REMARKS BY ACTING PRESIDENT, FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA, HIS EXCELLENCY, PROF. YEMI OSINBAJO, SAN, AT A CONSULTATIVE MEETING WITH STATE GOVERNORS HELD AT THE OLD BANQUET HALL, STATE HOUSE, ABUJA ON JUNE 21, 2017
“But there is a point where a line has to be drawn, and that is when conversations or agitations degenerate into hateful rhetoric, where the narrative descends into pejorative name-calling, expressions of outright prejudice and hatred”
First let me begin by thanking all of your excellencies for making the time to come. This is the last but by no means the least of the consultations that I have been having along with the Service Chiefs and Ministers with several groups especially from the Northern States and the Southeast States.
We’ve had very fruitful and very frank discussions with the various groups and many of course have spoken about the various issues which concern them and we’ve more or less been able to come to some agreement as to common principles and if you like consensus, and I will come to that shortly.
But today’s meeting is one which I hope will be able to seal all of the discussions we’ve had with the different groups, with the traditional rulers, the leaders, the elders and I hope that we will be able to seal that because obviously the Governors are critical in this whole process and it’s impossible of course to get anything done or to even implement any of the ideas or suggestions we may have without your excellencies being the primary movers of whatever it is that we agree to do.
I think that most will agree with me that important issues that we are faced with today are issues that center around unity in a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and very diverse country. And as it’s always the case, we need to handle all of these issues carefully because at various times there are attempts to play up those fault lines.
There are attempts by various groups, individuals, sometimes by politicians to play up those fault lines and to create tension sometimes for purely selfish reasons but at other times for even genuine reasons. I think that it’s our duty as leaders, especially as elected leaders to really make a difference in the way that these conversations and interventions go.
In recent weeks, there have been some worrying agitations and expressions of discontent and I am sure we are all familiar with them. We need not repeat the tensions that have been created; not only over questions of secession and those who have been agitating for secession in the Southeastern States and of course the response of some young people in the Northern States and ultimatums that have been issued saying that persons of Southeast origin should leave the North and those sort of agitations.
I think it’s important that these responses and counter-responses are put in the right perspective and that they are dealt with in a manner that enables us to be able to resolve the issues and go forward properly as a nation.
There is a part of all of these agitations and statements that are made that is fair and may well be considered as freedom of expression. Clearly, we are all allowed to express our views and there’s a part of this that is expected in any healthy and robust democracy: people arguing and disagreeing, sometimes stridently.
But there is a point where a line has to be drawn, and that is when conversations or agitations degenerate into hateful rhetoric, where the narrative descends into pejorative name-calling, expressions of outright prejudice and hatred.
We must at some point ensure that even in the use of words, we are careful especially because the kinds of problems that we’ve seen, the conflagration that we’ve seen all over the world, even in our own society starts by the use of words.
So, words can carry a lot of weight, and it so important that the responsible use of words, the responsible expression of dissent is taken as priority. We must not allow the careless use of words and expression that may degenerate into conflict and crisis.
Our constitution guarantees freedom of expression and we are a people who like to talk. We express to ourselves very loudly, in an agitated fashion in some cases. But it is important for us to recognize that it is those same words that can cause conflagration, alarm and can ultimately lead to calamity. We must be careful with the way we express ourselves.
What we have been seeing in recent times, and this is what has brought a lot of the concern, is that some of the language and expressions that have been used have tended to degenerate very badly and we must begin to speak up against some of these things and ensure that we protect our democracy and nation from the kinds of rhetoric that may not just divide us but ultimately result in a great deal of trouble.
I think that from all of the consultations we’ve had, all agree on certain principles; the first is that we’re all agreed that Nigeria’s unity should never be taken for granted, and that no one wants to see Nigeria going down the path of bloodshed. There is clarity as to that from all the conversations and consultations we’ve had with all of the leaders.
We also agreed on the primacy of the Nigerian Constitution, that this is the ultimate basis for our unity. The 1999 Constitution is the basis upon which we were elected into office and the basis for the legal contract which exist between all of us as citizens of this country not only amongst ourselves but also with our nation.
The Constitution guarantees the equality of all Nigerians before the law, and their freedom to live and work anywhere in the country, in peace and safety, without fear of discrimination or prejudice. That is a guarantee of our Constitution and that is the reason why the Federal and State Governments must be committed to ensuring that every Nigerian citizen lives and works wherever he pleases peacefully and securely.
It is the commitment by Federal Government being in charge of law enforcement agencies, not to tolerate a situation where there is any attempt to dislodge any Nigerian in any way or even intimidate any Nigerian.
