Since the introduction of Shari’a law in Zamfara state in January 2000, nothing else has tested the sanctity of Nigeria’s practice of federalism like the launch of the Western Nigeria Security Network (WNSN), better known as Operation Amotekun (the Yoruba word for leopard), by the south-western states on January 9, 2020. The stated aim of Operation Amotekun is to complement the efforts of the federal government in combating insecurity — particularly armed robbery and kidnapping-for-ransom in the geo-political zone. Ogun, Osun, Oyo, Ekiti, Ondo and Lagos states have each procured 20 trucks and 100 motorcycles for Operation Amotekun, according to reports.
Not so fast, Mallam Abubakar Malami, the attorney-general of the federation (AGF), has warned. He declared that “the setting up of the paramilitary organisation called Amotekun is illegal and runs contrary to the provisions of the Nigerian law”. And that was how the fight started. Lawyers and activists have fired back at Malami, basically declaring his pronouncement as illegal. Chief Ayo Adebanjo, a Yoruba leader, said Malami should go to court if it pains him that much. Mr Femi Falana, human rights lawyer, said “as chief security officers… governors have the power to adopt measures deemed fit within the ambit of the law to ensure the maintenance of law and order”.
The Amotekun controversy brings back to mind the furore and tension that heralded the introduction of Shari’a as a main body of criminal law in Zamfara state on January 27, 2000 by then-governor Ahmed Sani aka Yariman Bakura. Before then, Shari’a had operated purely as a customary law applicable only to civil matters, such as marriage and inheritance. By applying Shari’a to criminal matters, such as murder and stealing, Sani tested our practice of federalism as well as the constitutional provision that prohibits the adoption of state religion. That was one of the major crises President Olusegun Obasanjo had to confront in his early days in office.
Despite pronouncements by Mr Kanu Agabi, his attorney-general, that the application of Shari’a to non-civil matters was illegal and punishments such as amputation discriminated against Muslims, more northern states adopted the Islamic code. Agabi was told he had no power to make such a declaration and should, therefore, go to court. Curiously, the federal government did not go to court. The rumour then was that most of the justices of the Supreme Court, headed by Justice Mohammed Uwais as the chief justice of Nigeria, had sent word to Obasanjo that the federal government would lose the case. I don’t know how true this was, though.
The Shari’a implementation tested our practice of federalism but we managed to move on. The argument of the Shari’a proponents was that the Nigerian legal system limits the religious freedom of Muslims. Our system is based on the English law, which is basically built around Christian values. Therefore, Muslims are constrained by a legal system that is not fully aligned to their religious beliefs. Some analysts argued then that Shari’a was a form of campaign for “true federalism” in which the federating units would be allowed to operate their own social, cultural, religious, economic and political systems within certain parameters that are common to federalisms.
A similar argument is being applied to Operation Amotekun — that the federating units should have the freedom to enhance their own security given the increasingly overwhelming challenges faced by the federally controlled security agencies. In fact, south-west leaders have been canvassing the establishment of state police for ages and Amotekun is viewed in some parts of the country as a masked step towards actualising the desire. Those who fear this initiative think this may be the first step towards weakening the current federal structure and preparing the ground for the balkanisation of Nigeria. Some even think Amotekun is an ethnic militia in disguise.
Malami has raised a legal issue: states do not have the power to set up a paramilitary organisation. However, since he has not issued a similar statement about the “civilian JTF” being operated in parts of the north, his intervention was greeted with suspicion. Some asked why there should be one interpretation of constitutional provisions for one part of the federation and another for others. But that does not mean he does not have a point — just that he is not being consistent. Internal security is on the exclusive list, he can argue that very well. He can even go to court to seek interpretation and the judges, playing by the books, could rule in his favour. That would not be unexpected.
But there would be more questions. There is the security that is exclusive to federal government and there is the security that is so basic it should not conflict with the constitution. I live in an estate. I have a security guard at my gate. We have guards in our “zone”. And we have guards at the main entrance to the estate. There are also vigilante groups bearing dane guns on different streets around us. These are all private arrangements. When Badoo Boys were pounding Lagosians to death for money rituals years ago, vigilante groups, and not police, helped in stopping them. Is this legal or not? How is Amotekun, armed with dane guns, different from vigilante groups and civilian JTFs?
