministers, one of them said “Kaduna had no senior minister, the only minister is the minister of state”, he mentioned also “Sokoto had no senior minister even Katsina, your own state Mr. President has no senior minister. All of the ministers are ministers of state”. Then he mentioned another group and he said, all these people have senior ministers, some groups in the South have senior ministers.
The President as you can imagine reflected for a moment but before he answered, I answered. I said the truth of the matter is that there was no consideration at the time that these appointments were made about whether or not we wanted to appoint a senior minister from this side or the other or from that side or the other. And that is why you find that many including the President’s own state does not have a senior minister.
The distinguished members were not very happy with my contribution but the truth of the matter is, if you look at any group, if you look at any particular situation, you can bring up a narrative that will satisfy your own particular idea or whatever it is that you believe. You can bring up that narrative.
A group of people came up to me once and said “this Cabinet is full of Moslems. You are a pastor surely you should be taking care of the Christian community”.
When we looked at the names and religions of these people, we found out that there were two more Christians than Moslems in the Cabinet. We now have one more Christian than Moslems in the Cabinet.
But you see, the part of it that even bothered me is that even the Christians, many of them as you can imagine, and I am not even so sure whether or not, what their faith is, on both sides, there are Moslems, I am not so sure what their faith is, there are Christians, I am not even so sure what their faith is, some are not even committed.
But the impression is that, the moment a person is appointed, it is almost as if these are militants for their religion. Many of them do not even subscribe fully to their faiths in any way.
The sixth narrative is that hate speech is freedom of expression and that we should allow it. I want to say to you that that is the biggest mistake that can ever be made by any group of people.
Every major catastrophic human conflict has begun by hate or extremist ideology especially hate speech, in particular every genocide in human history has been preceded by hate speech and it is promoted by the media sometimes and promoted by public discourse. But always hate speech precedes genocide and some of the greatest tragedies in human history.
Our situation is worse now with social media; instant communication of any type of news, most of it false, most of it divisive, most of it dangerous. We must do something about hate speech, we must control hate speech and we must insist that it is not acceptable at public discourse of any type whether it be on radio or social media. We cannot allow the promotion of hate speech.
The ICC, International Criminal Court had reason to sentence several persons, owners of media to long terms of imprisonment over the Rwandan genocide. Because many radio stations promoted hate speech and the promotion of hate speech led to the killing of about a million Rwandees in April of 1994.
We must refuse and we must refuse a hearing for those who perpetuate this sorts of hate speech and ideology.
The last narrative I want to look at is that we are better apart than together. Of course that is not so and I think that was so eloquently presented by the DG, DSS when he made that quotation when he was talking about different parts of our country having their strengths, that each one of them can survive as an individual nation but none of them can compare to Nigeria in any way.
None of them would be more viable, none of them can be as successful as a country such as this coming together.
The other day at the AU, I was listening to some of the comments from several African leaders and I was whispering to the gentleman next to me that Rwanda is one of those countries that is celebrated for good governance, celebrated for a few things and even its economy.
But when you compare the entire Rwanda economy, you will find that Lagos’ economy is six times bigger and Lagos is just one state of out 36 states.
That is exactly what is repeated everywhere you go, the truth of the matter is that by our sheer size, our markets, our combined resources, this country is much more greater and its potential is even far greater than the potential of most countries anywhere in the world, not just in Africa.
We owe ourselves a duty to present that narrative correctly.
What must we do? I think first of all we must ensure and I am speaking not just to leaders but to all of us, that we must ensure that there is respect for each other, we must respect the views of each other.
In conversation, in interaction, we must show respect for each other. We must respect each other’s religions, we must respect each other’s views. The language of interaction and exchange must be civil. We must not permit a situation where people talk anyhow. Whether they are leaders or elders, we must not tolerate a situation where people are allowed to speak in any manner that they desire.
There must be a way of speaking properly, we cannot allow people to just speak in any way that they want.
The assurance of protection of lives and property is a very crucial one. We have no choice especially as government to assure every Nigerian of the protection of their lives and property. This is something the President said not just in the early days of the government but even in more recent times. That as far as he was concerned, the first duty of government is ensuring security of lives and property, ensuring that each and every Nigerian is confident that wherever he lives, he will be protected.
