Nigeria: A Security Alert

Horizon Scanning; Economic hardship can trigger social collapse, extreme political activity and civil unrest. The Nigeria government should be prepared for the worst. The fierce governorship election rerun in Ekiti State, one of the fiercest in recent time, makes it all too easy to lose sight of the history being made and the change it brings. The message – Nigerians want change!

In relation to the current economic crisis, there are two main risks: the rise of a popular, and populist, movement that plays on the concerns of those affected by the recession; and the development of a wave of serious social unrest leading to sustained disruption and rioting.

First, politics: poor economic conditions, unemployment and nationalism can produce dangerous politics. In Nigeria where politics is not played according to the rules, however, increased support for Ethnic militias and an increase in criminal activity is more significant for its impact on social cohesion than as an extremist rebirth.

How might unrest start now? Structural unemployment and economic hardship leads to poor, bored people who cannot cope with rising prices. Prioritising the shopping basket, which includes not just food but also healthcare, school fees, recreational activities, becomes difficult, then impossible.

Mounting resentment when real essentials become unattainable are compounded when genuine essentials (food, heating, accommodation) become unaffordable. At this stage, most threat models move from disquiet to criminal activities, to breakdown in social cohesion, to non-violent protest to large-scale protests and rioting, first in one city and then around the country.

Police forces try, and fail, to contain these protests using conventional means such as baton charges and the deployment of police horses.

These are likely scenarios because Nigerians are angry – they are angry that after 10 long years of democratic practice, the country is still struggling to imbibe the bare essentials of democracy. There is a powerful pro-change sentiment sweeping the country, as the Ekiti election has shown, and this is inevitable given the pain bad governance has brought on the people. The citizens are hungry for change. Ekiti State is a signal.

After watching the Ekiti poll, everyone could now point to political manipulation as the trouble with Nigeria. Ekiti has also exposed the enormous stakes for the political manipulation: personal aggrandisement.

Despite the efforts of the Ekiti indigenes to police their votes, their efforts were thwarted by last minute manipulation; the secret smuggling of results from a police station.

Today, officials of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) involved in the production of the contentious result for Ido-Osi Local Government Area, which marred the entire election in Ekiti State, are enmeshed in a N250 million bribery scandal. We only got to know because one of the parties failed to share the loot (STL). His protest letter to the Police blew the lid off the underhand deal.

The Nigeria Police are already investigating the matter, which has, reportedly, led to the questioning of INEC officials, including the Ekiti State Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC), Mrs. Ayoka Adebayo, and seven other electoral commissioners by the security agencies. We don’t know yet what the police would find out. But everyone now knows that all is not well with the process that returned to Segun Oni to power as governor.

Nigerians hope the Ekiti revelations would take the country down the path of probity. Not that electoral fraud will suddenly disappear; it will never. But the sobering thought of the shenanigan that brought some of the mandates the politicians are sitting on will increasingly struggle with the flamboyance that attends power in this part of the world.  

The Nigerian government should beware, lest people’s anger metamorphose to desperation. A warning sign was flashed on Wednesday, May 13, 2009, Angry Nigerians took to the streets of the commercial capital Lagos to protest at what they say is the poor performance of the government. Thousands walked to the government house in Ikeja to protest against rising fuel prices, low minimum wages and the slow electoral reform.

Some of the civil society groups and labour organisations that took part in the protest include the National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), Maritime Union of Nigeria, Food Unions; Association of Senior Staff of Banks and Financial Institutions; and Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT).

The protesters chanted abusive songs, calling Nigerian Leaders “thieves”. Some of the placards carried by the protesters read: ‘Global meltdown, the rich should pay’; ‘FG, hands off trade union’; ‘Nationalise all industries under workers’ democratic control’; ‘Cut down political office holders’ pay’; ‘Nigeria is too rich for Nigerians to be poor’; ‘Minimum wage must be a living wage’; ‘Repair refineries, build more’; among others.

In the UK during the Great Depression, economic collapse led to social collapse and worse. Might this happen in Nigeria? My take is that the Nigeria social system has already collapsed. Nigeria currently has no system designed to ensure it does not.

Since May 29, 1999, Instead of our political leaders to use our democratic experiment to solve the many teething problems facing the nation they have been feeding their own nest. Today, crime, kidnapping,  prostitution, corruption, rising unemployment, inflation, cultism, cheating in schools and moral crisis in education, ethnic militia in the Niger Delta among others is endemic. The nation’s democracy experiment has turned into a mirage.

