By Obadiah Mailafia (DPhil Oxon)
(Being the Text of the Second Goke Omisore Voice of Reason Annual Lecture, Delivered by Zoom on Friday 19 February, 2021)
Fellow Compatriots, Friends, Distinguished, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Let me begin by thanking the organisers of this Lecture Series for inviting me as Keynote Speaker for the V.O.R. Lecture Series for 2021.
The Voice of Reason is (V.O.R.) is perhaps the most intellectual of the cultural groups that bring Yoruba leaders of thought together. Its founding-Father and moving spirit was the late Prince Olagoke Omisore, scion of a well-known aristocratic Ile-Ife family.
These lecture series are dedicated to the memory of the late Goke Omisore, who went to rest with the Lord on 7 October 2018 at the relatively young age of 69. I never had the privilege of meeting him in real life. But I did know about him — his fame and reputation had spread far and wide.
He was a businessman who made his mark in manufacturing, hospitality and the garment industry. He was also an intellectual, an icon of class, good taste and aesthetics; a well-rounded man of culture. Sadly, they don’t make many of his type anymore!
I was made to understand that his base at Allen Avenue in Ikeja was the meeting point for like-minded spirits. He reputedly had great passion for the promotion of good governance and excellence in our country. He thus became the vortex for all those who nurtured the dreams of a New Nigeria. He represented the best of us.
Arole Nicholas Olagoke Omisore was born on 19 February 1949. He attended the Manhattan Campus of the School of Architecture and Design of the renowned New York Institute of Technology. Of his sojourn in the United States, he had this to say: “I went to the USA to learn, but it was not only school learning I sought; I wanted to imbibe all I could of this interesting, diverse, exciting and rich country. I wanted to know what made the people think the way they did, what made their institutions strong and what made the USA the greatest country on Earth. I was not disappointed.”
Mr. Chairman, permit me to move that we should observe a minute’s silence in honour of this great compatriot.
The topic that I have been asked to speak on – the theme for today’s dialogue – is, “Creating an Inter-Generational Dialogue for the Nigeria we Want.” I congratulate the organisers for this inspired choice of a theme. For the sake of elegance and economy of words, I have reframed the topic as, “The Sovereignty of Reason in Dark Times”. But I can assure you that the gravamen of my message remains the same.
I mention Reason, because this platform under which we meet is called “the Voice of Reason”. And I mention “dark times”, because that is the only way to describe the benighted epoch in which we are fated to live.
I also seek to echo the words of the German-Jewish political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, in her classic study, Man in Dark Times (Harcourt, Brace 1968). Hannah Arendt was a gifted young philosopher who moved in the circles of the highest of the German intellectual elites during the Nazi years. She even became romantically involved with her teacher, the great Martin Heidegger, arguably the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. His name is today mired in ignominy because he was a Nazi sympathizer.
Arendt and her family lost everything and had to flee Nazi Germany. But hers is also a story of hope. She believed – and I agree completely with her – that after darkness comes a new dawn. After the darkest night of sorrow, comes a new vista of joy and peace.
Permit me to quote her: “….even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination might well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and their works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given to them….”
My fellow compatriots, in these dark days in which we are fated to live, it is our duty as watchmen and women to read the signs of the times and the seasons. You will agree with me that things have never been so bad for our country. The only thing worse were the benighted years of 1967-1970 when we fought a bitter civil war in which an estimated 2 to 3 million souls perished. As a matter of fact, some people would argue that we have been in a state of war for the past decade; a low-intensity, undeclared civil war waged on our people by Boko Haram, murderous herdsman militias, Islamic Jihad, Miyetti Allah and other terrorist groups. It is a war of conquest, hegemony and subjugation. Its instruments include kidnapping, rape, scorched earth policy, land dispossession and the deployment of fear.
Of recent, the photographs and video-clips of the atrocities are so horrifying that I have stopped looking at them. They amount to a gross abuse of Humanity.
What is frightening about this war is that a government that the Nigerian people elected has remained, at best, an onlooker and spectator, if not discrete cheerleader, of the evolving macabre drama. At worse, they are silent co-conspirators.
