Opinion: Was John Campbell Right About Nigeria?

By Uche Igwe

Sometime in November 2010, a former United States ambassador to Nigeria (May 2004-July 2007), Mr. John Campbell wrote a book titled, Nigeria: Dancing on the brink.  The issues highlighted in the book drew a lot of attention and generated enormous controversies both within Nigeria and around the world. I was then based at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington DC as Africa Policy Scholar. Many Nigerians especially government officials were critical of the positions canvassed by the former ambassador in his book and some reprimanded him publicly for what they thought was an undue exaggeration and misrepresentation of the issues. Many politicians called for his head accusing him of predicting the break-up of our country. As usual, many politicians dismissed him as a misguided prophet of doom who should be ignored by anyone who wished Nigeria well.

However, after reading the book, I felt differently about the contents.  I thereafter wrote a short piece for the defunct 234next.com where I applauded the efforts of the author for writing such a bold and courageous book while I suggested the government of Nigeria to take the issues the author raised seriously. Many of my readers then accused me of being an unpatriotic scholar who was bent on advancing a western agenda- whatever that was. In particular, I was heavily scolded by the Nigerian Ambassador to United States, Prof. Adefuye who was working hard to ensure that Nigeria was not perceived as a terrorist country in the United States. The ambassador and I had a chance meeting during one of the visits of the Rivers State Governor to the US.

Less than four years after that important book was written, the challenges that have currently engulfed the country necessitated that I go back to my shelf and peruse the book once again. My admiration for the audacious narrative of Campbell should not be seen to mean that I totally agree with all the issues he raised and how he raised them. There are a few sections of the book which, if given an opportunity, I will say differently. However, I wish to highlight some of them. The first issue that Campbell raised is  that radical Islam is beginning to take root in the Northern part of Nigeria and that blood thirsty uprisings against government authority may be likely. The second issue relates to the ubiquitous patronage, official corruption and incompetence which have started spreading rapidly due to oil money. The third issue is that government failure to provide security for her citizens. The fourth issue is about the possibility of state failure and how it might unleash religious and ethnic conflicts that can generate enormous fallouts and refugees capable of destabilising the whole of West Africa. Expatiating on this, the author bemoans the fact that failing and failed states provide a base for asymmetric warfare of terrorists and radical Islamists.  The fifth point relates to the poor quality of elections and how they could potentially distort the deepening of democracy.

If one puts these issues raised almost four years ago side by side the events happening in Nigeria today, one may be forced to conclude that the former US envoy is gifted with some clairvoyance. However, a more pragmatic thing to say is that these issues have been budding for a while in our midst but our political class and government chose to ignore them. The signs of a possible escalated insurgency were there in our midst. Campbell saw them and warned us. I say this because, if you read his book, Campbell argues that a major part of the insight he got about the troubles with Nigeria came from the conversations he had with Nigerians especially politicians.

Now, my question is this- why did the concerned authorities choose to ignore these problems until they have reached this embarrassing height? Many months after the Campbell book, I wrote another article on Saharareporters.com titled “A giant on a keg gun powder”, where I suggested that a swift action could nip the insurgency in the bud.  I feel strongly that the Federal Government and concerned state governments abdicated their responsibilities by not putting in place a coordinated response to the insurgency early enough. Part of this could be political in some ways if one objectively examines the history of the insurgency. Another important part is what I call the NIMBY syndrome (Not in my backyard syndrome) where many people were initially less concerned because the Boko Haram insurgency was apparently happening very far away. Another important component is the fact that we tend to over-politicise issues in Nigeria. Granted, it is impossible to divorce politics from the insurgency in Northern Nigeria. However, that does not tell the complete story. There are other aspects of it that could be dealt with like the trans-border dimension and proliferation of small arms and light weapons which could impact directly on the spread of the conflict. Complex issues like insurgency ought to be subjected to nuanced and objective scrutiny insulated from politics.

Campbell sounded the alarm bell in his book. We ignored the clear and prompt message contained instead we went ahead to demonise the messenger. Ambassador Adefuye and all those who led that campaign and who wanted to white-wash the image of Nigeria now know better. The effort should be concentrated on improving the reality and not the image. If Nigeria continues to be the epicentre of corruption, infrastructure decay, violent conflict, religious extremism and criminality, there is not much anyone can do to improve her image. I earnestly hope that our country wins the war against terror which will possibly begin with the safe return of the girls kidnapped from Chibok. It is now clear that Campbell was right in most of the issues he raised in his book. I will therefore be willing to recommend that he be invited by government for further conversation and honoured for bringing these issues promptly to our attention. Never mind that we did very little with what he told us in order to prevent what was clearly an avoidable trajectory. The lesson is that we must try to give some of the many “western” discussions about Nigeria, the benefit of informed scrutiny before discarding them as promoters of pre-conceived interests.

Article written by Uche Igwe and Culled from Punch Newspaper


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