It is a difficult duty and task governing a country and ensuring security and safety for a country of 170million people. But because that is the challenge that the President has thrown, we are working on all of the agencies of government, the police, the security services, the armed forces to ensure that not only do they understand that that is the first and primary duty of government but that they are given the capacity to implement that duty and to perform that duty properly.
The second is that we must approach social justice seriously, our compact with the Nigerian people especially leadership at all levels. Poverty is a ready recipe for all manners of social problems.
Very many poor people mean that there is a pool of individuals who have no stake in society and so it is our business to ensure that people have a stake in society.
I remember during the campaign when the President will point at the many hundreds of thousands of people pressing their faces against the buses we were travelling in all over. And more than once he said to me, look at the faces of these people. He said what they expect is that by the second day when we take office, we must solve all their problems. I said to him, that is what they expect of you not me! (General laughter)
But I think that we have a duty to ensure that we deal seriously with issues of poverty and social justice. That is why for the first time in the history of this country, when we were thinking through budgeting, we looked at the questions of social interventions and the social investment programmes.
The total outlay for social investment in the 2016 budget and in the current budget is N500 billion. The largest single item in the budget. I think this is significant because we believe that government’s duty is to ensure that there is social justice and that we deal with poverty. The social investment programme is not a poverty alleviation programme, no, it is an empowerment programme to ensure that those who are poor and vulnerable are given a real chance at earning an income for themselves.
That is really the underlying philosophy behind our social intervention programmes.
The other point is controlling and dealing with corruption and the impunity that attends it. Corruption is possibly the worst evil that this country has experienced or will experience. Because it definitely is the major reason why this country is set back economically. There is no other single reason, the single reason is corruption because this country has resources and not just material resources but human resources in abundance.
The fact that someone cornered the resources for themselves is what accounts for where we are today economically. I think that we understand it for what it is. Many times people find excuses of every kind to excuse corruption and it is so for religious leaders, political leaders who look for all sorts of reasons to justify corruption. Someone is taken to court and they say the reason he is taken to court is because he belongs to another political party. Why don’t we ask the question, did he steal? If he did, then he should be in court anyway, there must be justice. That is the first question we must ask.
We should not look for excuses for people who make our future impossible. Part of the reason other countries of the world hold their leaders to account, and if you look at other countries of the world today, Brazil recently sent a past leader to jail, Thailand, Israel, any one of these countries hold their leaders to account.
They do not allow anybody to hide under any excuse, and if you look at the reasons today why so many are poor and have no resources, it is because some people chose to corner all of it and we cannot afford to do it.
So it is our duty as a people to stand against corruption and to say that it will not stand. Anyone who is corrupt should be held to account.
And we should compel our government to ensure that that is done.
And lastly we must actively promote the narratives that promote unity especially young people. And I think that it is so important that young people promote these narratives.
I was glad to hear General Gowon speaking directly to young people and I think that when you look at it even in the days when the civil war was fought, those who fought the civil war like General Gowon, Odumegwu Ojukwu at the time, were all very very young people, I believe General Gowon was about 34years at the time and Diette Spiff who was Governor of the whole of Rivers and Bayelsa was 23 years old.
I am sure that most of the young men who are here are probably older than that. Most of them were under 35 years old at the time.
So the destinies of a country lies especially and essentially our own country where 2/3 of people in our country are young, the destiny of these country lies with the young people. Sometimes when I hear young people being described as leaders of the future I just wonder because the future is already here, there is no question at all that you are the leaders today and let me just say to you young people that nobody is going to stand aside and say now is time for young people to take over, no. Young people simply take over, you simply organize and you do what you need to do to take over politically, you must be directly involved in the politics of your country , you must be directly involved in all of those issues in your country that will make a difference.
If people stand aside and say one day we would be brought in, you may really need to wait for a very long time.
We cannot turn back the hand of the clock or correct the past, but we have the power under God to determine what our future should be like, our nation has proved the paradox that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, we are greater together than apart.
Thank you very much.
*Courtesy of Laolu Akande
Senior Special Assistant on Media & Publicity to the President
Office of the Acting President