Nigeria And The Coup Epidemics

West Africa regional map. Image: USAID


President Umaro Cissoko Embaló survived Tuesday’s “failed attack against democracy.” But the situation in Guinea-Bissau remains unclear. That the fragile West African country is the fifth to catch the military coup bug in recent times should be disturbing to leaders within the sub-region. Only two weeks ago, President Roch Kabore was toppled in Burkina Faso. Before then, Mali, Guinea and Chad had fallen into the hands of military usurpers, confirming the long-held proposition that democracy may be too frail a plant to survive the African climate.

Emerging reports from Guinea-Bissau suggest that the coup bears resemblance to what happened in Haiti on 7th July 2021 when President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated. The fact that the country is effectively a transit point for the Latin American narcotic trade makes the comparison even stronger. The “well prepared and organised” attack, according to the embattled president, could have been “related to people involved in drug trafficking.” Even if this proves to be true, the socio-economic situation in Guinea-Bissau lends itself to political upheaval in a sub-region where internal wrangling among politicians, economic deprivation of citizens and worsening insecurity present clear warning signals that civil rule is under severe pressure.

Predictably, both the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have made the usual feeble statements. I doubt if anybody is taking them seriously. Certainly not the military strongmen in Mali, Guinea, Chad, and Burkina Faso who are digging in. But I am more worried for our country. In a response to concerns raised by the chairman of the Nigerian Governors Forum, Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, regarding implications of these military takeovers within the ECOWAS sub-region, President Muhammadu Buhari took a narrow view. He stated that ‘‘Nigeria has passed through that stage (of coup d’etat) for good.’’

The president perhaps offered a politically correct statement as the occasion may have demanded. But I hope he doesn’t believe what he said. I have argued in the past that the philosophy of ‘it can never happen here’ is responsible for our lack of preparedness in emergencies. On 1st September 2011, I borrowed the title of a piece once written in the eighties by the late Chike Akabogu, then on the National Concord editorial board, to drive home that point. In the piece, Akabogu wrote that Nigerians like to delude themselves that they are different; that the bad things that occur elsewhere cannot happen in our country. While hoping this is not the thinking that informed the president’s response to what is a clear and present danger, I crave the indulgence of readers to rehash some of what I wrote eleven years ago: “I remember when the wave of terrorism heightened at the beginning of the last decade, it was considered too distant a phenomenon to worry about in Nigeria even when there were explosions at the United States’ embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. When Farouk Muttallab was caught trying to blow up a Delta Airlines flight in December 2009 and the United States’ government wanted to link our nation with terror, we easily wriggled out by claiming that Farouk caught the bug abroad; afterall, he was not schooling in Nigeria…For us to develop, we must accept that whatever happens in other countries can happen in Nigeria.

For instance, our leaders must accept that the ’Arab Spring’ which has consumed several leaders from Egypt to Tunisia and has now birthed at Muammar Gaddafi’s shores in Libya can happen here…As pessimistic as all these may sound, that is the way most serious countries now think by building negative scenarios and working to ensure they do not happen; while also planning towards mitigating such occurrences in the event that they do. But by living in denial of anything and everything, we prevent ourselves from learning useful lessons. That is why we were surprised that we now have suicide bombers in our midst. Because we never came to terms with the fact that if it could happen elsewhere, it can also happen in Nigeria…”

I wrote the foregoing in 2011, following the bombing of the UN House in Abuja. As things stand, the situation in Mali, Guinea, Chad, Burkina Faso and now Guinea-Bissau has once again placed West Africa and the entire Sahel within the gunsights of military adventurists. “We don’t need to rape Guinea anymore, we just need to make love to her,” says Colonel Mamady Doumbouya who last September ousted President Alpha Condé, in a nation where most people believe political leaders are there to serve only their own interest. The problem for ECOWAS is that the situation in Guinea is like what obtains in most others, including Nigeria: Weak institutions, distrust of politicians, growing insecurity aided by insurgency and a worsening economic situation for most of the people. The case of Nigeria is exacerbated by the audacity of sundry criminal cartels that now carve territories for themselves, collecting taxes and killing innocent rural dwellers at will.