I make bold to say so, because of the N100 billion that was paid from our national treasury into the coffers of a criminal organization such as Miyetti; an organization that openly and expressly defended the atrocities of the herdsmen killer militias. I make bold to say so because one of our so-called Governors confessed on national TV that they had gone to neighbouring countries such as Chad, Niger and Mali to pay off foreign Fulani leaders not to come back and kill our people. They obviously know the sponsors if the ongoing genocide and the ongoing eliminationism.
Over the years, we have spent up to a quarter of our national budget on defence and security, but there is hardly anything to show for it. Security has become big business. There is a game-theoretic cartel of civilians and military that profiteer from the widespread insecurity and lawlessness going on in our country today. It is a gravy-train. They do not want it to end. On many occasions, the weapons of our armed forces often end up in the hands of the terrorists; many of whom are also adorned in military and police uniform.
It has always been the case that many of those so-called bandits and terrorists arrested and detained end up being set free. They could be robbing and raping people near a police station and the police will tell you they are under strict orders never to arrest them. During his years as an opposition leader in the political wilderness, General Muhammadu Buhari (Retired) was quoted as saying, “an attack on Boko Haram is an attack on Islam and the North”.
The allegations of a sinister agenda of “Islamisation and Fulanisation” by former President Chief Olusegun Obasanjo may not be that far-fetched after all. This is reinforced by the body-language, hermeneutics and gestalt of this administration and the kid-gloves with which it handles the terrorists. It is also borne out by the crass nepotism that characterizes the regime at all levels.
There is also the silence of the Northern intelligentsia. A great oceanic silence that speaks so loudly to the high heavens. It reminds me of the words of the martyred German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who faced up to Adolf and the Nazis and paid the supreme price for his courage and daring. Bonhoeffer famously declared, and I agree with him: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
We have even heard some people saying, “Not all bandits are criminals and not all Boko Haram are terrorists”. This is akin to saying, in inferential logic, that not all demons are wicked and not all fallen angels are evil. That is the oxymoron of the century – a complete contradiction in terms.
Not too long ago, my elder brother Matthew Hassan Kukah, Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, noted that the only difference between the government and Boko Haram is that one of them has bombs. From what the citizens of Orlu are experiencing in the last couple of days, there is really no material difference between the government and Boko Haram. They both have bombs and they are deploying them indiscriminately on defenseless people. His Lordship added, and I quote: “They [the government] are using the levers of power to secure the supremacy of Islam, which then gives more weight to the idea that it can be achieved by violence….it is hard to see the moral basis they have to defeat Boko Haram.”
However, it was his Christmas homilies in December that seemed to have rattled the hornet’s nest. The key elements of his message centred on the following: That the president is turning nepotism into a state policy; that under Muhammadu Buhari, our country appears to be heading for darkness, a rudderless ship without any destination in sight; that the government was systematically institutionalising northern hegemony by “reducing others in public life to second-class status”; that even the North that the president ostensibly seeks to favour, has not fared any better as a region, being perhaps the worst hit of all; and that “Ours has become a house of horror, with fear stalking our homes, highways, cities, hamlets and entire communities….the challenge now is how to deal with the scars inflicted by a derelict nation, which is still unable or unwilling to protect its citizens”.
The only point where I respectfully disagree with His Lordship was the highly speculative obiter about the high probability of a coup if a non-Northern Muslim President had committed “a fraction of what Buhari did”. I thought that was rather unnecessary.
Some fanatics were calling for the Bishop’s head; but what he said resonated with the majority of Nigerians. Some even insisted he must publicly apologise for “insulting Islam”, or else. His Lordship humbly replied that he would gladly and speedily apologise if only they could show him precisely where he had committed the sin of blaspheming Islam. They have had to bury their heads in shame.
Let me make it clear that the people at the receiving end of this great wickedness have a right to self-defence. The right to life is a fundamental right as enshrined in Section 33 of our 1999 constitution as amended. Nigeria is also a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This implies that you cannot allow anyone to arrogate to themselves the right to take any life.
This right to self-defence is also enshrined in the precepts of International Law since Hugo Grotius and Emmerich de Vattel. The Law of Nations requires that communities that face an existential threat to their very survival have not only a right but also a bounden duty and indeed obligation, to resort to self-help to protect themselves. Both Natural Justice and Equity as well as Universal Global Ethics empowers people who face an existential the right to defend themselves if the state is unable and/or unwilling to protect them.
