2 February 2013

Nigeria: Clash of Identities

Even before the amalgamation of the Southern and Northern Protectorates to become Nigeria, the country has always been a multi-ethnic nation state with many as well as diverse ethnic group. It therefore came to be the lot of Nigeria to not only cope with the problem of ethnicity on one hand, but religious conflict on the other.

In the last decade, ethno-religious conflicts have taken place in many parts of Nigeria, which underlines the challenges the country faces in its efforts to deal with a heterogeneous society. Though Nigeria's major religions are Islam and Christianity, there are many others who still follow traditional modes of worship.

The fact that Christianity and Islam enjoy the loyalty of most Nigerians, in a nation with three dominant ethnic groups - Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo - means there will be friction along these fault lines. Another contradiction is the fact that, though the British colonialists claimed to have Nigerians on the imperative of secularity in a multi-religious society, religion remains a uniting as well as disuniting force depending on how it is deployed. The same holds true for ethnicity and other forms of identities.

For instance, one Nigerian can have multiple identities influenced by his religion, ethnicity and many others like family background, educational background, etc.

Northern Nigeria, comprising 19 states and the Federal Capital Territory, is no stranger to conflicts of ethno-religious coloration. Though largely seen and treated as one entity by outsiders and those who have little or no knowledge of the nature of the region, the North, or rather its people, have their own separate religious and ethnic identities.

As to be expected, a lot has been written about ethno-religious conflicts in the North, from Kaduna to Plateau, Bauchi to Taraba, Adamawa to Borno, Nasarawa to Benue, Kogi to Kano, Gombe to Kebbi and so on.

Indeed, in December 2008 and February 2009, the Human Rights Watch, a global body, carried out on-the-ground research in Jos, Plateau State. It conducted 151 interviews with Muslim and Christian witnesses, victims, and perpetrators of the violence, human rights activists, religious leaders, local and international journalists, businessmen, Red Cross officials, lawyers, police and military authorities, Plateau State government officials, members of political parties, and electoral officials.

The body has done similar works on conflicts in Kaduna and other parts of the North and released reports detailing their findings, which were always made known even if never used in the end.

However, in this book, perhaps more than any other book on the same subject, Dr Hussani Abdu not only wrote about the conflicts, which many believe have taken the region many years back in terms of development and integration, but succeeded in putting them in a context for better understanding and appreciation.

In the book, Abdu recommended some ways to build inter ethnic and religious harmony. One of the recommendations is the decentralization of traditional institutions. "As indicated in our findings, centralised and discriminatory traditional institutions are at the core of ethno-religious conflicts in Kaduna State and other parts of northern Nigeria. The establishment of more chiefdom in southern Kaduna since 1996 was a good starting point. However, from all indications, almost all ethnic groups and communities are demanding for Chiefdoms or Emirates. Even when chiefdoms or emirates are created, a new layer of conflict will emerge - the demand for upgrading and other related problems.

"Since tradition and culture are not in the direct purview of the government (unless where they contradict the fundamental principles of the state and rights of individuals), traditional institutions should be removed from the direct control of the government. To avoid these problems, they should be decentralised. Communities should be allowed to independently create and appoint their leaders and fund the institutions without interference from the government. The state Government should be made to develop a minimal regulatory framework for such decentralisation."

He went further to say that the traditional institutions should, afterward, be charged with the responsibility of promoting dialogue and understanding between different ethnic and religious groups for the purpose of either pre-empting conflicts or peace-building in conflict situations. In doing this, the traditional institutions should observe the principles of justice, fair play and equity in dealing with the people under their jurisdiction.

Another recommendation is to contain culture of impunity, where the writer says "Violence in Kaduna as in other parts of the country is fast becoming an issue of impunity. For many years, mindless violence, wanton destruction and killings have occurred without the perpetrators being prosecuted or punished. Where they are prosecuted, the process has always been politicised."

It is possible for the reader to feel that somehow the writer seems to have dwelled too much on the case of Kaduna State, and therefore should have titled the book to read "Clash of Identities: State, Society and Ethno-Religious Conflicts in Kaduna (instead of Northern Nigeria). But I think there is an explanation to this. Kaduna State is the former capital of the entire states that today are spread across three geopolitical zones, and to a large extent what is true of Kaduna may be the same for many other states in the North.

As for the style of writing the book, which may be considered a bit academic, the background of the writer must be brought to bear. Dr Hussaini Abdu is presently the Country Director for ActionAid in Nigeria, a civil society organisation fighting poverty across the globe. He is also an academic and development activist.

In all this review cannot be considered a substitute or even a summary of the book. Rather, it is a plea to our leaders, especially those in Northern Nigeria, to find time out of their schedule to read this book so as to understand the realities that have been continuously overlooked as far as ethno-religious conflicts in this part of the world. Students, academics and politicians, I also believe, have a lot to learn from this book.

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