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INTERVIEW: How Nigeria’s insecurity is aided by too many ungoverned territories — Odinkalu [Part I]




CHIDI Odinkalu, a writer and Professor of Law, and former chairman of the National Human Rights Commission has for several decades dedicated himself to advancing human rights and political accountability in Nigeria.

On Thursday, February 13, and in the company of The ICIR‘s Dayo Aiyetan, Ajibola Amzat, Yekeen Akinwale, and ‘Kunle Adebajo, Odinkalu bared his thoughts on trending issues in Nigeria.

In the first of this two-part interview, he speaks on the underlying reasons for insecurity in Nigeria, the need for family planning, President Muhammadu Buhari’s perceived nepotism, and the role of government as a giver of hope among other topical issues.

The ICIR: There are so many recent events but I want us to look at Nigeria. And the recent assessment of the federal government done by Bishop Matthew Kukah. I wonder what your assessment of this government in the last five years is in terms of the promises, the chief goal they set for themselves in terms of security and the economy, how have they fared?


Odinkalu: We had a conversation before the election, I do not know if you remember. I told you what my inclination was and why, and my inclination has not changed.

But in 2015, some people asked me to write a memorandum for Buhari after the elections and to set out a set of priorities for the incoming administration. I told them it wasn’t necessary, and that as far I was concerned the incoming president had a three-point agenda: Nigeria, Nigeria, Nigeria. And that if you can give every Nigerian irrespective of where they come from or how they worship a sense of belonging in the country, Nigerians would be pleased. Five years later, I still feel the same way and on that call, President Buhari has failed abysmally.

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At the level of the Nigeria sense of how government is appropriated in terms of optics, he has failed. And those optics are important when people begin to look and see that everything is in one part of the country. It’s not enough, to begin with, to say others did it, because this is the first president in Nigeria to have successfully run on a platform of change.

In 1983, the Nigerian People’s Party of the late Nnamdi Azikiwe ran on a platform of change, but they were not successful. Buhari was the first president whose platform was explicitly “change”.

Now, again to be theoretically fair to him, he did not say change to what, so it could be change for the worse, it could be change for the better. His slogan was “change”; he did not say change for the better. Typically and honestly, it was “change”; and I think it is very important to make this point because people did not ask him what kind of change. People assumed that the change would be for the better without asking him or committing him explicitly to change for the better. It is the same thing.

Four years after that, he promised Next Level. Next level to what? Nobody asked him. So we are also complicit in the failure of a positive agenda or an agenda that offers the country positive progress.

But you see, 10 ministers from the northwest and all of them have full cabinet rank. You brought the security services under the control of one part of the country. You see Nigeria is so bad that when recently he appointed a deputy governor of the Central Bank, whose name appears to come from the southeast although he is from the south-south, everybody was jumping in joy. That is how so bad it is. And that made news for a lot of people, but that tells you what is wrong with the country.

Now that kind of appointment is a mid-level appointment, so it should not be news of that sort but because it was so out of the ordinary, it was news and that is the point.

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Now, it is not just optics, when you appoint all members of your security services leadership from one part of the country, what happens is you only hear what you want to hear, not what you need to hear.

Secondly, the people who are not represented will never be able to be reassured that you are taking a decision with the best of their interest at heart. And so the security challenges you have are deeper, not easier to manage. This is at the level of optics.


The reality is that most other parts of the country are not well looked after. If you are from the south-west. In 1988, as a youth corps member, I lived in Lagos and was going to Ibadan every day for three months. I will go and teach at the University of Ibadan and return with the bus every day, five days of the week. You can’t do that today. Then, I could determine that the journey would not take me more than one and a half hours. Today, Lagos to Ibadan will take anything from two and a half hours to five hours, and you can’t even predict what would happen along the way. Lagos to Ife, which used to be three hours give or take now takes the better part of four and a half, five hours.

If you are going to places like Ekiti, you have your fate in your hands. Now, the road networks in the southwest are worse than the road networks in the southeast, and the southeast has terrible road networks to begin with, so I could go on. It is not as if the roads in the north are better, by the way, where you find good roads but you can’t even use them because the security is terrible. So, there is no part of the country that can say it is doing well.