General Theophilus Yakubu Danjuma (Retired) said as much during a Convocation Lecture he delivered in his home state of Taraba in August 2018. Expressing disappointment at the failure of the military and the federal authorities to protect ordinary people in the face of horrendous assaults to lives and property, the General declared: “our armed forces are not neutral. They collude with the bandits to kill people, kill Nigerians. The armed forces guide their movements; they cover them. If you are depending on the armed forces to stop the killings, you will all die one by one….I ask every one of you to be alert and defend your country, defend your territory and defend your state….Defend yourselves because you have no other place to go. God bless our country.”
It is in this context that I support self-help security networks such as Amotekun in Yoruba land and the Eastern Security Network (ESN) in Igbo land. Ondo State Governor Rotimi Akerodolu (SAN) is well within his rights as the Chief Executive and Chief Security Officer of his state to flush out alien occupants of forest reserves within his jurisdiction; especially if these aliens have been killing, raping and kidnapping innocent citizens. Sunday Igboho has a right to do what he can to defend his people in the face of wanton terrorism. The same applies to the ESN in Igbo land. You can criticise Mazi Kanu and the Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) movement that he leads. But he is nobody’s fool. They are very well organised, disciplined and well-funded group. They have not gone about raping, kidnapping, killing and terrorising innocent citizens. I regret the fact that they no longer believe in the continuous existence of our federation as a single political community. But they have a right to defend their people.
As a consequence of these developments, tension is mounting across the country. The drums of war are booming while the dogs of war are howling. The vultures of history are hovering over an overcast sky. The hyenas are baying for blood. The dry, thirsty demons are holding up the empty cups; groaning for the blood banks to be filled. Not too long ago, I raised the alarm that some people were planning to plunge our country into another civil war. I was hounded and persecuted for allegedly raising a scarecrow that could potentially lead to a disturbance of the public peace.
The Northern press, and particularly the Daily Trust, where I once served on the Editorial Board, treated my testimony with venom and contumely. They ridiculed my academic qualifications and poured scorn on my sense of judgement. It is the ultimate betrayal by people I once regarded as friends and colleagues.
Those who know me well know that I am a shy and rather very private person. Like Socrates, my needs are very few. I follow the wisdom of the great philosopher Immanuel Kant, who said, “We are not rich by what we possess but by what we can do without.” My happiest life is to consort with the ancient sages in my rich personal library while listening to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and the great Baroque composers. I am not a controversialist. I am a humanist and a philosopher. I consider all life to be very sacred. But I fear no man; I fear only the Lord.
What worries me about this incipient civil war is the fact that the power elites across the country are silent. One of the few who recently raised his voice is the Governor of Benue, H. E. Dr. Samuel Ioraer Ortom. In a press conference recently, he called on President Muhammadu Buhari to do the needful before it is too late. He warned, and I agree completely with him, that appearing to be taking the side of the herdsmen militias was a dangerous development that is capable of leading to breakdown of law and order. He warned that the buck stops with the President and Commander-in-Chief. I could not agree more.
What is worrisome is the fact that people like the Governor of Bauchi State, Bala Mohammed, a man I used to respect, came out to condemn Governor Ortom and to accuse him, ironically, of stoking the flames of dis-order. It was the same Governor Bala Mohammed who said on national TV not too long ago that the Fulanis of the whole world are, ipso facto, Nigerians, and have a right to free and untrammelled passage into our country. He was also implying that it is our bounden duty of the indigenous peoples of this country to hand-over their ancestral lands to these strange and murderous aliens.
He is perhaps of kindred spirit with Presidential spokesman Femi Adesina who, a few years ago, crowed plaintively on national television: “If you are talking about ancestral attachment, if you are dead, what does the attachment matter? What does it matter again….You can only have attachment when you are alive….where you have land and you can do something, please do for peace. What will the land be used for if those who own it are dead at the end of the day?”
The American diplomat John Campbell has said that Nigerian political leadership traditions are characterised by the penchant of always “dancing on the brink”. Dancing on the brink may be a good plot in a Dostoevskian novel or in a Brechtian drama. But in real life it can lead to irreversible trauma. And when these traumas accumulate, they will destroy any social system. Every system can only take so much. There are always tipping-points beyond which there is no hope and no redemption.
