Skip to main content

More Than Military Solutions To Solve Ethnoreligious Antagonism By Kings Madueke

April 7, 2015

Indeed, many Nigerians are aware of these cleavages and the antagonisms that characterize them. It is however typical of us to know our house is sitting on a minefield and still go about as if nothing is amiss. It’s fine - as long as violence remains in some remote part of the country. There were no qualms for a resident of Port Harcourt I met two years ago and engaged in a discussion of how bombs were going off every other Sunday in Jos, Kaduna and Abuja.

Everyone knows why Nigeria didn’t erupt in violence following the presidential polls of 28 March, 2015. Muhammadu Buhari of All Progressives Party (APC), and not any other candidate, emerged winner, and People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) Goodluck Jonathan - the incumbent, for once disregarding the ill counsel of his aides, conceded defeat. Everyone knows the minutest break in that delicate order of events would have caused this mammoth geopolitical officialdom to burst forth in flames. Mobs were already spoiling for war in some cities and the exercise was marred with bouts of violence. Everyone knows the casualty wouldn’t have stopped at 800 deaths or 65, 000 displacements like the post-election violence in April 2011. Clearly, such a violent outbreak might have warranted a military coup and easily mark the beginning of complete chaos for Africa’s most populous country as speculated in a US National Intelligence Council report a decade ago.

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display('content1'); });

But not everyone knows the calm and order we enjoy today is not peace. Not everyone knows that the quiet on our streets is a façade underneath which the magma of ethnic animosity is sweltering red-hot. Not everyone knows that if this volcano is not urgently rendered inactive, we may witness its eruption sooner than the next general elections in 2019.

One can’t deny that the conduct of the elections was calm compared to the 2011 case or when considered within the wider context of what elections have come to represent in Nigeria. There was no major violence safe for pockets of attacks on some polling units in Gombe and an explosion in Enugu. Apart from these incidences and some individuals that overstepped the bounds of celebration and set ablaze the home of a PDP chieftain in Jos and other skirmishes of this nature, Nigerians have been basking in ‘peace’ since the announcement of the results last week. Social media have been awash with felicitous outpourings as people celebrate the ‘peace’.

While some hullabaloo in appreciation of calm after a moment of high tension is in place, we shouldn’t confuse this calm with peace. We need to, as a matter of urgency, become aware of the sharp distinction between the two. First, this awareness will compel us to become fully aware of our position and take appropriate precautionary measures. Second, knowing our true situation averts the rude shock that a sudden conflagration may bring. That said, in avoidance of disciplinary jargon, ‘order’ or its synonym in this context ‘calm’ may be described as a situation where people are angry and ready to take out the perceived enemy at the slightest provocation but stop short of doing so because a more powerful intervening force – in this case the military and police – has its guns on ready. Order is transitory, a means to peace. It oughtn’t to be an end in itself. ‘Peace’ on the other hand is the military sticking to its primary responsibility of protecting territorial integrity and the police not having to mount roadblocks at every turn of the street to stop neighbors from killing each other in the name of religion. Peace is also voting your choice at the polls without fear of intimidation or even death. Now, do you still think we have peace? 

googletag.cmd.push(function() { googletag.display('content2'); });

Contrary to what the present sense of calm in Nigeria may suggest, several pointers show our security situation is more precarious now than it has ever been since the Civil War. Ethnoreligious conflicts are a staple in Benue, Kaduna, Plateau, Taraba and elsewhere since the return to democratic rule in 1999. Violent attacks are still an ongoing reality in these areas even as I write. Upon this, a six-year insurgency in Borno and other adjacent areas in the northeast corner of the country has caused over 6000 deaths in 2014 alone accounting for about half of civilian deaths in Africa for that year. Put all these against a background of increasing unemployment levels, stinging poverty and pervasive discontent and there you have the most remarkable recipe for pandemonium that can ever converge in political space.