Nothing perhaps illustrates the challenge at hand better than a map published in the 1st February report by the research firm, SBM Intelligence. Titled, ‘An Epidemic of Failure’, the report reveals that in the last 10 years, there has been a coup in every country in the Sahel. More disturbing is that this epidemic runs through the west coast (Mauritania) to the East coast of the continent (Sudan). Instructively, two of these countries, Chad and Niger, border Nigeria.

All factors considered, the 2023 general election becomes even more consequential for Nigeria. The political class must therefore make sure they get everything right and that begins with ideas on how to tackle the various challenges confronting us as a nation. Conventional wisdom teaches that in situations like this, leaders must hope for the best and prepare for the worst. At a period in history when democracies as strong as that of the United States suffer so much stress that some pundits can even predict coups, nobody should be under any illusion that Nigeria is immune to what is happening elsewhere in the sub-region. Eternal vigilance, as the old maxim teaches, is the price of liberty.

‘How Do You Bury Your Son?’

The video on social media of a Kenyan mother, Jacqueline Matere, speaking to a group of young people about her 20-year-old son’s depression and eventual suicide brings to fore the way we ignore mental health in Nigeria. Incredibly, the Lunacy Law of 1958 still governs the nation’s mental health regime. First enacted in 1916 as the ‘Lunacy Ordinance’, the amended 1958 Act, which is still in force, empowers medical practitioners and magistrates to detain any individual suffering from mental illness. The law not only criminalises (and stigmatizes) victims, but it also makes it unattractive for our doctors to specialize in the much-needed field of practice. Sadly, the Mental Health Bill has been with National Assembly since 2013. But our lawmakers have little understanding of its importance, even though many of them carry the fanciful title of Dr and may have studied medicine. In fact, when the bill was first introduced in 2003, it was immediately thrown out by the lawmakers!

Going by statistics from the World Health Organisation (WHO), as many as a million people commit suicide annually, the second leading cause of death in young men and women between age 15 and 29. While there may be no credible data to work with in Nigeria, facts on ground suggest that an extraordinary number of our people are taking their own lives. Unfortunately, there is yet no official response as to how to tackle the challenge of mental health.

A recent book, ‘The Morning After’, is the only available literature I have seen on suicides in Nigeria, although its focus is more on the issue of sensitivity in reporting the illness as well as its prevention. Co-authored by a Nigerian-born United Kingdom-based psychiatrist consultant, Dr. Olufemi Oluwatayo and a THISDAY journalist, Martins Ifijeh, who is currently on study leave in the United States, it is one I will gladly recommend to our health authorities and policy makers. As someone who relates with teenagers, I am aware that mental health is an issue that we live in denial about. Yet, there are people around us who may need help without knowing where to turn. This makes them susceptible to depression, often described as being surrounded by the noise of a thousand people yet feeling completely alone.

Showbiz impresario, Obi Iyiegbu, aka Obi Cubana, yesterday spoke about the danger of not making mental health a public issue in Nigeria. “How are you doing is an everyday question. But how is your mental health, is rare,” said Cubana. “Because it depends on the person asking it.” Most often, when such question is asked in Nigeria, it is either to profile for stigmatization or to abuse. For the good of our society, this must change. I leave readers with excerpts from what the Kenyan mother said. Perhaps it may nudge us to begin to deal with the problem:

“…my son committed suicide on my veranda and my two small children were the ones that found him. They kept telling me, “Mummy come and see…” [speaks Swahili] and it was a Sunday evening when we were just having supper and I thought it was just one of his antics because he was a difficult boy. He became very difficult after he failed his Form four exams. When I went outside, I found my son hanging on my veranda and the most wicked sight in my life, was to see his tongue hanging out almost up to his chest (sobbing]. I screamed and climbed up immediately, I collected him, and I put him down. We rushed him to the hospital but when we reached there, nobody was doing anything. I told them to put him on Oxygen because he was lacking Oxygen and his fingers had become grey. I walked out and I told God, ‘please help me’. So, I went back, and they were still not doing anything. I asked, ‘why are you not doing anything?’ Then, it dawned on me that it was over. There was no need for oxygen, and there was no need for anything else. So, we had to wait there until we reported to Bakassi Police. We waited until about 3 o’clock when the police vehicle came to take my son to the mortuary.

“That was the most wicked, hateful thing you’d ever need to see [speaks Swahili]. Youths, there is nothing so hard that cannot be discussed. Whether it was sexual violence, (because I became aware that he had been Sodomised), whether it was bullying in school, whether it was peer-pressure, whether it was failing his exams, these are things that can be discussed. He had depression. He would come to the sitting room, dressed in his underwear. He wouldn’t care. He wouldn’t come out of bed. I used to insist he comes and eat with us. He became very difficult when depression hit. Please, recognise when somebody starts shutting down, there’s a problem. This boy had grown up as a very healthy, loving – fun-loving boy, full of love, full of laughter, full of jokes. But something happened along the line, and he just started withdrawing. I kid you not, within six months, he had committed suicide.

“Youths, I want to tell you something. You can think you are the one in the problem, there is a place you will reach, and you will be unable to pull yourself out again. So, before you reach that pit, before you reach that bottom, please ensure you have talked to somebody. Please ensure that you’ve shared with somebody. There is nothing too hard. The Bible says “there is nothing new under the sun” so, anything that you’re going through is not new, it has happened to somebody else, and they can be solved.

“I want to thank the government (of Kenya) for making mental health a priority. Because we would have lost too many. When we were going to collect my son that day, we were so many parents. I tell you; six parents were there because of suicide. And some were being brought in. We cannot continue to lose young people with the energy to build our nation for something that has got solutions. I beg you to engage with the processes that are available for us, for the options that are opened for us so that you don’t hurt your parents, because even when you go, the pain remains with us, as well as with the sisters, the brothers. The stigma that is associated with suicide – personally, I don’t care what anybody thinks about me. That is why I said that if only to honour my son’s memory, I will speak about mental health…”

Abuja’s Dambe Fight Night
Ushered in by traditional talking drums amid chants, the first boxer walked about the arena, flaunting his muscles not only at the opponents but also the umpires and everybody within his vicinity in the usual pre-match rituals for which Dambe, a martial art among the Hausa people of northern Nigeria, Niger Republic, and Chad, is renowned. At the end, despite his bravado, the young man who represented Nasarawa State was vanquished by his direct opponent from Kano State.

It was fun last Saturday night as I joined hundreds of people, including several diplomats, at the Heritage Africa Village Square in Kado, Abuja, for a night of entertainment put together by Aisha Shuaibu-led SWA Sports, an initiative aimed at promoting and empowering local talents. For a combat sport that is every inch masculine, it is interesting that Aisha would be interested in Dambe. But as she explained to me, sport can be used as a catalyst for the development of our country, and she chose Dambe because it is a productive enterprise to which many young men going into crimes in Kano (where she hails from) can redirect their energy.

The more I engage Aisha, the more I see her passion for promoting Dambe, a traditional fighting contest deeply rooted in culture, and believed to have evolved as a harvest season form of entertainment between and among fishermen and butchers in ancient times. “For me, the whole idea is for these young men to gain exposure, make money to support themselves and their families and increase their support network,” said Aisha whose company recently brought the globally acclaimed Kamaru Usman, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Welterweight Champion, to inspire the local Dambe fighters.
Thanks to Aisha, her brother and collaborator, Idris Shuaibu as well as Maxwell Kalu, the CEO of Africa Warriors, I really enjoyed myself last Saturday. And I look forward to the next Dambe Fight Night in Abuja.