Part of the dialogue of generations that we have undertake has to centre on the implications of the ongoing war frenzy that becoming a disturbance of the spirits in our time. Some of us were children when our tragic war civil war was fought. But even as children, we felt its impact.
As a child, I remember how my father, an evangelist, harboured a dozen Igbo families in our modest home. One woman had given birth on the day they arrived. I had never seen such fear in the eyes of grown men. Igbos were being massacred all over the North. After several weeks, my parents and our entire family were threatened with death if we continued to harbour these families. And I remember it was at midnight that they sought out on a long trek into the bowels of the primeval savannah, never to be seen again. I still weep when I remember that day.
War is an existential evil. A friend just sent me one of those social media write-ups about the ignorance that colours the vision of those who clamour for war: “People who never witnessed war will think war is just shooting guns and killing people. They forget that war is starvation; war is rape; war is deprivation of movement; war is fear; war is lack of access to health care; war is lack of access to your wealth; war is diseases; war is hopelessness; war is losing children; war is losing parents; war is losing a spouse; war is losing loved ones; war is not going to school; war is not going to work; war is excreting right in your hiding spot; war is drinking your own wee; war is creating an entire generation who will be illiterates; war is so much more than just shooting guns and ending lives….”
A friend of mine, Emeka Nnolim, sent me excerpts from a manuscript on his recollections of childhood in Biafra: “Everyone trooped to the relief points for succour. There were no cooking fires anywhere. Not even in our compound. There was no smell of cooking stew anywhere. No fried onions. We were now all refugees. This lack of food introduced a new disease – kwashiorkor. Children, adults walked about with oversized heads and or stomach on spindly legs with owlish eyes. Their hair is dirt brown and all are accompanied by flies. Hovering above are vultures. It was not uncommon to see corpses at the primary school, church, along the road or on the way to the stream. They were quickly buried. No one wailed or mourned anymore. I lost count of bodies quickly wrapped in cloth, mat or palm fronds before burial. Babies, toddlers, children, adults, male or female. Parents abandoned children who could be seen opening their mouths full of flies without a sound coming out, dropping dead along the road. Adults moped about and everyone waited for relief.”
If there is one war we must not fight, it is this one whose drums people are beating so loudly. Sir Winston Churchill, soldier, statesman and warlord, warned that war is unpredictable and that leaders must never ever believe it will proceed on a straight, unilinear path; with smooth, predictable tides and hurricanes. In his words: “The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events. Antiquated war offices, weak, incompetent or arrogant commanders, untrustworthy allies, hostile neutrals, malignant fortune, ugly surprises, awful miscalculations – all take their seat at the council board on the morrow of a declaration of war. Always remember, however sure you are that you can easily win, that there would not be a war if the other man did not think he also has a chance.”
Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is obvious that the path-dependence we treading along right now will lead to doom and dissolution. We have a duty to save our republic. Unlike many, I have never believed that the Amalgamation of 1914 was an accident. Like Albert Einstein, I do not believe that God plays dice with the universe. I believe God is engaged in a great thought experiment. He wants to see if we can partner with him in building the greatest black nation on earth by moulding together our diverse peoples and nationalities. Our destiny is to be a great nation; a land of freedom; a prosperous democracy that is the guardian and symbol of African civilisation.
But there are no guarantees for nations or indeed any community. All depends on the collective choices we make. We will survive and flourish if we muster the right courage and vision. We will surely perish if we choose the path of folly. The future is an open book.
In the rebuilding of our country, we must place women and the youth at the centre of all our national development efforts. The dialogue of the generations and of gender must begin today. We need a proper dialogue that is anchored on honesty, social justice and human dignity. It is a big, big, shame that women and youths have been so highly marginalised in our national system. That must change. Countries such as Uganda and Rwanda by law reserve 50 percent of all parliamentary seats for women.
Women dominate the parliaments of Sweden, Norway and Finland. Those countries have been the better for it.
I am also proud of our youth, whose futures we have mortgaged so shamefully. Far from being lazy, Nigerian youth are hardworking, brave, creative and strong. The aura and energy around them are extraordinary. And if you are in doubt, look at Nollywood, the music scene and ICT. If you are in doubt, ask Facebook Chairman Mark Zuckerberg who visited our country and was awed by what our young people are doing in the technology sector.