Notwithstanding all these appointments from one part of the country, the North has the worst security situation than any other part of the country. The North has the worst economy, it has the worst indices, and if I were a Northerner, I would feel terrible.

The question is: which part of Nigeria has seen positive change since President Buhari came to power to enable people believe in the country; and the answer is none.

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The ICIR: Against the background of what happened yesterday, he went to Borno where our story says he won 92 per cent of the votes and then he was booed. What we are talking about is not a matter of a year ago. Before the last election, the situation was this bad but he won the election, how did that happen if he has done so badly?

Odinkalu: You have to ask INEC of course. I can’t be speaking for INEC and there are things I cannot say publicly because I got them in a confidential context. But it is quite clear that quite a good number of places to which INEC could not safely deploy assets, election-governing assets, produced results. There are places where INEC could not deploy election officers and election materials and did not deploy them, which produced results. That is very manifest. But INEC alone can explain how that happened; these are all the miracles of the Nigerian electoral process. It is not just in Borno, by the way. Even in the president’s home state, Kastina, there were places where INEC could not safely deploy officers and INEC knows that this is the truth. They alone can explain what happened; I can’t.

The ICIR: We’ll come back to the election. Let’s stay on the topic of security. Yesterday, at the launch of the Mass Atrocities report by Global Right, you did say that the problem of insecurity is the problem of governance of ungoverned spaces. Can you expatiate on that?

Odinkalu: In Nigeria, our policy-making is kind of on the hoof and, for everybody, our problems will end if we can get enough soldiers to shoot our way out of Boko Haram and all the people who are committing these atrocities, but we can’t. And when you look at the underlying data, not the number of people killed but the places where people are killed and the states which have the biggest problems of killings. You will notice the two most populous states in Nigeria are Lagos and Kano.

Lagos is the smallest state by territory in all of Nigeria, about 3,777 square kilometres give or take. Kano state is the second smallest state in northern Nigeria, second only to Gombe state, Gombe is about 18,197 square kilometres, Kano is just a little about 20,000 square kilometres.

Now, it also happens that Gombe state and Kano state are the two states in northern Nigeria with the least problem of mass violence, and it is not an accident. Now, where are the states in Nigeria with the biggest problems of mass violence? 

Borno state, which is about 70,800 square kilometres, and it’s the second-largest state in Nigeria. Number two, now, in terms of incidents and number of killings, Niger state is about 76,300 square kilometres. It is the biggest state in Nigeria by landmass. Number three, Kaduna state is the fourth largest state in Nigeria, the third is Taraba state. Kaduna is about 46,100 square kilometres. The third-largest state is Taraba state; in terms of violence it is number four. And you can go on and on. Yobe state is number six, Zamfara state is number seven, Adamawa state is number eight in terms of landmass, and number five is Bauchi.

Now, what is common to all of these states? Vast tracks of land. Take Niger state, which is now increasingly a zone of killings. At 76,300 square kilometres and 25 Local Government Areas, Niger is ungovernable.

Now, try and understand this. Imo state, as I was trying to explain yesterday is just about 5,000 square kilometres and Imo state has 27 Local Government Areas. Niger state has 25 Local Government Area and is over 15 times the size of Imo state. Basically, the average size of a Local Government Area in Niger state is close to the size of Imo state.

What does that mean? You have so much territory, you can’t deploy protection assets effectively. Niger state is over 20 times the size of Lagos state. Lagos state has over five times the number of police assets than Niger state.

So, when you have a crisis, you can’t deploy assets of protection effectively, and any assets you what to deploy are invariably overwhelmed by territory and landmass. They can’t effectively cover everywhere, they are outnumbered. That is the crisis we have in the north.

Zamfara state has nine Local Government Areas with a territory of about 39,000 square kilometres, barely twice the size of kano. It has just nine Local Government Areas, what are you going to do with that? How are you going to deploy protection assets? You can’t. Borno state with nearly 71,000 square kilometres has the same number of Local Government Areas as Imo state, 27.

Kano and Gombe states are the two states that kind of buck the trend in the North but that is because they are small to the others. And when you compare the sizes. Jam’are Local Government Area in Bauchi state, which is a site of great difficulty in Bauchi is about 6,800 square kilometres, which is about the size of Enugu state. Enugu state is the biggest state in the Southeast of Nigeria. It is one local government in Bauchi. Jam’are is the biggest Local Government Area in Bauchi.