To be honest, I am not really bothered by the legality talk. My biggest worry is the possible misuse and abuse of the outfit for ethnic and political purposes. I will explain. While opposing Malami’s position, Mr Gani Adams, one of the OPC founders, said: “The Yoruba have a right to defend themselves.” That is, Amotekun is out to defend the Yoruba. This feeds directly into the suspicion that it is an ethnic militia. Someone created a Twitter account, named it “Amotekun” and asked that the “negative activities of any Fulani Group” should be reported. Obviously, nobody mandated the zealot to do this, but the tone is already being set. At this rate, there are dangers ahead.
I know there is a real belief in parts of southern Nigeria that the Fulani have an agenda to take over the country. The criminal activities of the herdsmen are interpreted within that context. There are, thus, those who think the Yoruba must push back. To them, Amotekun represents the counter force. Whereas the south-west governors might be genuinely interested in protecting the hapless farmers and travellers who have been suffering plunder, rape and death, the excitement about Amotekun in some quarters is built around the notion that a Yoruba army is in the making. Hijack is predictably a possibility. No president worth his oath of office will fold his arms and allow that to happen.
For those who may not know, the escalation of the farmers/herders conflict in the middle belt, particularly in Benue and Taraba, owed largely to the activities of the vigilante groups set up by these states to enforce anti-open grazing laws. Such enforcement naturally took an ethnic and religious tone. The herders resisted. Everywhere caught fire. We are still burying the dead. The polity is forever polluted. Regardless of how righteous our intention is, we can be blindsided. A proposed solution can become a problem on its own — thereby turning the subject to predicate. No matter how brilliant an idea is, a tiny detail can become its undoing. We need to bear this in mind.
What then? In principle, I support Operation Amotekun. I support anything that will protect life and property of Nigerians in this hobbesian state of nature where life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. If we are to be truthful to ourselves, the current security arrangement is suboptimal. That is why we need “enhancement”. I am not asking the police to stay at my gate. That would be too much. That is why I have a “maiguard”. We have various security arrangements in the estate. They can only complement the police — not substitute or antagonise them. It is very important we make the distinction between supplementary security and mainstream policing.
However, the south-west governors have gone about this Amotekun thing in a poor way. For one, it is not backed by any law in their states. More so, they have set up a supplementary or complementary security outfit without the all-important buy-in of the federal government. The “civilian JTF” they are citing as justification works under the supervision of the Nigerian army. I would advise the governors to retrace their steps and do the right thing. There must be proper communication and engagement with the critical stakeholders. They must also assuage the fears of those who suspect that this is an ethnic militia in the offing. It can be a win-win for everyone.
AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…
One of the most confusing judgments you will ever find is the verdict of the Supreme Court ousting Hon. Emeka Ihedioha as the governor of Imo state and replacing him with Senator Hope Uzondinma. In the absence of the text of such a controversial verdict being made public, people have been having fun on WhatsApp and Twitter calculating accredited voters and total votes cast, suggesting that more people voted than accredited. I don’t blame anybody. Both the Supreme Court and INEC that should give us the authentic figures have gone to sleep. The details and text of the judgment may not be ready until God-knows-when. This is not how to handle a situation like this. Poor.
Were you as disgusted as I was when the accountant-general of the federation, Mallam Ahmed Idris, came out to openly contradict the minister of finance, Mrs Zainab Ahmed, on the effective date of the new VAT rate? Most recently, Mr Sale Mamman, the minister of power, suspended the DG of Rural Electrification Agency and the MD of the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading Ltd. Both suspensions were reversed by President Buhari. We watched the fight between the police and the police service commission open quarrel over recruitment and it ended in court. Even the service chiefs were in a cold war for years. I find this indecent exposure to public ridicule quite worrisome. Disarray.
President Muhammadu Buhari has pulled a surprise on us by nominating Dr Kingsley Obiora as deputy governor in charge of the economic policy directorate of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). Although nobody really saw that coming, Obiora comes highly recommended. The alternate executive director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has a long list of distinctions in his career. He was wholly trained in Nigeria and there must be something IMF saw to have recruited him directly from an African university — they normally would go for African who graduated from Harvard and co. The 43-year-old economist certainly has a lot to give his fatherland.