In this interview with Thisday, a former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria and the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, John Campbell, says the most dangerous issue Nigeria faces is the deterioration of security across the country. He prescribes urgent steps that President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration should take to help a country on the brink of disintegration turn the corner. Campbell has written copiously about Nigeria. He is the author of the new book Nigeria and the Nation-State: Rethinking Diplomacy with the Postcolonial World, and writes the blog Africa in Transition. From 1975 to 2007, Campbell served as a U.S. Department of State Foreign Service officer. He served twice in Nigeria, as a political counsellor from 1988 to 1990 and as ambassador from 2004 to 2007. Campbell has also written Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know, co-authored with Matthew Page, and Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink. He edits both the Nigeria Security Tracker and the Sub-Saharan Security Tracker
For more than a decade now, Nigeria has teetered between stability and disintegration. Do you think an implosion of the country is a present danger or a future disaster waiting to happen?
Well, implosion of the country would be an unmitigated disaster. Whether that occurs or not is very largely up to Nigerians themselves and to their political leadership. The issue, the specific issue that I think, is most dangerous at present is the deterioration of security across the country. Jihadism in the North, conflict over water and land use in the Middle Belt, conflicts that often assume an ethnic and religious dimension, growing separatism sentiment in the South-East and even in Yorubaland the emergence of new institutions which are not federal. I am talking in particular of the sort of quasi security force that a number of the Yoruba governors have put together.
Holding on to that, you’ve always warned Nigerian elites and the government about the country ‘dancing on the brink.’ And that’s the title of your first book on Nigeria. Am I correct?
You’ve always warned Nigeria. You’ve always warned Nigerian elites that the country is dancing on the brink.
But, it appears nobody is paying attention, or, what do you think, to those warnings?
Oh, I think in a sense it doesn’t really much matter whether Nigerians are paying attention to my warnings. What does matter, I think, is that increasing numbers of Nigerians, particularly within the elites, are seeing it and are concerned about the danger that increased insecurity is posing to the future of Nigeria.
So, were you to have an access to those in power in Nigeria today, particularly the president, what will you tell him to do right away?
Right away, it would be those steps that could be taken that would show Nigerian people that the government is moving to address the issues that bedevil the country. I would start with police reform and also, seeking to address the question of human rights abuses by both the police and the military.
The question of restructuring, political restructuring; you do not think that will also come to play?
The question of whether political restructuring, the role that political restructuring would play, that has to be a longer-term initiative. For example, there is a great deal of talk now amongst many, many Nigerians about the need for some kind of sovereign national conference that could look at rebuilding Nigeria as it were, from the ground up to make it a genuinely democratic and federal state. Putting together a conference, a sovereign national conference, whatever you call it, is a process that has to be thought through. How, for example, should Nigerian stakeholders be represented? How would they be chosen? Once the conference was in place, how would its recommendations be carried out? These are issues that require thought and require some time to work through. Whereas, I would suggest certain steps to reform the police and the security services could be taken more quickly.
Many people generally have preached an indissoluble Nigeria. But, some say Nigeria does not have to continue to remain what they describe as a contraption. Some feel, probably if some regions go their separate ways, things will be better. Do you think the answer may lie in some of these regions going their separate ways?
If you were to ask me, I think the future of Nigeria would be best served by federalism in which substantial political power is devolved to states or to regions. Something rather like the Federal Republic of Germany in which the German states, in fact, have greater autonomy than the American states do. I think if there were genuine federalism in Nigeria, much of the agitation for ethnically based separatism would go away. What are the elements of genuine federalism? First of all, the entities that make up a federal republic need to be able to raise their own revenue and not be dependent on the central government for revenue, and now almost all of the states are. I think only Lagos state, in fact, is able to raise much, though, not all of the revenue it needs. Combined with that, there needs to be genuine, credible elections on the state level as well as the federal level.
And then, questions of how justice is administered needs to be looked at very closely. For example, in some parts of the country, there are multiple judicial systems in place. In the North, for example, there is Sharia law. But there is also Nigerian law that is based on the old British common law system. In many places, Nigerians go to traditional rulers for justice, outside of the judicial system altogether, in part because the former judicial system is very slow and it’s extremely expensive. But, under genuine federalism, there might well be considerable differences from one part of the country to another, reflecting the specific values and history of the particular peoples that are involved.
In the meantime, are you worried that what seems to be at present, a domestic political crisis in Nigeria, is being ignored or overlooked by the African Union, the United Nations, and other power blocs in the world?
Yes, I do worry about that. My own view is that international attention to Nigeria is not commensurate with the importance of the country. I would argue that Nigeria is one of the most important countries in the world. It is well known that population experts expect that by the middle of the century, the country would be the third-largest in the world by population. It will have displaced the United States as the third-largest country in the world by population. What happens in Nigeria is crucial for what happens in Africa but not just in Africa but rather around the world. That being so, my view is that Nigeria should be near the top of the agenda for much of the world, and it’s not. You’re a journalist: if you were to have looked this morning (Thursday) at the New York Times and the Washington Post, as I did. The two leading American newspapers. They were full of what is going on in Israel and Palestine, and there was not a single article about Nigeria.
That pretty much tells a lot.