Another source of alarm is the voting patterns at the presidential elections. It reveals in-group solidarity and out-group resentment, very important condiments in any conflict, are at their highest. Nigeria is more divided along ethnoreligious fault lines now than any other time in its history, excepting the years of war. Results of the polls confirm this with statistical precision. At least 80 percent of those that voted each of the two prominent candidates – Jonathan and Buhari – were of the same region, religion and, to a lesser degree, ethnicity.  All over, these identity markers overruled all other considerations in people’s choice of a president, including in Kaduna, Bauchi, Niger and various other states were party affiliation was a crucial factor in 2011. Although results in north-central and southwest regions were arguably evenly shared between the various candidates, it is difficult to rule out the role of religion and ethnicity in influencing votes in these places too. This however is not to deny that many people also voted based on other personal calculations.

In a country where mobilizing for votes must coincide with in-group solidarity ethnic mobilization, outburst like the one by Oba of Lagos, Rilwan Akiolu, and the ensuing online ethnic war between some members of the Yoruba and Igbo communities is expected. It is a timely reminder that the many instances of collective violence on our streets are only symptomatic of deeper rivalries and wounds and, beyond fighting belligerents on our streets; we must explore strategies that address longstanding grievances and animosities.  

Indeed, many Nigerians are aware of these cleavages and the antagonisms that characterize them. It is however typical of us to know our house is sitting on a minefield and still go about as if nothing is amiss. It’s fine - as long as violence remains in some remote part of the country. There were no qualms for a resident of Port Harcourt I met two years ago and engaged in a discussion of how bombs were going off every other Sunday in Jos, Kaduna and Abuja. Also, when militancy raged over a decade ago in the oil-rich Niger-Delta, I remember many people in the north waved carelessly at the tales of environmental devastation, acute deprivation and death that sipped out from the creeks and villages like Odi and Odioma. For my friend from Boki LGA of Cross River, solace is sought in geography, ‘No stupid terrorist can penetrate these mountains and reach us here,’ was his addendum to a usually long thesis on how to deal with ethnoreligious violence and insurgency.     

This apathy and tendency to disassociate may have affected the security sector in important ways. A conversation with a security officer in Lagos early last year exemplified this. We were discussing Nigeria’s security challenges and he said, ‘I wonder what Christians are still doing in places like Kano and Borno where they’re daily slaughtered’. For this officer, under oath to keep the unity of Nigeria, the best solution is for everyone to relocate to his or her ancestral home. Of course, this example does not represent the mindset of many Nigerian soldiers and it could well be an exception but it does tell us that our uniform men are also subject to polarization and some may just be on their way to giving up on the idea of a Nigeria.   

Hand in hand with apathy is an obsession with a unidimensional approach to managing violent conflicts and insurgency. As noted elsewhere, there is a fixation on military checkpoints and patrols as means for curling conflicts. The Special Taskforce in Jos codenamed ‘Operation Safe Haven’ is a good illustration of how this strategy lacks the capacity to address the multidimensional nature of such situations. While armed personnel of the operation have been doing their job of deterring violence, a complementary agenda for addressing the underlying grievances that set groups on edge is non-existent or lethargic if it does exist. There have been various attempts at ‘peace talks’ but most of them have proven to be lip service or mere political permutations. Therefore, five years after the deployment of ‘Operation Safe Haven’ in January 2010, the crux of the conflict remain unaddressed. In a bid to create a safe haven, they have only succeeded in bringing to bear what peace scholars call ‘grave yard peace’.

For how long can this passive response mechanism delay our doomsday? How long will this thinning surface hold down an active volcano?  Importantly, what can the government of Muhammadu Buhari do differently to address this volcano sizzling underneath a veneer of calm?

On 29 May 2015, Buhari takes the oath of office as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The former military leader inherits a country steep in economic, political and security problems. His stance against corruption is well known. Apart from an all-out war against this malaise that has more than any other factor brought shame upon our collective experience, the General must prepare to wage another war – this time against Nigeria’s longstanding security dilemmas and regional antipathy. Beyond military tactics, the new government must explore political options that will start us on the path to filling out the ever-widening gully that sharply bisects the country into ethnoreligious camps spoiling for each other’s throat. The new government must challenge this obsession with ad hoc and reactionary methods and reach for more sophisticated response mechanisms to ethnoreligious conflicts and insurgencies. What is needed is to forge a new security philosophy that sees the task of mainstreaming peace as an amalgam of military, political as well as structural solutions. To do this, the General and his security advisers must first strike a clear difference between ‘order’ and ‘peace’ and allow this awareness shape security policy in Nigeria.