The second is that Nigeria and our constitution clearly states that the country with the Federal Government and 36 States is sovereign and indissoluble under the Constitution. In other words, it is one united country. That is also an important and fundamental basis upon which we operate as Nigerians. Our Constitution states that our nation is one undivided and sovereign.
These fundamental principles are agreed by all of those we consulted and I think it is important because they may sound banal and ordinary but it’s important that we remind ourselves and we did remind ourselves in all of the consultations, all of the leadership we spoke to were quite united in all these principles.
We also agreed that prevention is better than cure; that it is ultimately easier to confront our grievances head on – however uncomfortable they might seem – and find lasting and acceptable solutions, rather than ignore those controversies and issues.
We agreed that it is important that whatever grievances and issue, we place them in the forefront and we discuss and debate them and do so in a manner that is not hateful or divisive in any way. This is one of the issues that emerged from our meetings. The meetings were frank as I expect our meeting today to be frank.
But we were able to agree on most of the critical issues that were discussed and in many cases change perceptions that may have been long embedded in the minds of many.
We also agreed that under no circumstances would we tolerate or should we condone hateful or divisive speech in any guise. Government should take every step necessary to bring to book all of those who preach violence in particular or the kinds of expressions of dissent that encourage violence. We must prevent this at all cost.
We also agreed that we need to do more to engage our youth productively, creation of jobs and multiplying the economic opportunities available to the young people.
And very importantly, we agreed on the need for leaders to speak out more forcefully to counter divisive speech or any kind of warmongering. We agreed that cultural leaders, religious leaders and political leaders should speak out forcibly against any kind of divisive speech and we expect that our political leaders would do so without waiting to be prompted.
Of all those we discussed with both religious and traditional leaders, they felt that sometimes when leaders do not speak up promptly, it always results in the degeneration of whatever the problem may be. Leaders need to speak up quickly whenever things go wrong.
This applied to both statements made by the young people in the Southeast as well as the youth in the Northern State. Although we did find several leaders speaking up, we felt the need for much greater resonance in the way that these things are done and for the leaders to speak up more forcibly.
If for any reason matters are allowed to degenerate, then not only do the leadership lose their legitimacy but we run the risk of things going completely out of control. Those are generally some of the issues discussed and the consensus that was reached.
I want to applaud very much both individually and collectively, the leadership that we met, leaders of Southeastern States, the traditional rulers, religious leaders and some of the social-cultural leaders and leaders of the Northern States. Yesterday, I met with the traditional rulers from the North.
I think it is so important that they all should be commended not only for their openness and willingness and I am sure that they made compromises wherever necessary, but also their determination to work together so that our nation is not divided in anyway and that we do not go down the way of any kind of civil conflict.
I think that they ought to be commended for being rational and responsible even in their criticisms of what they thought were issues that should have been better handled, and I want to openly commend them for their leadership and responsibility.
Another issue that came up and I am sure we will discuss this in greater detail is the issue around the farmers-herdsmen clashes and possibly even hold an expanded meeting where we would be able to take a closer look at it. It is actually important that we are able to reach satisfactory and lasting solution to this problem.
The problems are multidimensional but the States have very important roles to play especially because states are in control of lands and a lot of these disputes are over land aside from the other social cultural issues and the issues around security which involves the Federal Government.
All said, I trust that all of us appreciate the need to show greater unity of purpose and determination to work together to solve these challenges, for the benefit of all Nigerians, regardless of our partisan affiliations.
We must resist the temptation to play politics with matters of security, or to reach for simplistic narratives that might be momentarily expedient and satisfying but are false, misleading and unhelpful to a proper understanding of the issues.
Sometimes, the tensions that we see are on account of the fact that people have wrong perceptions about a particular thing and it is in our place to ensure that we dig down the facts and ensure that people are given the facts and we don’t colour them with politics in anyway.
I want to thank you very much for the fact that you are able to make it to this meeting outside of the run of our usual NEC meeting but I’m sure you agree with me that matters of security of course calls for these kinds of meeting especially at short notices and I am glad that you were able to make it.
Finally, we as Federal Government are committed to working with state governments in ensuring peace and stability in our country; without this peace and security there can be no real economic development.
I want to charge every one of us with that responsibility of ensuring that top on the agenda for us is to secure the lives and property of those who live within the borders of our state; and assuring our people that we are committed to ensuring that all our people wherever they may be from are free to live within the borders of our state happily as brothers and sisters.
Thank you very much.