Dr. Omolade Adunbi is a political anthropologist and an Assistant Professor at the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies (DAAS), University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S.A. In this interview with Chido Onumah, he examines corruption, the national question, and political violence in Nigeria amongst other national issues.
• What is your assessment of the current situation in Nigeria?
Nigeria is in a state of rot. A rot caused by being held hostage by a cabal that is bent on destroying the country. A lens through which to see Nigeria is that of a sick person who suddenly found himself in a hospital. At the hospital, he was given wrong diagnoses and of course wrong prescription. Each time the patient takes his medication, his condition keeps getting worse and the physician keeps conducting tests upon tests without the patient realizing that the physician is actually not a trained physician but a fraudster parading himself as one. This is the situation in which Nigeria, a country rich in human and natural resources has found herself today. In spite of the abundance of those with the right expertise to tackle Nigeria’s problems, the cabal that has held the country hostage will not allow Nigeria, the sick patient, to be treated by a trained physician. Until the patient frees himself from this fraudster, he will continue to fall sick while his peers are making their lives better. This is my assessment of Nigeria of today.
• To what extent are you worried that the unsettled question of nationhood continues to dominate public discourse in Nigeria?
Am I worried that the national discourse today is about the unsettled question of nationhood? Any patriotic Nigerian should be worried about this. I am worried because after more than 50 years of nationhood and almost a century of having an entity called Nigeria, we ought to have moved beyond questioning our ability to stay together. Some will say, if you have been married for over fifty years and the marriage is still enmeshed in discord, then you are not compatible. But the issue is not that of incompatibility here but that of social inequality. When there is an increase in social inequality, people tend to look for ways of fending for themselves and the process of doing this often lead to discord with a capacity to degenerate into what some might call ethnic divide. When this happens, many will begin to call into question the idea of Nigerian nationhood itself. The other way to reflect on the question itself is to argue that Nigeria has never been a nation, so there is no point talking about whether the discourse of nationhood is dominating the political landscape or not. The question then will be why is Nigeria not a nation? Nigeria is not a nation because it is an imposed entity. This may not suggest that it does not have the capacity to become a nation, but after over 50 years of independence, it is yet to clearly demonstrate that it has that capability of becoming a nation. What we see today is a situation whereby people continue to see themselves not as Nigerians but more importantly as Birom, Igbo, Hausa, Fulani, Ijaw, Ibibio, Yoruba etc. People continue to cling on to their ethnic cleavages rather than clinging on to the idea of Nigeria as a nation. If you look critically at the history of formation of many of these ethnic groups, it is not as if they all started through a process of homogenization. Many can be considered as a hybrid of many traditions, cultures and practices, but living together over the years and with the right leadership, many began to see themselves as one. For example, if we look at the Yorubas of Southwest Nigeria, the development of Yoruba orthography helped in shaping a Yoruba identity. Prior to the development of Yoruba orthography, many would either see themselves as the Oyos, Ifes, Owos etc with a common ancestry which can also be interrogated or questioned but developing a Yoruba orthography helped in making people believe that they are at once a Yoruba person before being an Oyo person. Same thing can be said for the Igbos, the Hausa/Fulanis and others. So, nations are formed through commonalities and unfortunately, the only thing we have in common in Nigeria today can be categorized into two. Those who are extremely rich because of their access to our commonwealth. This group constitutes less than 1% of the population. The second category is the more than 99% of the population who are extremely poor and continually pushed to the margins by the less than 1% of the population. The tragedy of the whole situation is that this group, who for many years have been told that they are different and compartmentalized into being Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Ijaw, Birom, Zango etc do not see their destiny as being tied together. Rather they see their destiny as being tied to a representative of the less than 1% within their community. That is why when that person who has been co-opted into the less than 1% group comes home to talk about marginalization, those who should chastise him will be the same people who will be ready to die for him not knowing that he is in fact one of their oppressors. Therefore, the less than 1% of the population who constitute the oppressing cabal have succeeded in manipulating and transforming what ordinarily should be a national psyche into a local, ethnic or communal psyche. Such is the tragedy of the Nigerian situation and this is why the question of nationhood keeps coming up because there is no nation.