This is where the crisis is. It is not about guns and no guns, shoot or no shoot, we don’t have enough assets to control the territories that we are dealing with. You are not going to have banditry in Lagos state. Now, if you look in the South, you will discover that the state with the greatest violence is Rivers state. And Rivers state is the one state that comes close to replicating, not in size or scale of landmass in the North but the case of ungovernability of territory because of its ungoverned waterways and creeks. And you find that again in Bayelsa state, that is the problem.

So there is a commonality of patterns of ungoverned territory. For me, it is very clear. That means that if you can extend the reach of government and of the state, the further you can extend it, the more likely you are to be able to control this violence. But we cannot do that thinking the only way we can do it is by shooting.

We have got to make government more effective. We have got ensure people steal less. We have got to spend less on overheads so that government can begin to acquire more legitimacy, which is why if you go to Borno state, you go to some places like Dikwa and what you are seeing is Boko Haram levying taxes and providing services. Those are places where government should be playing those roles. But now people have made their peace with outlaws and those outlaws have been providing protection. For me, it’s very clear; the insecurity issue is a reflection of a deeper problem, which is mal-governance.

Unless we are able to address this at the level of governmental systems, we will have this problem and it is going to deepen.

The ICIR: Are you suggesting we should have more personnel or more arms and ammunition? Or should those big states be further broken down into smaller government areas?

Odinkalu: Guns don’t govern… When you speak to the military aspect, they will tell you: kinetic mechanisms which are basically warfare mechanisms cannot win this thing. What they give you is a tactical window in which to emplace longer-term solutions and longer-term solutions are adopting governance mechanisms.

When you have meningitis ravaging an entire state, and instead of spending money on basic medical care and equipment and personnel, a governor is spending money sending marabouts to go to Mecca and pray, there is a problem. You cannot have government if there are no roads for the citizens to transact. I do not know if you have tried to go from Minna to Wushishi in Niger state, or maybe I am putting it too far. Try and go from Suleja to Minna, and then from Minna to Bida. Minna to Bida is about 83 kilometres; it will take you close to five hours.

Talking about national integration and nation-building, the biggest form of integration is commerce, it is inter-marriage, it is spontaneous activities by citizens. What the state does is to enable it. It enables it through providing security, through providing roads, and basic infrastructure so citizens can then pursue their own interactions.

When I went to secondary school in Imo State, I went to a Federal Government College in the late 70s, early 80s, parents would send their children to the train terminal in Kaduna. This was eight years after a civil war that had conflagrated the entire country. But parents on different sides of that war could trust that if they delivered their children at a train terminal in Kaduna, the train would convey them safely to Enugu and to another train terminal where they would be picked up and dispersed to their various schools in that neighbourhood. It worked perfectly. Today, in the same Kaduna, a parent in the south, Barnawa, will not send their child to a school in Malali in the north. A parent in Jos cannot send their child to school in Bassa, also in Plateau state. That is the problem we have got. And if we don’t do this, we can’t build a country.

If we have a situation in which everyone is in their little cot of the country, they do primary school, secondary school, nursery, university, everything, and then they are elected from there to become senate president, it will not work. So at the level of spontaneous interaction that drives national integration, we are stuck. At the level of institutional mechanisms that enhance the legitimacy of government so that citizens can offer obedience, we are stuck. At the level of optics that enable citizens to see the government as doing its best to integrate and protect all of us within the framework of a shared Nigerian identity, we are stuck. Something needs to change. Otherwise, it will be difficult.

The ICIR: It appears the various forms of insecurity we have are a matter of economic conditions. Unemployment is rising and the youth take to criminality because they do not have things to do. Do you buy that idea also?

There are predisposing economic factors that make it more likely that people could make choices towards violence. That’s true, but those factors are not new. How many of us in this room inherited a trust fund? How many of us came from parents who had Mercedes-Benz cars? We probably all came from poor families in many ways. Our parents struggled to pay school fees, we had to go without food for some time, we knew rural life for what it was. I am sure that every one of us has seen poverty. Now Ilubirin in Lagos for example; if you went to Ilubirin before they damaged it, you saw poverty. I had clients and cases in Ilubirin; it was an Egun settlement. I thought I had seen poverty until I went to Ilubirin. In the houses built on top of water, people did everything, washed and did ablution, on top of water, but they had dignity. 

