Sunday, May 24, 2015

On Conflicts: It's All About Land (Mostly)

Conflict, according to dictionary.com, means to come to collision or disagreement; to be in opposition or to clash. Conflict usually emerges when an individual or a group feels deprived and then seeks to re-balance the scales.  

While conflict in and of itself is not necessarily a negative event, the way it is handled may result in it being destructive or constructive; positive or negative. A positive outcome is more likely achieved if appropriate steps are taken to manage conflicts before they degenerate.

From the precolonial communal warfare between the Modakekes and the Ifes, through the colonial Aba women’s riot, and down to post-colonial terrorist attacks unleashed by Boko Haram, Nigeria, like most countries, has witnessed its fair share of conflicts.

However, while most conflicts in Nigeria take on the form of tribal and/or religious intolerance and rivalry, it should be noted that the fundamental bone of contention is economic as it is political. In other words, whoever has political clout can decide who gets the lion’s share of the land and its resources. The road to wealth depends heavily on access to land and the ability to use or monetize it and its resources, which is why the political elite has blithely continued colonial Britain’s divide and rule strategy, by playing on Nigeria tribal and religious differences for their own selfish gains.

Unrest in the Niger Delta

The genesis of the political crisis and kidnapping of oil workers by militants in the Niger Delta is attributable to loss of livelihood through water and soil degradation from oil spills, poor governance and pervasive corruption. Government officials, traditional rulers and community leaders, who should act as custodians of the land, have neglected their duties in exchange for bribes masquerading as compensations and contracts from oil companies.
Photo: Sosialistisk Ungdom

Political activism is financially motivated in the Niger Delta, since patronage guarantees crumbs from the tables of traditional rulers or local politicians. This attitude has negatively impacted Niger Deltans, who have become less inclined to consider other forms of economic activities in generating a sustainable income.

Similarly, several kings and kingdoms of dubious origins have sprouted, leading to hostilities and divisions because of the financial compensation they stand to gain.

Settler-Indigene Malaise

A major source of contention in Nigeria’s conflicts is the indigene-settler conundrum. The Modakeke-Ife crisis in Osun state, the Ezza-Ezillo conflict in Ebonyi state and the Berome-Fulani hostility in Plateau state all suffer from the same affliction: Son of the soil syndrome.

According to Nigeria’s federal character principle, indigenes who are the original inhabitants of the 
land have more rights and privileges than settlers, regardless of how long settlers have resided on the land. To be sure, the aim of the federal character is to ensure all ethnicities and states have equal access to government offices and opportunities related to education, employment and land ownership.

But as to whether the policy has helped Nigeria remains moot, since the idea of indigeneity takes precedence over the idea of nationality.

Intra-tribal Hostilities

The Modakeke-Ife rivalry is one of the oldest intra-tribal conflicts predating colonial rule in Nigeria. Historical evidence show that the Modakeke’s were given farmlands by the Ifes after the fall of the Oyo Empire. In return, it’s believed that the Modakekes helped fight wars for the Ifes. Regardless, a crack appeared in their relationship and enmity supplanted friendship.

Brutal attacks and counter-attacks were launched by both sides, claiming several lives. The Modakeke’s have accused the Ife’s of marginalisation, claiming their areas are the least developed, while the Ife’s claim the Modakeke’s have stopped paying tribute for the farmlands, and have gone on to commandeer more land than was originally apportioned to them.

In recent times, the conflict has mostly been attributed to the location of a local government headquarters, with each side wanting it in their purview. Meanwhile, politicians and the state government have wasted no time in taking advantage of the crisis, by promising to locate the local government headquarter in the zone of the community that politically supports them.

The Ezillo – Ezza rivalry in Ebonyi state is no different. Oral tradition has it that the Ezillos invited 22 Ezza men to help settle a land dispute between them and their Ngbo neighbour in the early 1930s. 