• Recently the National Assembly called for memos for the review of the constitution. Do you think this is the right way to go? If not, how should Nigerians go about fashioning a workable constitution for themselves?
I have thought about this severally and I am beginning to think that the constitution might after all not be the problem. We have been fashioning constitutions since the 1900s and here we are in the 2000s and we still have not been able to fashion a workable constitution for ourselves. We have had what I will call a pseudo democracy for over 13 years now and every four years the national assembly sets up a committee to review the constitution but what have we got from this? We are fast becoming a nation of committees. Committees that help in the process of siphoning our commonwealth instead of designing appropriate policies and programs that will help uplift our people. If we must have a workable constitution then my suggestion will be that it should be done through a democratic process. Let all Nigerians elect their representatives to a constitution drafting assembly and let the outcome be a subject of a referendum to either approve or reject the new constitution. The election of representatives must be conducted by a genuine and transparent electoral commission put in place not be the present government but by an independent body.
• How would you rate President Jonathan’s fight against corruption?
Is President Jonathan fighting corruption? I am not sure he is. Jonathan is a product of a very corrupt process and such a person lacks the capacity to fight corruption. In Nigeria, corruption has become an institution and it is highly destructive. Corruption as an institution will make sure that other institutions that could help strengthen the nation are weakened. This is the only way it can continue to thrive. Of course you also have the beneficiaries like Jonathan and others who might feel threatened if there is a serious war on corruption. The bottom-line is that if we succeed in fighting or destroying institutional corruption, then we could say we are on our way to strengthening institutions of the state. As things stand today, we do not have a state but what we have is Nigeria in name and not a Nigerian state. Strong institutions are what make a state and not name recognition. So, Nigeria is just a hanging on to name recognition and crying for serious help and Jonathan does not have the capacity to render the kind of help that Nigeria needs.
• What’s your view of his decision not to publicly declare his assets in the face of continued public anger against corruption in the top echelon of his administration?
Jonathan’s view that he does not give a ‘damn about asset declaration’ stems from the fact that he is not representing the Nigerian people. The institution he represents is comfortable with his not declaring his assets, so he feels he does not owe the rest of the country anything. Jonathan can only be worried if the cabal who put him in office becomes uncomfortable with him. After all, votes do not count in Nigeria, so he really does not need our votes to remain in office. Until votes begin to count and Nigerians are able to freely elect their representatives, we will continue to have leaders such as Jonathan. So, we need to move beyond procedural democracy that we currently have to a more inclusive and transparent democratic practices.
• Can this administration be trusted when the president says those found guilty in the oil subsidy report will be prosecuted? What do you make of the faceoff between Messers Femi Otedola and Farouk Lawan over bribery allegation?
We have had several probes in the past and nothing happened. The administration of Jonathan has set up several committees since its inception and nothing has come out of those committees. I remember when Obasanjo left office, there was a power probe committee set up by the National Assembly and nothing came out of the committee’s report. So, you can expect that the same thing will happen to the oil subsidy committee too. I think the National Assembly and its leaders have become what I will call a ‘craftimanipulative’ institution if I am permitted to use a word like that. What I mean by this is that they are schooled in the art of distracting the general population from the main issues of social inequality. So, when you hear that there is an oil subsidy or power project probe, the expectations of citizens are immediately raised, thinking that finally, something is going to be done about their plight. The period of the probe will become theatrical where the so called leaders who may think the idea of shame is foreign will expose their ‘secret dealings’ for a few weeks for Nigerians to see. Ordinarily, such public expositions should be a mobilizing tool for Nigerians but it is not. If you remember where I started from, the less than 1% have succeeded in manipulating the population to believing that the reason why there is social inequality is because of the other person who is not from their ethnic group. Again, what such probes do is to turn the light towards ethnic witch-hunting as the reason why things are the way they are. Thus, Femi Otedola and Farouk Lawan are products of the same corrupt institutions and I will not be surprised if tomorrow people start to think that Farouk Lawan is being witch-hunted because he is Hausa/Fulani. The fact is no one is asking questions about Otedola’s sudden wealth. How did he suddenly become a multi-millionaire? What is his background? Where did he get his initial capital to start a business? The truth is both Otedola and Lawal are beneficiaries of a corrupt institution called Nigeria.
