24 October 2001

Nigeria: The Enormous Cost of Ethnic Crisis

The Horizon by Kayode komolafe

It was, perhaps, in a bid to demonstrate the seriousness of the inter- ethnic crisis between the Tiv and the Junkun, that the Tiv Progressive Movement reportedly sent a letter to President Olusegun Obasanjo. In the letter signed by the movement's President-General Wanteregh Paul Unongo, an alarm was raised:

"Your Excellency, if allowed to proceed, this war will be vicious, bloody and would be fought with such a ferocity that it may produce consequences worse than , or at least , similar to, the horrible spectacles seen in disasters of Bosnia, the Democratic republic of Congo and even Rwanda.

"These people of Tiv nation appear now resigned to a serious long-war believing that they will never get justice from the government in their dispute with Chamba-Junkun people, because government is unashamedly and firmly on the side of these people owing to the paramount influence of their big men in government."

From the other side of the divide, the Aku Uka of Wukari and indeed the foremost traditional ruler of the Junkun, Dr. Shekarau Angyu Masa-Ibi Kuvyo II, is on record to have located the root of the crisis in an alleged expansionist tendency o the part of the Tiv.

He has also been reported to have once remarked:

"They (Tiv) came here to farm; we allowed them, gave them chieftaincy titles....Now that their population has increased, they believe they are many enough to colonise us."

There are scholarly studies to back up these claims and counter-clams about the histories and co-existence of the two peoples. But the matter could have remained edifying if it had been just a matter of academic disputations. The tragedy unfolding before our eyes is that the long-drawn debate has long assumed the dimension of episodic blood-lettings. The enormity of the human and material cost of the inter-ethnic crisis should compel deeper thinking about the nature of the problem and probable solution. Deep thinking, as Dr. Omololu Olunloyo has insisted upon, is what is required at times like this because the system cannot withstand such tensions indefinitely.

In the last eruption at Benue/ Taraba border, the lives of 17 of the soldiers drafted to the area for peacekeeping were among those lost in the mayhem. The soldiers were said to have been abducted and later killed at the border between Benue and Taraba States where the battle raged. The killings of these men and officers of the Nigerian Army has brought into the fore once again how much of a national problem these pockets of communal crisis have become.

But can it be said that these conflicts and others elsewhere in the country have defied solution? In the 41 months of civil rule alone, the nation has had the misfortune of witnessing more than 40 of such communal bloodbaths.

To be sure, there has been a pattern to some of the conflicts. The pattern has been di-scernible in Warri, Ife/Modakeke, Aguleri/Umuleri and recently in Nasarawa. The dimensions have been intra and inter-ethnic. Sometimes, it has mixed noxiously with religious undertones. Conflicts among peoples who have lived together for centuries suddenly erupt resulting in mass killings and wanton destruction of property. Matters sometimes become so labyrinthine that the origins of the conflicts themselves are enmeshed in a different controversies. People who have lived in area for generations and who are constitutionally Nigerian citizens are overnight reminded that they are "settlers." Nigeria is a republic constitutionally, yet hundreds of lives are sometimes lost in he fight to institutionalise some chiefdoms. Violence could also erupt when some paramount rulers seek to compel allegiance from some "subjects" in a supposedly federal republic. We live with these and other contradictions of the polity as if all is well until there is the occasional blood expression of inherent conflicts.

The aggravation of the Tiv/Junkun clash should be used by the government as an occasion to have a rethink on the efficacy of the much- canvassed specific and general solutions to the problem. The preoccupation with specific solutions without due regard to the broad dimension of the crisis rests on the assumption that some issues of nation-building are settled. Believing that the exhortation of Nigeria being an "indivisible and indissoluble" nation has sunk deep into all, the approach is to restore normalcy in the flashpoints. And of recent, restoring normalcy has necessitated drafting of troops as was the case in the Tiv/Junkun conflict. No sooner that the tension is pacified in one corner than there is eruption in another. But the question has often been ignored why the fact of indivisibility an indissolubility of Nigeria has not prevented these episodic blood -lettings and occasional communal convulsions. If the union is indissoluble, is co-existence also non-negotiable? How efficacious have been these specific solutions?

The general solution rests on the premise that the government is fundamentally in error in assuming that national integration could be bestowed on Nigeria fortuitously. The most coherent formulation of the general solution is the strident advocacy for a national conference to examine extant issues of national integration and come up with an acceptable constitution. And a priori, the constitution is assumed by all sides of the debate to be a federal one. But the proponents of national conference formula will have to convince skeptics how that formula will prevent the intra-ethnic dimensions of the conflict since the conference is essentially proposed as a forum inter-ethnic negotiations. How does it tackle the problem in Wukari, for instance, where the Junkuns and the Tivs have shared geographically the same territory? These and other questions should not be posed cynically but as a way of spurring a creative approach to these problem. Part of the present tragedy is that the constitution is not straightforward in providing answers to some of these questions and others. The insistence on a workable and generally accepted constitution is, therefore, more than a matter of formality or protocols.

It is also not an adequate explanation to dismiss these periodic blood-lettings as a consequence of manipulation of some devious members of the elite. The primary question to ask is what conditions make people so vulnerable to such manipulations? Why is it so easy for people to be mobilised in killing those who have been their neighbours for generations? Why would the mere site of local government headquarters result in riots that could claim several lives as if development in the local government is only meant for the headquarters?

What all these posers indicate is that President Obasanjo should perceive the project of national integration as a major challenge. He should be less assumptive about the fundamental issues involved in nation-building. More than any other area of national life the challenge of national integration will decide how the present political leadership will be assessed. It is not enough to dismiss with a wave of hand the proposals of national conference advocates without adducing a superior formula. What should bother all patriots is for long how can we afford the enormous cost of intra and inter-ethnic antagonism? It will also be suicidal to presume for a moment that we are helpless in the face of these continual eruptions of bloody conflicts.

It does not require the power of clairvoyance to see that the nation cannot afford the cost of these conflicts indefinitely. While each conflict should be dealt with on the merits of the peculiar issues fuelling it, there is the overreaching need to see them as manifestations of a faulty process of nation-building. The challenge for leadership is to correct these faults by means of a people- oriented constitution and policies based on equity and justice for all.

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