We saw their shiniest hour during the EndSars protests, minus the latter recrudescence into looting and anarchy. The Lekki massacres that have been covered up by the authorities will one day be revealed. Evil will be exposed for what it is, while truth while shine forever. The words of one of the poets of commemorating the martyrs of Lekki is deeply haunting: “Tell my mother I was unarmed. Tell my father I had the flag in my hands when I was shot. Tell the unborn Generation that I died singing the national anthem. Tell the cowards who shot me that my spirit lives on in the life of every good Nigerian youth. Tell the government that they shot my body but not my spirit….Let God judge me; I am only sorry for the pain of leaving you this early….I have done my time based on the path I chose freely and willingly….I know that freedom is coming, yes freedom will come tomorrow.”
The great doctor and revolutionary intellectual Franz Fanon eloquently asserted that, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it”. The mission of our generation is to save Nigeria from the jaws of catastrophe. We must mobilise a powerful coalition of patriots who believe in, freedom, democracy and social justice. The clarion call for re-engineering of the federation can no longer be ignored. We must devolve power to the regions and redesign a system that guarantees the welfare, security and the common good of all our people.
No constitution is ever cast in stone. Nations that flourish are those that are continually reinventing themselves in light of structural changes in domestic and global conditions. The battle we face is not against the North. The masses of that region have suffered more than most others – they have suffered violence, poverty, degradation and penury. We have to save the North from the North. We must do all it takes to save our country from impending tragedy.
The Old Testament tells us that when the exiles in Babylon were told how Solomon’s Temple had been sacked and the golden vessels of the House of the Lord had been carried away by foreign conquerors, the remnants of Israel wept. Nehemiah, a cup-bearer to King Artarxerxes in the Persian capital of Susa, asked of the king that he might be permitted to go back and rebuild the fallen walls of Jerusalem. The king grants him his approval. Nehemiah prayed to God, remembering the sins of his people and reminding the Almighty of His promise of restoration.
But Nehemiah did not go empty-handed. He had a plan. He gathered money. He conferred with the elders and he chose the materials for the reconstruction very carefully. Nehemiah and his brethren set to work at once. They inevitably encountered enemies such as Sanballat of Samaria, Tobiah the Ammonite and Geshem the Arab, who were hell-bent in bringing the project entirely. He got the Prophet Ezra and the Levites and all the elders to agree a new covenant for the rebuilding of their homeland. Nehemiah succeeded fabulously. After 12 years, we are told, he returned to the king’s palace in Susa.
Ours is the Age of Reconstruction, as it was in post-bellum America of the late nineteenth century. This is our time of Restoration. In rebuilding our country, we need to enter a new covenant of hope. We have to agree together that our New Nigeria will be a land of hope and glory; a nation based on freedom, democracy, justice and the rule of law. There will be resistance. Those who have benefitted from the current system will fight ferociously to protect their privileges. We must face up to them with boldness and courage. We must never surrender. The alternative is a broken and divided Nigeria.
This is not the time to apportion blame or to look for scapegoats. All of us have sinned and have fallen short of the glory. Christians and Muslims are brothers. We are all the children of Abraham. It is also wrong to blame the North for all our predicaments. We are in the deep hole we are today because of a collective failure of leadership; because of the path-dependence of corruption, grand larceny and lawlessness that underpins our warped political economy. We have created a frightful a social and economic order that is programmed to gridlock and system failure.
In the words of the great Jewish-Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza: “I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, nor to hate them, but to understand them.”
Nigeria’s future and its very survival depend on us. The crisis we face today is not only a crisis of leadership; it is a crisis of nation building. The great Swiss historian, Jacob Burckhardt, in his magisterial study of the state in renaissance Italy, noted that the state is a “work of art”. Great states do not emerge by chance. They are products of imagination, courage, creativity and purpose-driven leadership. Great states are built with the same vision, determination and courage with which Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel and Beethoven composed his great symphonies. It calls for men and women of singular courage. It calls for patriots who have conquered the fear of death and are ready fight for a New Jerusalem with their very lives. As one of my late teachers, Lord Ralph Dahrendorf, once remarked, “they have the weapons, but we have the knowledge”.
Permit me to conclude with a few lines from British poet Stephen Spender: “I think continually of those who were truly great….those who in their lives fought for life, who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre. Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun, and left the vivid air signed with their honour.”