Nigeria’s oligarchs and the golden fish metaphor, By Osmund Agbo

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President Muhammadu Buhari

In 1845, the Illustrated London News ran an interesting story about a certain dog breed discovered in Newfoundland that was noted to act in some strange ways. For days it would act disinterested and withdrawn before being seen “to throw himself in the water and endeavour to sink by preserving perfect stillness of the legs and feet”. Each time he did it, he was rescued but would often repeat the attempt until finally; he held his head under water, choked and died.

It’s been more than a century since the publication of that London dog article, and animal suicide has come to be identified as any kind of self-destructive behaviour displayed by various species of animals, resulting in their death. Even cats, dogs and horses could sometimes eat themselves to stupor, but nothing compares to the golden fish. Many fancy goldfish varieties are known to binge on fish flakes until they die from the rupture of their stomach. How could a living specie get so greedy to the point of eating itself to death! Well, truth is, if you find the attitude of the goldfish embarrassingly perplexing, then you must not know . Certainly, you have never met a Nigerian.

Just recently, 17 representing all the states that make up southern Nigeria, met in Asaba, the Delta State capital, to discuss the way forward for a country in crisis. They repeated similar calls made by other eminent Nigerians from every sector including organised labour, business and religious leaders, academics, and political party chieftains have all weighed in on what could be a lasting effort to stem the tide of widespread insecurity and senseless killings. 

Even many northern groups who before now had approached the issue of restructuring with a six-foot pole are starting to come around it. Following a two-day summit in April this year, held to address the socio-economic and political issues plaguing Nigeria in general and in particular, the Northern Elders Forum (NEF) and other opinion leaders of the region, threw their weight behind calls for the restructuring of the country. In a communiqué issued after the summit, the group stated that “the North believes that restructuring the country is now a vital necessity for survival as one united entity.” They concluded that for Nigeria to realise its potentials for economic and political development that would be the only way forward.

For many years now, restructuring has inarguably become the most popular word in Nigeria’s political lexicon. A slew of legal luminaries, constitutional scholars, political leaders, interest groups, you name it, all have at various times and in different forum identified the military imposed 1999 constitutional as the single most important factor behind the recent ethnic agitations in Nigeria and the accelerated descent to anarchy. The APC government ran a whole campaign on restructuring and President Jonathan’s 2014 confab harped on it. 

If there is any consensus from these entire groups, it’s the fact the 1999 constitution gave birth to a centre that is so power-drunk and overwhelmed. Abuja today is like a man with modest means but left to cater for 36 completely dependent wives. He is also forced to choose how to dispense love. Nigeria needs emergent restructuring with more power devolved to the states, the kind of arrangement similar to what obtained before the khaki boys came calling. 

is another topical issue and most agree that it has now become an unsustainable practice. Opinion leaders drawn from across our geographical and ethnic divide now advocate ranching in line with best practices of animal husbandry that obtains all over the world. Even Aminu Masari of President Buhari’s home state of Katsina, was quoted to have said that open grazing is un-Islamic and not the best for herders. The only little problem is that the oligarchs in control of the levers of power have no intention of listening to anyone but themselves.

Within the ranks of the Nigerian oligarchs, especially from the north, there seems to be this gross misconception that restructuring is some kind of cold-war the south is openly waging against the Arewa house. Or how else to explain Attorney General Abubakar Malami’s diatribe against proponents of restructuring. For many like him, that word is only but a smokescreen used to conceal a sinister motive which is to permanently wrestle power and from the north and has nothing to do with the overall health and well being of this republic. 

But it’s not only with restructuring; even the issue of Boko Haram is another area where the fight against the deadly terror group is hampered by the warped perceptions of some critically important . Part of the greatest impediment to defeating the insurgency is that some Hausa-Fulanis in the Moslem north see the fight against insurgency as some sought of religious war. 

Both President Buhari and his current Minister for Communication and Digital Economy, Sheikh Isa Ali Pantami, at various times have both been quoted to have made statements that seemed to suggest having soft spot for the terror group. “Our Muslim brothers did not deserve to be killed like pigs”, the minister reportedly said. And by Muslim brother, he meant battle-hardened Boko Haram terrorists. 

Just recently, Bukar Tanda, a legislative aid to Abdulkadir Rahis, the member of the House representing the Maiduguri Metropolitan Council, was booted out over his Facebook post about Abubakar Shekau. He was reported to have described the erstwhile blood-thirsty Boko Haram leader as courageous, saying he lived a life of a hero and died a true hero. Really?

The Nigerian house is being consumed by a raging inferno but instead of looking for ways to quench it, the landlords of Aso Rock are busy standing guard at the door with rifle in hand and shooting at some phantom targets. In the end, when the house gets razed to the ground, they will realise that, all along they have been fighting an imaginary war.

The biggest threat to restructuring is that humans generally detest any action that could potentially whittle down their power for any reason. This predilection for territorial protection is not unique to leaders of northern extraction but also shared with their southern counterparts. It doesn’t even matter that such action would in the long run serve their interest better or make way for a greater societal good. Except of course, if your are a Mikhail Gorbachev and in love with such fancy terms as Perestroika and Glasnost.

Humans naturally are about that power grab and even not long ago we heard the story of a certain Attorney General who advised his principal, an elected civilian president to suspend the constitution and roll out marshal laws. The chief law officer of the land urging the one who swore to protect the constitution to break the law. Only in Nigeria!

President Jonathan would have gone ahead with implementing the 2014 confab recommendation but instead kicked the can down the road, hoping to win the second term. We can only speculate what would have been the fate of our country had his government acted fast and decisively. Even Obasanjo before now was not a big fan of restructuring. In fact, a Vanguard newspaper article of July 8th, 2017 quoted him as being against restructuring, stating that what needed restructuring was the mindset of Nigerians.

Today most of the oligarchs resisting the needed structural changes to make Nigeria work cannot even travel back to their village, let alone spend a night in their stately but lizard-infested mansions. Instead, they have become unfortunate inmates in the high walls of their Abuja prisons. These people are so drunk with money, power and privilege which they traded with personal freedom and mortgaged their country’s future. Like the golden fish, they have fed fat on Nigeria till their stomach ripped apart and it’s easy to tell that these emperors have no clothes.

Dr. Agbo, a public affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Centre for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: