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A Breeding Ground for Demagogues and Militants?

Weimar Germany emerged from the crushing defeat of World War 1 as a broken society in
search of a purpose and in need of redemption. The demands at Versailles were deeply
humiliating, but the proud German leadership still had to sign them and accept the
occupation of Rhineland by French troops.
The humiliation of the war was not enough, the Great Depression came calling. Germany
was hit by an inflation nightmare, people had to put money in wheel barrows to buy the
basics like soap, bread and butter (the nearest modern example was Zimbabwes period of
stagflation). Out of this crucible emerged an angry and alienated people.
Weimar Germany was a land of intense public debate, there were socialists and people at
the opposite end of the political spectrum. Each had a narrative for Germanys predicament
and people were willing to listen.
The narrative that carried the day was the narrative of a failed arts student who enlisted in
the German Imperial Army, rising to the great rank of corporal. His name was Adolf Hitler, the
rest is history.
Historians like A.J.P Taylor have been fascinated and puzzled about how a seemingly
inconsequential figure like Hitler (who promoted a whacky ideology), could have sent a
people as intelligent and as educated as Germans to their doom.
Such is the power of demagogues.
My reason for writing this brief essay is because Nigeria increasingly looks like Weimar
Germany, a breeding ground of demagogues and militants. The Nigerian State is in retreat,
losing its ability to provide public goods (many states are unable to pay teachers and civil
servants, public health and education is almost in terminal decline). There is a vast
underclass of youth with little positive contact with the state and there are very few economic
benefits accruing to the poor.
The power of a demagogue lies in his ability to craft a simple and appealing narrative that
explains to the poor, angry and alienated the reason for their present predicament. Hitler
did it with the Germans by promoting racist ideologies and blaming the Jews for Germanys
humiliating defeat in World War 1. Demagogues are doing exactly the same thing in the
North East and other parts of the country.
When a nation has no real answers to persistent poverty, illiteracy and lack of access to
social services, it has problems countering the demagogues narrative. But that is not
Nigerias only problem; there is very limited space for constructive non-violent public
engagement, so manageable situations soon blow out of proportion.
In 1980s, communities in the Niger Delta were willing to take oil and gas companies to court
for environmental damage. They basically hit a brick wall. The next tactic was peaceful
protests, the likes of Babangida responded by destroying communities like Umuechem
(1991) and we all know the story of Ken Saro-Wiwa and how he ended. Demagogues
preaching violence and people willing to listen to them were inevitable; so eventually a
violent militancy that caught the attention of the entire World began and it is yet to be fully
extinguished.
There are similarities between the Niger Delta and the North East; the same slow build up,
the same ham-fisted tactics by organs of the state that only serve to pour fuel on fire, not
resolve the underlying issues.

The key to countering demagoguery and preventing the spread of militancy lies in offering a
compelling counter-narrative and proactive engagement in addressing the root causes of
grievance. The Nigerian State fails spectacularly on both counts, but let us talk a bit about
narratives.
Very little intellectual work has been done in crafting a compelling narrative for the Nigerian
State. What passes for a narrative is singing the national anthem, reciting the pledge and a
certain middle class certainty about patriotism. This is woefully inadequate because
Nigerias poor do not come in contact with the same Nigeria as Nigerias vocal (and
unfortunately, intellectually shallow) middle class.
Nations come to a point where simple narratives on patriotism and national myths have to
be confronted and challenged; and the difficult work of addressing decades of grievance has
to start. America was at that point in the 1960s; Malcolm X challenged Americas
foundational myth by saying we didnt land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on
us. He was not particularly liked, but everyone had to listen.
Simple categories like patriotic, unpatriotic and secessionist could not adequately
describe the intellectual and social ferment in US during the Civil Rights era. We need
similar intellectual flexibility in Nigeria.
Nigeria is a deeply dysfunctional place, a breeding ground for demagogues and militants.
This calls for serious intellectual engagement and accounting for the past before
spectroscopic flights of fancy about infantile inanities like dreaming and visions.