• How would you assess the problem of insecurity and what it portends for the future of the country?
The truth is that Nigeria is currently at war. It is only those who are delusional that will say Nigeria is at peace and that what is going on are pockets of violence here and there. The tragedy of the Nigerian situation is that a time bomb placed at the centre of the country several years ago is beginning to detonate. Unfortunately, those who can help stop the degeneration are not in a position to do so. The problem of insecurity is neatly tied into the problem of social inequality and the continued marginalization of the majority of the population. When you have a population that is highly pauperized by the few elites, the dignity of the person becomes bare through a process of Darwinism. Survival becomes an uphill task and the resultant effect is the recourse to ethnic or religious chauvinism. Religion then turns to opium of the people and those who cannot stand the double marginalization hide under the cloak of fighting for a God’s kingdom to further traumatize the aggrieved population. It is in this context that I see the level of insecurity in the country. Just pumping money into national security cannot solve the problem. The only solution is to address the marginalization of the majority of the population by addressing issues of access to education, health, roads, and rural infrastructure. When the so-called Boko Haram says it is opposed to Western education, it is because it equates Western education with the institutionalization of corruption in Nigeria. I see their cry as the cry for equity, justice, access to education, health care, good roads and over all development of the country. I see them as wanting to be part of an inclusive process that will address social inequity in the Nigerian state. Their grievance is not in anyway different from the unannounced grievance of Nigerians out there who are disgusted about the decay in their country.
• What do you make of the clamour for 2015 in light of the crisis of the Nigerian state?
Politicians will always jostle for office whenever the opportunity presents itself. Those who believe Jonathan will not run in 2015 need to re-examine their minds. Jonathan will run in 2015 and the question is whether the opposition will be able to put their acts together and give him a run for the Nigerian money that he is spending. More importantly, it is hard to see if the salvation of Nigeria lies in the current political system. If the Nigerian people can rise up and fight, they may be able to change the system and install a more durable democratic system in Nigeria. We need to rekindle the fighting spirit of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s when Nigeria was the leading light in democratic struggles. What Nigerians need to do is to create an enduring process that will shield the popular struggle from the rampaging elite who might want to take advantage of it and reinstall themselves in office. This is exactly what happened in the 1990s when the elite hijacked a genuine movement for democratic change and installed what is presently in place. To guide against that, Nigerians need to rally round an organization that will be all inclusive and ready to take the fight to the elite and rescue the Nigerian nation. It is when this happens that Nigeria can move away from being a nation recognized in name only to that of a Nigerian state that will be democratic, where justice and equity will reign supreme.
• What role can Nigerians in the Diaspora play in effort to reclaim Nigeria?
The role I see for Nigerians in Diaspora is to be more involved in the process of reclaiming Nigeria from the marauding elite that has taken Nigeria hostage. Nigerians in Diaspora can liaise with those in Nigeria to help shape the form and character of whatever organization will be put in place to rescue Nigeria. This category of Nigerians may need to take a cue from other Diasporas who have helped to shape the future of their countries in the past. There are several examples to draw from. Within the African continent, history of democratic struggle in South Africa where those in the Diaspora supported those at home still lingers in our memory. We can also draw from various countries in Latin America, and the Middle East.