Ethno-religious violence is not a new phenomenon in Nigeria. In the past, any outbreak of violence would be promptly nipped in the bud by the institutions and agencies responsible for enforcing law and order without any qualms, without anybody reading something sinister into it. However, what is responsible for imputing ethno-religious motives into the current round of pogrom in the central region of Nigeria? To my mind, reasons are many and varied. Subsequently, I will attempt to dissect them as dispassionately as I can. For me, the dimension that communal relations are assuming in Nigeria is very frightening. There’s so much mistrust and acrimony between groups to the extent that reason and logic are allowed to take the back seat in the ongoing verbal recriminations on the circles of violence between Fulani herdsmen and the locals in central Nigeria.
I will begin by acknowledging that nobody doubts recent happenings in Nigeria, which are a cause for concern. Equally disturbing is the monstrosity, so to speak, of the machinations of centrifugal forces of disunity in Nigeria that impute ethnicity and religion in the violent conflagrations threatening to engulf the nation. My concern here is not just the evil that propels individuals and groups to easily engage in violence, because they see it as a means of redressing grievances. Such acts only amount to a call for total anarchy. As we are seeing its effects in other climes, violence hamstrung development and progress of nations that come under its grip. In the roll call of instances of violence gripping our nation, we are witnessing its mutation from one ugly form to another. Yesterday, it is the violence of ethno-religious conflicts, of armed robbers, and of kidnappers dotting our landscape. Today, it is the violence of Boko Haram as well as the violence wrought by herdsmen and counter-violence of the victims. Tomorrow, God knows how it would transmogrify. Whatever the case, we do not seem to be getting close to averting circles of violence in Nigeria.
It is true that herdsmen are wrecking havoc to farming communities across Nigeria, and even the government appeared to be helpless as to a realistic way out of the problem. It is also true that the violence perpetuated by herdsmen is becoming very ugly, brutal and very violent as dangerous weapons are now used to inflict mayhem on the victims of such violence. Indeed, herders/farmers violent clashes are increasing in frequency. Perhaps, this is happening because of mounting demographic pressures on available lands, and also because other unsustainable socio-cultural practices. This has indeed been going on for decades without adequate government intervention to arrest the situation. More so now that Nigeria is experimenting with neoliberal laissez-faire. Everything that is happening now should not surprise anyone. This is because our conflict resolution mechanism is either very weak or virtually non-existent. The other plausible explanation to it is that government institutions charged with the responsibility of averting communal conflicts from one form of social pressure or another are either dysfunctional or totally comatose. Issues that would have been normally resolved amicably are left to linger without any concrete solution in sight. In our violent arena, the non-state actors are getting stronger by the day, and are increasingly overwhelming our security forces and institutions of State. This can be seen from the poor prognosis they make of what is ailing our body politic. This is just one side of the story.
The other side of the story is that some communities have decided to take the laws into their own hands as they embark on reprisal killings. In their line of reasoning, they perceived the indifference or unwillingness of authorities to tackle the menace of what they called violence of Fulani cattle herders. In doing so, they too have resorted to violence in equal measure. As can be seen, their counter-violence is also too gory, extreme and inhuman. From the images of counter-violence in Plateau, Southern Kaduna, Taraba and now Benue, indiscriminate counter-violence on Fulani herders and anyone who is remotely connected to them was equally brutal. The circle is now complete. Violence begets more violence ad infinitum. In the vicious circles of violence and counter-violence, the biggest casualty is our common humanity, and of course the Nigerian project itself. We have got to a point in which ethno-religious zealots bent on completely tearing down the country are insisting that the rest of us must see things from their narrow perspectives. Again, we do not seem to have learnt any lesson from the history of violence, here and elsewhere in the world.
Another driver of violent conflicts is politics. Politics is read into the causes of violence in Nigeria, particularly when elections are around the corner. Thus, when President Goodluck Jonathan was in office some people blame him for Boko Haram violence in the Northeast as President Muhammadu Buhari is currently blamed for the violence of Fulani herdsmen in central Nigeria. In case it escapes our memory, history has recorded Nigerian civil war as one of the most violent moments of the 20th century. More than one million lives were lost in less than three years. Postcolonial Nigeria is still unable to heal from the scars of its brutal civil war. Before 1999, most of the communal conflicts that erupted in Nigeria were purely ethnic in nature as experienced in the key urban centers of Nigeria. Other minor violent conflicts that intermittently flared up in different parts of northern Nigeria were mostly driven by land disputes between groups. There are also conflicts between sedentary rural communities engaged in subsistent farming and pastoralists that usually degenerated into violence, especially in some parts of northern Nigeria.
However, the annulment of June 12 elections in which Moshood Kashimawo Abiola, a Yoruba Muslim from Southwest Nigeria, spectacularly won the election that was attested to be free, fair and transparent in its conduct. The annulment of the election by the military junta of northern Nigerian extraction had in no small measure widened the gulf of disunity amongst the sections of our country. Notably, the South felt that the North was unwilling to share power with other sections of the country after a very long spate of military rule which started in earnest from the early 1970s through to the closing decade of the 20th century. Ironically, ethnicity became the guiding principle of the struggle to recoup Mashood Abiola’s mandate, a candidate that was unanimously elected by Nigerians despite their differences, ethnicities, regions and religions. Even the human rights and pro-democracy agitations waged under the military were tainted by ethnic coloration. Mutual suspicion between groups and violent conflicts are too numerous to catalogue here anyway. The stage was however set for the acceleration of violent conflicts even with the openness and opportunities on offer with the return of Nigeria to democracy and civil rule in 1999.
In recent years, there are quite a number of instances of violent conflicts accentuated by our ethno-religious cleavages. Wikipedia catalogue a litany of violent conflicts in Nigeria between 1999 and 2016. In 1999, the year of Nigeria’s return to democratic rule, there was the Odi massacre by the Nigerian army, following the violent bid of Niger Delta militants to control oil resources of the region or compel the federal government to change the sharing formula of oil revenue. In 2000, there was a religious riot between Christians and Muslims over the introduction of Sharia law in Kaduna. 2001 witnessed Jos ethno-religious riots between Muslims and Christians. Again, in 2002 there was Miss world inter-religious riots in which churches and mosques were touched and destroyed as a result. 2004, there was Yelwa Shendam and Kano riots that also assumed a religious garb. In 2006, there was the death of more than 50 people and destruction of property in especially Maiduguri over the caricature of Prophet Muhammad by a cartoonist in Europe.
There was another round of violent riots in Jos in 2008 over Jos North local government elections. The mother of all Boko Haram religious violence busted out in 2009 in Maiduguri, Bauchi and Potiskum where about 1000 people lost their lives. 2010 also saw another religious riots in Jos with so many casualties. In 2011, there was Boko Haram attack of banks, churches and mosques in Damaturu, Yobe State, and Maiduguri where a number of people lost their lives. Boko Haram militants also bombed a Catholic Church during Christmas mass at Madalla. In 2012, there was Boko Haram violent attacks in Mubi, Gombi, Maiduguri, Potiskum, Okene, Kano and Kaduna. Boko Haram also carried out Baga massacre in 2013. In the same year, they started targeting schools in Yobe where they killed more than 40 children, and in Gujba were 44 students were killed in their hostel. Targeting of schools and residential areas by Boko Haram intensified in 2014 and 2015 with enormous casualties in Konduga, Gamboru, Gwoza and Kano. There was another massacre in Baga where about 2000 people lost their lives. In 2015, ethno-religious violence took a little detour with Biafran protesters killing some people from northern Nigeria resident in the Southeast. As a result, the Nigerian army unleashed themselves on the Biafra secessionist agitators. In the violent encounter, about 80 Biafran separatists lost their lives. This was followed up with the Zaria massacre of Shiites by the same Nigerian army in December 2015.
So far, how have the vicious circles of violence of non-state actors and even the violence of the Nigeria state helped any cause? I don’t see how. As far as I’m concerned, there are better and more rational alternatives of resolving conflicts. In Nigeria however, we resort to violence first before exploring peaceful means of conflict resolution. Violence should be made the last resort. Violence has never achieved positive results for anybody. We always end up regretting our resort to violent means in our attempts to address grievances. In the cacophony of our discordant voices, what is conspicuously missing is an authentic Nigerian voice that would view issues dispassionately from the perspective of Nigeria rather than our variegated identities. This is of course what is characterizing our responses to the current pastoralists violence and reprisals in central Nigeria. And that approach is not going to help anyone!