Saturday, August 17, 2013

Orji Uzor Kalu: Can Nigeria's leaders do the right thing?

Orji Uzor Kalu: Can Nigeria’s leaders do the right thing?

A deadly attack on a mosque in Konduga this week is a reminder of how Nigeria’s bright future is under threat from destabilizing conflict. News of the attack, which claimed dozens of lives and that many believe is the work of Islamist militant group Boko Haram, is just the latest in a string of troubling incidents that the government seems unable to come to grips with. In June, at least 30 people were reportedly killed in an attack on a school, an incident that came soon after a state of emergency was called in three states. This worrying surge in animosity, fuelled by sectarian violence, has left many Nigerians wondering if the government can regain control.

Sadly, our leaders look incapable of rising to the occasion. Nigeria is being crippled by political infighting, creating tensions that too often lead to unhelpful and even damaging rhetoric. Political immaturity, and our failure to address differences amongst our diverse communities, is hurting the nation’s reputation in the international community, and is undoubtedly deterring future investment.

This immaturity was on display last month, when police issued an arrest warrant for lawmaker Chidi Lloyd. His alleged crime? Attacking another lawmaker during a free-for-all in the chambers of the Assembly. Regardless of the rationale, we should be united in our condemnation of such events, and demand that our politicians show greater respect for the rule of law.

Unfortunately, the very polls where we elect our lawmakers have been hijacked by disputes, clashes over ethnicity, religion and regionalism. Indeed, the presidential election two years ago exposed the huge divisions that lay between north and south, in ethnicity and religion – thousands fled their homes in northern states, while at least 800 hundred were reportedly killed in post-election rioting that swept 12 states.

The significant advantages for the incumbent party mean that the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and its presidential candidate will likely be “favored” at the 2015 polls. But even for the ruling party, the deep divides in this country of 170 million people could undermine its prospects, especially if the opposition parties can work together and agree on a single presidential candidate.

And there are already signs that this could happen. In recent weeks, an alliance of half a dozen northern groups have organized and look set to forgo their own representatives in the interest of checkmating a southern candidate in 2015. Yet although the intentions of the group might be positive, these political maneuverings risk looking detached from the realities and challenges faced by Nigerians at home and abroad.
An example of this detachment has been a tendency for the country’s leaders to see the presidency as something that should rotate between a northern and southern candidate, reflecting the divide between the country’s mainly Muslim north and mostly Christian and animist south. This tacit agreement is wholly undemocratic and not based on the virtues of the candidates’ policies.

Rather than squabbling over the details of a power sharing agreement, we as a nation need to rewrite the rule book to ensure a viable, socially fair democracy. And any discussions of how those in power are chosen or operate when in office should not be conducted on the basis of intimidation or ethno-religious dominance. Instead, they should be undertaken on the basis of mutual respect, and an understanding of the diverse elements that make up our complex nation.

The reality is that there is growing resentment among ethnic groups left out in the cold from these power arrangements, with many justifiably feeling they have been cheated by these “gentlemen’s agreements.”

We must hold ourselves to a higher standard, and look ahead to 2015 as an opportunity to conduct a calm, fair and free poll. But for this to happen we will also need to hold a frank and open discussion about the issues that plague this country, and how our leaders will be held accountable on gaining office, whichever part of the country they hail from.

One way of breaking free of the usual and unhelpful north-south back and forth would be for the opposition to nominate a candidate from among one of our politically marginalized ethnic groups. Indeed, this is a goal shared by a number of Nigerian NGOs, including Njiko Igbo, which is not affiliated to any political party but is instead dedicated to promoting a candidate from amongst the Igbo population.

Ultimately, I am hoping that Nigeria can move past the divisiveness that has held us back. As Albert Einstein once said, “the world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” I’m sure that I am far from alone among Nigerians in hoping that our leaders can change the way they think of the future, too.