I think so.
Some might think it boils down to the fact that Nigeria is a paradox, promising on one side, pathetic on the other side. And will you say this is by design or by just the ineptitude of leadership? We asked this question because many Nigerians have always argued that they were never consulted before the amalgamation took place.
Well, they were not. No, they were not consulted. The amalgamation of Nigeria by the British was done for their own administrative convenience without any consultation of Nigerians and without even very much thinking about what the consequences might be of putting together in a single unit 350 different ethnic groups that had little in common with each other. But, I would suggest that that approach has continued. Nigeria’s constitutions had been imposed first by the British, later by various military regimes, and were never submitted to the Nigerian people for a vote or for ratification.
You talked about the constitution so far in the country imposed on Nigerians. They’ve never had a say on how the constitution should be or what should be inside it.
Yes, that’s right.
What will you recommend if that is a big problem?
Well, if, in fact, there were a sovereign national conference that sought to rebuild Nigeria from the ground up, it would presumably or that process would presumably involve the writing of a new constitution which might well better reflect Nigerian aspirations than the current one does. The current constitution, in many respects, mimics that of the United States. In the immediate post-independence period, the country’s constitution essentially mimicked that of the Westminster way of governance. Maybe these western models have shortcomings when they are imposed on 350 different ethnic groups.
One other book you authored was titled ‘Nigeria: What Everyone Needs to Know.’ The purpose was to inform other citizens of the world regarding what they need to know about the country. I think that was the title of the book.
You talked about the world not paying enough attention to Nigeria. What about the Americans themselves? Are Americans, for instance, are they trying to know what they should know about Nigeria? Are they concerned about what’s happening in the country to the point of probably talking to their government?
Well, I wish they were more concerned about it than they are. This goes back to my original point that the international community does not give Nigeria the attention that a country as important as Nigeria both deserves and requires.
In your own opinion, do you think Nigeria is living on borrowed time?
It’s a good question. Is Nigeria living on borrowed time? The answer to that question is up to Nigerians themselves. If Nigerians, their elites, their political leadership moves to address, particularly the security issues, if they move to associate Nigerian people with their government then, I think there is a bright future. But, if they do not, and right now, the security situation from an outsider’s perspective looks dire.
But, if they do not, if Nigerians feel that the government, the system of which they’re a part, cannot provide for their security which is the minimum requirement of any state, then Nigeria is indeed living on borrowed time.
On the issue of insecurity which has become the staple news, almost everyone in Nigeria feeds on today. It is believed that no government should be paying ransom to terrorists or any criminal at that. But, the Nigerian government has been seen and heard to be paying ransom for the release of schoolchildren.
Indeed. You’re raising an extremely important question. The policy of the American government is that it will never pay ransom, and further, if individuals or groups attempt to pay ransom they are violating American law. But, here is the problem, if you are dealing with a highly emotional situation, hundreds of schoolchildren being kidnapped. How do you secure their release? When the state structures are weak, how do you do that? How do you balance it out? And it’s an open secret that some rich European democracies which also oppose the paying of ransom do so because of the outcry at home that their own citizens must somehow be rescued. So the question is extraordinarily hard.
One might almost say that the United States can get away with the policy of never paying ransom because the United States is a very strong entity. But, if you don’t have the strength for variety of reasons and in a number of different areas then, how do you address the humanitarian requirement that these innocent children that have been kidnapped are somehow or another set free? This is really hard, and it’s why I’m not prepared to be critical of the Nigerian federal government or state governments or others that, in fact, pay ransom because the humanitarian dimension is so important and the options are so limited.
So, we’ve seen the country that is Nigeria negotiating with bandits, and we’ve heard of repentant bandits and terrorists going back to the trenches.
We have indeed.
It’s argued that nothing seems to be working. You pay ransom; it’s a bad situation. You try to de-radicalise the terrorists; it ends up the same way. Not a few people have come to wonder: is this not a failing or a failed state?
Well, I mean it’s extraordinarily difficult because ransom is one of the major funders of terrorism of the various Jihadi groups and for bandits and other criminal groups. It has made kidnapping extremely lucrative and therefore encourages more odds. So, yes, I mean in this particular area, Nigeria is indeed failing.
This is the crisis of confidence regarding a minister whose past seems to have caught up with him now. He has made very serious statements that linked him to the Taliban, the Al-Qaeda, and even Boko Haram. Some Nigerians have asked him to resign or that the president of the country should sack him.
Because he superintends over a very sensitive national asset, the country’s database, not a few Nigerians are worried. Should people not be concerned that someone who had demonstrated murderous intentions towards other tribes and other religious groups should continue to hold such a national position?
To me, it is not as simple as that. Many political figures in all countries of the world have made statements in the past which they regret. In the United States, for example, political and other figures have been forced by public opinion to resign because of things they did or said 30 years ago. What matters I think, are the minister’s current views on these issues. And the person I think that is best positioned to determine what those are is the president because it is the president who has selected him to serve in the cabinet.
Any last words from you?
Just that, as a friend of Nigeria of long standing and some Nigerians, tell me that I am half Nigerian. As a friend of Nigeria for a very long time, I hope and pray that Nigerians can work through the current security crisis.