You know, I went to see my clients there and I entered those place and they gave me food, they had soft drinks for me, and when I was leaving they gave me whatever they could afford as gifts. They were not thieves. My point is I think there is a level at which we conduct this conversation about insecurity in Nigeria and it becomes something that suggests that every poor person is an armed robber or a bandit and that is not true. All of us come from parts of Nigeria where people are poor and nevertheless have dignity.

Now, the problem is the hollowing out of the sense of dignity amongst poor people and not just dignity but hope. Today, people would rather kill as many as possible rather than put in the effort because the state is not offering us hope and that is what the state is supposed to do. It is not to give us handouts. But where is the source of hope for ordinary people so that people can look at that and say that, you know what, it might be bad today but tomorrow something good will come. That is what our political leaders from President Buhari down are failing to offer.

I don’t want to start being invidious but there are a few exceptions that suggest one or two politicians may understand the mission of leadership as offering hope. And we have got to demand of our political leaders that they offer hope to Nigerians because sometimes that is the only thing and the best you can offer as a leader.

The ICIR: But how do you offer hope to Nigerians?

Odinkalu: Through your examples. Was Obafemi Awolowo a saint? No, but you can point to the things he did. What is the best university in Nigeria? OAU. I didn’t go to OAU, but when you enter the premises of Obafemi Awolowo University — University of Ife — you will see a controlling mind. You will see somebody had a vision for something big.

There is no university campus in Nigeria that comes close in terms of its design and I think I have been to all the major universities in this country. None comes close. You look at the things Awolowo did, he had a mission, he had a vision. Go to the Southeast, there is no leader that comes close to what Micheal Okpara did. There is an eastern ring road and you will see it — Onitsha to Enugu, Enugu to Port Harcourt, Port Harcourt to Elele to Owerri back to Onitsha. It is a ring road. And then all the axials radiate from that. At each end of that ring road was something. There was a port in Port Harcourt, there was Hotel Presidential to offer tourism and rest in Enugu and you go to Enugu, the design of the city capital itself tells you there was a controlling mind.

You then had oil palm plantations, there were cashew plantations, and there was an investment in food security, education, human capital, and infrastructure. There was a plan.

Today, which governor do you look at? I can say Babatunde Fashola. You may not agree with everything Fashola did but there is no way you won’t credit him with something. He thought about what he wanted to do in Lagos. What was Fashola’s biggest achievement? Oshodi. Because Oshodi held the key to everything in Lagos: Environment, the blockage of the canal system in Lagos, the blockage of commerce, transit systems were all blocked from Oshodi. Everything Fashola achieved as far as I am concerned revolved around opening up of Oshodi. When Oshodi was opened up, Agege motor road opened up. That railway blockage was gone. 

Commute time in Lagos from end-to-end crashed, which made productivity rose. As that happened, values in Lagos stated rising. It took thinking, it took planning, it took implementation. But a lot of our governors are not interested in doing that kind of thing. 

I cut Fashola a lot of slack notwithstanding a lot of things because you can see a man who made an effort. Nigerians are not asking for miracles. When you look at Fashola’s successors, you see that the man actually did well. And that is my point about giving hope but let me even try illustrating it even further. By the time Fashola had gone two years into his administration, the value of properties had increased by somewhere between 60 and 80 per cent. By the time he finished his administration, the value of property all over Lagos had more than doubled. So if you owned property in Olodi Apapa or in Agege or in Lawanson in 2007, by 2015 if your property was worth N10,000, by 2015 it was worth N40,000.

What that meant was that your commercial asset value has completely been re-ordered. You can go to a bank all of a sudden and free up credit and invest in doing other things. By contrast, when Orji Uzor Kalu became governor in Abia State in 1999, if you were worth N10,000 by the time he finished in 2007 you were worthless that N2,000.