Following the resolution of the dispute, the Ezza men decided to remain in Ezillo, subsequently invited their kith and kin. Needless to say, the relationship between the two communities turned sour, and soon enough indigene-settler sentiments emerged in the community.

Both communities claim injustice: On the one hand, the Ezzas are of the opinion that they’re denied basic amenities because the Ezillos occupy strategic positions in government, and therefore call the shots. On the other hand, the Ezillos fault the Ezzas for disregarding traditional norms, such as fishing in sacred waters and flouting new yam festival rules.

Also, the Ezillos are asking that the Ezzas return to the piece of land they were originally given, but the Ezzas claim that the area is underdeveloped and that they cannot afford to live their homes and business behind.

Inter-tribal and Religious Conflicts

Another settler-indigene hostility plaguing Nigeria exists between Berome and Fulani tribes in Jos, Plateau state. While the strife bears religious and tribal undertones, the genesis of the conflict is land.

Mass Burial Following Conflict
Photo: AFP/STR/Getty
Foreigners from different parts of Nigeria settled in Jos on invitation by the British to mine tin in the historically Christian area. The arrival of Fulanis, who are predominantly herdsmen and Muslims, resulted in clashes over grazing land between them and the Beromes, who are farmers and Christians.

Incidentally, during the slave-trade era, Fulanis were notorious for kidnapping from smaller tribes - such as the Beromes - and selling them as slaves, which may also explain the ill-feelings the Beromes harbour towards the Fulanis.

Presently, Fulanis complain they’re being discriminated against because they’re Muslims, and have accused the Jos government of making the switching process from settler to indigene easier for Christian settlers. And because Fulani remain settlers, they hardly have any say in political issues affecting them, despite that fact they have lived in Jos for several years and consider it home.

The Government’s Role in Protracted Conflicts

It should be noted that the Nigerian government has not only been painfully slow and uninterested in preventing, managing or resolving conflicts, but has also exacerbated some of them – as in the Modakeke-Ife crisis and in the imprisonment and subsequent death of the Niger Delta activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. And on the occasion that the government does act, brutal force is used as in the Modakeke-Ife 1997 crisis, where General Sani Abacha sent in the police and military.

While military might may halt the upheaval in the short term, it doesn’t offer long term solutions to the fighting.

Also, the government’s penchant for short-termism is evident in the amnesty program for the Niger-Delta militants. Introduced by the late President Yar’Adua as a means of ending the kidnapping of foreign oil workers and pipeline vandalism, the program has been criticized in some quarters as an unsustainable, lazy solution to a complex problem.

For instance, while militants have agreed to lay down their weapons in exchange for job training, employment in oil companies, pipeline protection contracts and monetary compensations, what happens when the amnesty program expires this year? Furthermore, when oil loses its prized position as black gold and oil companies shut down, what happens to the heavily polluted area and its people?

The government’s ineptitude in conflict resolution is obvious in its failure to bring to justice instigators and perpetrators of these conflicts, and also its reluctance to implement the findings of commissions set up to investigate conflicts.

Sadly, the government’s nonchalance is also rooted in the fear of ruffling the feathers of the political elite.

Is Conflict Resolution a Possibility?

The primary reason conflicts exist is due to land inaccessibility– a resource that symbolizes economic power. Therefore, the government should strive towards making the pathway to wealth creation accessible to all Nigerians

Problems associated with indigeneity can be resolved by amending the constitution to give more weight to residency rather than indigeneity. That way, residents of a state can access services and employment opportunities in the same way as indigenes.

In addition, power over resource control and distribution should be vested on the State and Local Governments rather than on the Federal Government, as they’re closer to the people, and would more likely ensure economic equity across communities.

Establishing a truth and reconciliation commission, where victims and assailants can voice their grievances, would help douse the flames of distrust and rivalry between and within communities. The government should also ensure culprits don’t go unpunished, thereby serving as a warning for would-be assailants.

In summary, religious and ethnic differences as political tools would become ineffective, when people have equal access to opportunities and receive a fair share of available resources.