The whole political parties have failed. “The voters are powerless at the system and it would be virtually impossible for a new party to make a significant impact given the nature of our electoral system.”  A new movement might take their place.

Nigeria has been remarkably stable, politically. But we cannot depend on our history. It is now time for our security services to engage in scenario planning. This in government is known as “horizon scanning”. What do we do when violent demonstrations break out?

This is an area of deep confidentiality, since by their nature the scenarios played out are those government fears most. The problems that one could see as a result of these horizon scanning exercises is scary!

There are three break points that show that public order is significantly failing: the deployment of soldiers; the use of rubber bullets and CS gas; and the issue of firearms. The Nigeria Police have never been reluctant to deploy these arsenals.

But is such unrest likely? The most recent opportunity for sustained public unrest, the NLC well-coordinated rally, which involved about 2000 workers from various unions, the protesters took off from the National Stadium, Surulere and ended at the Lagos State Secretariat, Alausa.

Demonstrators were met by a large number of police. Armoured cars were stationed on the route to guard against unrest. At every corner there are armed police, and at least four armoured cars followed the demonstration. Unlike previous protests that ended in tragic notes, the March 13 protest was very peaceful and orderly.

Compared with demonstrations in other countries, say Turkey or Iraq where 100,000 would take part in a demonstration, this is small indeed. But, says one expert: “The question is not civil disturbance per se, but collapse of societal structures and the implications of that.”

The rise of kidnappings and ethnic militia – MEND, OPC, and Bakassi – is the most likely development should there be a sustained depression, but as one individual put it to this author: “the government, in some respects, relying on people’s apathy.”

But not relying too much –Apathy or no, the horizon scanners should be preparing. People are suffering. Concerning the fuel shortage, one Nigerian said: “We are trapped in a difficult situation [the fuel shortage]. It seems bicycles is the only alternative for us”

One thing about revolution is that they could be spontaneous. On the March 13, NLC demonstration, The BBC said the march grew as they picked up more people on the way. “Commercial drivers and motorcycle taxi operators are leaving their work and joining the protest,” he said.

The NLC says further protests are planned for the southern Delta State and cities in the north over the next 10 days, before a second phase of demonstration throughout the country. The government said the protests may be used “to cause chaos”, and urged the NLC to return to negotiations.

“We are determined to carry these protests to all nooks and crannies of the country,” said NLC president Abdulwaheed Omar. “We are not afraid of the government.”

Omar accused the Federal Executive Council (FEC) of doctoring the Electoral committee’s report by removing all the vital aspect to the extent of rendering it a nonentity.

On the fuel crisis, he said, ‘we – as Nigerians – will not stand and watch government try to muzzle us out of existence; because the prices of petroleum will have adverse effect on each and every other products and services’. Therefore, we say capital ‘NO’ to deregulation” he added.

The NLC wants the government to scrap its plans aimed at deregulating the oil sector, saying the move would lead to further fuel shortages and push up pump prices. Nigeria imports some 85% of its oil petroleum product needs, despite being Africa’s largest oil producer. The NLC is also demanding higher minimum wages, currently about $38 (£25) per month, and electoral reforms to avoid a repeat of what it calls flawed polls in the past.

What happens if these demands are not met?

The NLC plans to sponsor a bill at the National Assembly, seeking the strict implementation of the recommendations contained in the report of the Justice Muhammed Uwais Electoral Reform Panel. The draft bill is to be signed by 20 million Nigerians.

Omar said the bill is in response to a call by President Yar’Adua “that those who feel dissatisfied with the activities of government should sponsor their own bill”.

One thing though, the rise to power of people friendly governors might take the sting out of people anger. Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola for instance congratulated the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) for a peaceful rally and urged it not to be rigid in its demands. He said labour should be willing to use dialogue to resolve conflicts with the government. Fashola said this when the NLC leadership visited him at the Lagos House, Alausa, Lagos shortly after the rally.

Fashola pointed out that government remains sensitive to the plight of Nigerians and doing its best to address the issues raised by labour; adding that the only solution to the economic crisis is dialogue.

And in Edo State, Adams Oshiomole was a former Leader of the NLC. In Ekiti State, the presumed winner of the Ekiti State elections was a former civil rights activist.

However, these individuals are a mere drop in a mighty ocean. In the coming cataclysm, no one is safe. Our leaders should beware!