By Obadiah Mailafia
MY gentle readers would have heard about the outburst last week by presidential spokesman Femi Adesina during a morning television interview on AIT. When questioned about the rationale for the government’s insistence on ranching, considering people’s attachment to their ancestral lands, the man exploded: “Ancestral attachment? You can only have ancestral attachment when you are alive. If you are talking about ancestral attachment, if you are dead, what does the attachment matter? What does it matter again? Ancestral attachment? You can only have attachment when you are alive….What will the land be used if those who own it are dead at the end of the day.… not every state will have land for ranches. But where you have land and you can do something, please do for peace. What will the land be used for if those who own it are dead at the end of the day?”
Femi Adesina is a well regarded journalist who happens to be the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity. The first time we met he impressed me as a calm, reasonable and decent bloke. I still would like to regard him as such. But that infamous faux pas has been staggeringly heartbreaking to his admirers at home and abroad. When you are a professional in the service of political masters, you must always bear in mind that your professional integrity remains your most priceless asset. Lose it, and you lose everything. It is regrettable that he flunked it big time with that egregious, self-wounding misjudgement.
With a poker face, Adesina addressed the great Nigerian public with words that were ominous and threatening; speaking slowly, in repetitive alliterations for maximum effect; a hypnotised zombie gloating over the misery of our people with the nonchalant arrogance of Leviathan the Beast. It suddenly dawned on me that we live in evil times; in which even the best among us have lost it — behaving with the drunken hubris of American poet T. S. Eliot’s “hollow men”. Fear, sorrow and emptiness gripped my soul. Never before have I lost confidence in my country’s high and noble destiny.
Lest we forget: The Land Use Act, as incorporated into the 1999 constitution, vests usufructuary land rights on the people who live on it, under ancestral title deeds that are sacrosanct and immemorial. The state governors are empowered to hold these ancestral lands in trust for the people. They obviously wield enormous power — but it is not power to do anyhow they please. The Executive Order on ranches is therefore an anti-constitutional, jurisprudential nonsense to the extent that the Federal Government has no legal powers to expropriate communal lands for the private business of total strangers who call themselves “herdsmen”.
When you decode the gestalt and phenomenology of Adesina’s outburst, four messages emerge.
First, what he was telling us, in plain English, is that the horrendous massacres in the Middle Belt are the fault of the victims themselves because of their pig-headed refusal to surrender their ancestral lands to alien marauding herdsmen. Embedded in that message is a cold indifference to the fate of the thousands of victims, the war dead and millions of internally displaced persons.
Secondly, there is this false notion that simply handing over land for ranches will bring peace. Adesina overlooks the fact that even in Kogi and Plateau, where the governors have promised free land to the militias, killings have continued unabated. The idea of “Land for Peace” has not worked in Palestine; it is unlikely to work in Nigeria. I am one of those who sincerely believe we would somehow have to accommodate genuine Nigerian pastoralists throughout the wide expanses of our green and lush ancestral savannah homeland. They are brethren with whom we have lived and intermarried over the centuries. But it is also evident that a just and sustainable peace cannot be enforced under duress. It would have to be part of a comprehensive strategy anchored on confidence building, genuine goodwill and social justice. Forcing people to surrender their ancestral lands out of fear of a bloodthirsty enemy can only lead to a graveyard peace. History shows incontrovertibly that appeasing murderers never works.
Thirdly, the unconscionable and insensitive manner Adesina defended his doctrine of land for peace leaves us in no doubt that he and his paymasters know far more about the killings and their sponsors than they would have us believe. Never once did he express regret about the killings. Nor did he deign to condemn them. Instead, we were fed a corrosive diet of schadenfreude – rejoicing over other people’s pain. I now know why the philosopher and mathematician Lord Russell described bad governments as being worse than Himalayan Tigers.
The last message that came through is desperation. Conquest of the rich and fertile lands of the Middle Belt seems more important to the sponsors of this genocide than even winning the next elections. There is obviously a script. And it is encrypted in the idiom of land grabbing, occupation and dispossession. It is paradoxical that the Northern oligarchy that have treated the peoples of the Middle Belt with such bitter hatred, discrimination and contumely at the same time do not wish to see them go their own separate way. The Middle Belt fought to keep this country together. They are the bridge that links North and South — the bread basket of Nigeria. Remove the Middle Belt and the North will just be another sprawling Saharan Ruritania. This is why they are so desperate to conquer Jerusalem.
This Dostoevskian nightmare reminds me of the epic History of the Peloponnesian Wars as recounted by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. The actors in that conflict were the war-like city state of Sparta on one hand, and the upstart Athenian Empire, on the other. During the famous Siege of Melos in 415 BC, the Athenians were set on conquering the Melians and reducing them into servitude and vassalage. On the border were the legendary Athenian generals and their fleet of 38 ships carrying heavy infantry and fearsome archers. The Melians faced a stark choice: fight a powerful enemy with the grim prospects of total annihilation or surrender and live as slaves.
In the immortal Melian Dialogues, Thucydides evokes an exchange that has left impressions on generations of political philosophers. The weaker Melians appealed to moral right, which the Athenians scornfully dismiss as an absurdity, since right could only exist between equals. They could not bring themselves to indulge a weak neighbour in the face of Lacedaemonian enemies who respect only the rule of the strong. The gullible Melians commit their fortunes into the hands of the gods. The Athenians justify their aggression purely on the dictates of power, where “the powerful exact what they can and the weak grant what they must”. The Melians, who cherished honour and liberty above life itself, preferred to perish rather than endure a long night of servitude. All the men were slaughtered into extinction and their wives and children turned into chattel slaves.
History teaches that unarmed prophets are always doomed. In our age of Global Jihad, if you want peace you must sharpen your swords. The enemy we face does not have the remotest pretensions to civilisation and Enlightenment like the Athenians of old; a rapacious beast who thinks nothing of ripping out the wombs of pregnant women and putting their unborn children under the sword — an enemy who believes neither in God nor in Humanity. Make no mistake about it: the ancient warrior-tribes of the Middle Belt are what they are because they were never conquered by Jihad. They are not about to commit suicide like the Melians who appealed solely to the vacuity of virtue ethics. They will defend to the last man the land bequeathed to them by their venerable ancestors.