While Fashola was growing value, Orji Uzor Kalu was destroying it. That is the difference. And these are two Nigeria extremities, so that’s the point. I don’t want to use the new governors and yet I am driven to. Governor Zulum in Borno State is facing a very difficult situation but you can see he is trying to make an effort. He appears to care. He is not yet at the four-year threshold so I don’t want to rush to judgment, but at least you can see a man who appears to care about the state. Abdul’aziz Yari was in charge of Zamfara State for eight years and see where the state ended up. That is the difference.

I don’t think it is a question; governors can offer hope and that is part of the point. I am not particularly sympathetic to President Buhari. I think that is very well known, but I don’t think Nigeria can be fixed by Buhari alone or by the federal government alone. A lot of governors are falling woefully and without the states picking up the slack and performing well, nothing the federal government does will work. At that level, governors need to do much better. Right now, most of them are failing.

The ICIR: Something that worries a lot of people in the civil society actually is the population of not just unemployed but uneducated youth. There are probably hundreds of thousands of young people don’t have an education and don’t appear to have a future. That is problematic and it is like a ready army for anything in the future; how does the governor of a state deal with that kind of crisis?

Odinkalu: Thirty-one years ago in 1989, General Babaginda was president and Olikoye Ransom-Kuti was health minister and they enacted a National Population Policy, which promoted the idea that the average family size should be four children plus a father and a mother. What happened to that policy?  

This, Tunji Dare on Daily Nation and Abimbola Adelakun on the Punch wrote about Hon. Alhassan Ado-Doguwa, 27 seven children and four wives. Four wives and 27 children give you an average of about seven children per woman. He is not an exception, by the way. Jigawa’s average fertility per woman is 8.3 and in the Northwest, it is just under 8.1. In the NorthEast, it is about 7.9. In Lagos, average fertility per woman is now 4.09. Now, what is the difference? In much of Lagos, many of those people will be one family of husband-wife and child. In much of these other places, average fertility per woman is not average family size. So, when a man can marry four wives with average fertility of 7, that gives you 28 children. 

At that family size, you cannot sustain anti-corruption efforts. It is just not possible because you cannot just live-off your legitimate livelihood and at the same time sustain those children and send them to school.

That is the problem, so you have to start with responsible parenting and responsible family sizes and government has a role in that. Right now, you see that at the level of some dialogue, some people think that population and poverty can be weaponised for purposes of achieving political control, that you can give birth to any number of children you want without looking after them and every four years weaponise them for the purposes of controlling power. And that is irresponsible because the first set of people as we are discovering who will be damaged by that are the same people who are weaponising population and poverty.

But it seems to me that at some level, the leadership of northern Nigeria has got to open up about population size. The Emir of Kano tried to do that and see what happened to him. It is a very delicate conversation but it has to be had. Why do I say so? Right now, that is Nigeria’s biggest national security crisis. It is not Boko Haram. Nigeria faces a perfect storm in about 20 to 25 years. We would be about double our population. 

We would be the third-largest country in the world after India and China, oil would be a diminished source of revenue in the country because it would have been replaced by our major buyers in North America and in Europe and the people who would be buying our oil at that point would not be needing much of it and cannot be paying a lot of money for it. 

And so we will need different sources of money and the biggest sources of revenue at that point will be innovation and human skill and human capital, which means taxation. But we are not investing in our people now so that they would be available to be taxed in the next 20 to 25 years. So that means per capita, the likelihood is that the GDP is on a downward curve while our population is a massive upward curve.

Our population is growing now between 2.6 and 2.8 per cent per annum. Our economy has flatlined at around 1 per cent per annum. That means we have a crisis of demand and supply. We have more mouths than we can produce to feed. Yet that crisis of demand and supply is going to keep compounding. 

Today we have been running a recurrent deficit for over five years, that means we have been borrowing to pay our overheads and borrowing all of our capital expenditure. We cannot improve our infrastructure and we are barely 200 million. 

We are not building new schools, so we cannot absorb the number of kids coming through and we are not training new teachers. We cannot build new roads without debts, that is prohibited. So the question is how are we going to absorb, where is our elasticity to take all of these new kids? That’s the challenge, and if the leadership doesn’t face up this now, there will be nobody in 25 years to turn out the lights. 

Author profile

'Kunle works with The ICIR as an investigative reporter and fact-checker. You can shoot him an email via aadebajo@icirnigeria.org or, if you're feeling particularly generous, follow him on Twitter @KunleBajo.

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