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Published On: Tue, Sep 8th, 2020

Local conflicts in Nigeria: A contest between history, theories and the culture of impunity

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By E.O. Ojelabi

One general feature of local violent conflicts in the global south is its abundant presence. Societies usually have histories that have informed contemporary relations and these relations in some cases, have featured armed violence and bloodletting. The conflict issues usually oscillate around land, resource and resource rent, chieftaincy, ethnic/tribal hegemony struggles among other prevailing issues. In rentier states, patronage politics and clientelism have allowed for the political accommodation of conflict protagonists and this has raised questions of the value of internal integrity. The political elites often find ways out of unimaginable carnages by trivializing and cloaking them under names like “farmer-herder clashes”, “inter-communal crisis”, “communal skirmish”, “land or border dispute” among others. Their resolutions are given appellations such as “settlement”, “reconciliation”, “forgiveness”, “accommodation” and the recently popular maxim in the Nigerian political scenery, “repentance”. The public lethargy that comes with these “terms” stems from the idealist assurance that such issues would be resolved under the law rather than parties resorting to self-help. The question of this article is inspired by the rhetorical question asked by H.E. Mr. President in one of his recent meetings with the Service Chiefs: “How are the weapons coming in?”, mine is: how are the perpetrators getting away?
The rhetorical appellation given to His Excellency’s question above is not to spite the good intentions of the question. In fact, I personally sympathize with the presidency because even the most despotic of leaders would be perplexed at the total loss of internal integrity as in the recent Nigerian case. A good example of this was the Kaduna State’s government admittance to have gone across the Nigerian borders to pay some strange elements who had come into the state to murder Nigerian citizens with a view to persuade them not to kill Nigerians any more. No, the rhetorical appellation given to the question is because of the disappointment that comes with the dawn of the reality that the presidency may just be aloof of necessary information on the recent situation of the Nigerian security. It is pitiful that at this stage in the insecurity situation of Nigeria, we are just starting to ask the question of how the weapons deployed are getting in and where they are coming from.
Any average student of History and/or International Relations knows that after the cold war, and subsequent activities of its creations in 1979, weapons proliferation in the world became a thing of omnipresence. This should not puzzle any right-thinking intelligence institution. What should rather disturb the intelligence community is the reign of “impunity”. Experts and scholars of security and nation-building have agreed in a plethora of studies that as it concerns security, actions must beget consequences. The lack of consequence for actions carried out – no matter how minute – have dire –ironically– “consequences” for the society where such inconsequence reign. What we have in Nigeria is a state of no consequence when elements could just take up arms, commit murder in large proportions, and get away with it in the name of perpetually conducted “investigations”. For instance, during the covid-19 lockdown, the number of people extrajudicially killed by the police and those who died because of covid complications were contending in about a ratio of 60% – 40%. Some officers who had overwhelming evidence against them, thanks to the social media, are by now being fondled back into the force after the initial “gragra” (drama) of suspension and investigation by the police authorities. That is not even as interesting as the case of the Honourably Handsome “woman beater” Senator whom the court has recently acquitted because there was no witness in court despite the pre-eminence of a video all over the public space that showed the Senator in his element, beating mercilessly, a poor lady for reasons like “disrespect and insults”. But we should not delve into this discussion yet because the new NBC letter to broadcasters have in no light language, warned against all forms of insults to “our elders” or “authority” as same is not seen as our “culture”. The question here, therefore is: what “culture”, what “insult”? Perhaps it is too much insult to call out a sitting Governor, an “elderly” Statesman in “authority” who appears to be seen on video putting stacks of cash in all the pockets available in his gigantic clothing. Indeed the eyes could be deceiving, the videos must have had the works of criminal physicians who must have performed some kind of plastic surgery on it because even “forensic examinations” found it difficult to explain. It is just too insulting. Yes, I agree we should not insult the “culture” and “authority” of impunity, we should rise and pull them down!
Therefore, in order to avoid more insults, this article would move to solve the problem of confusion when addressing recent violent armed conflict issues in Nigeria: historicity, theories and impunity.
Free advice, when you want to say so many things without actually saying anything, put your words in terminologies. For example, don’t say stealing, say “corrupt” or “misappropriate”, don’t say killings or murder or massacre or genocide, say clash, skirmish and dispute. Do not make the mistake of saying “guilty” or “culprit”, use “better words” like “inquiry” and “investigation”. Simply put, Nigeria has perfected the act of saying so much without saying anything and the new word in town is “banditry” in the stead of “terrorism” and “security collapse”.
This is the recent case of Nigeria. When carnages like the persistent killings of Benue was heading the dailies in 2018, the news was, herders needed the RUGA to accommodate their economic activities and therefore the “clash” was largely a farmer-herder “dispute”. Not much reportage dwelled on the security implication of the incidence and the fact that a group of unknown persons had gone into the villages, opened life rounds of Kalashnikovs (AKs) on villagers, and murdered them in their teeming numbers with nobody to hold for accountability.
The biggest astonishment of this occurrence is the “pre-action protocols” of the Military, an institution of noble, admirable, dignified, and distinguished honourable people who somehow find pride in literally whipping civilians at any given opportunity. In these violent armed conflict zones what is noticed is that they impose curfews and everybody goes to sleep in the assurance that the situation has been arrested only to wake up the next morning to the news of scores killed in their sleep during the curfew. The excuse of the military would then be that they lacked the logistics to get to the conflict scenes in time to arrest the “curfewed” “situation”. In a natural course of event, someone should be court-marshalled the next minute and debriefed of how the event took place under his/her watch.
Now, to explain it away or in the innocent search for the why of the conflict, many analysts want to delve into the historical perspective of the conflict and their findings lead to the labelling of the contemporary incidents with fancy words like “retaliation” and “reciprocity”. What this then does is that it removes the element of “accountability”. The question that lingers in the mind of conflict and strategy analysts is the structural integrities of security of the places where violent conflicts occur and take the lives of many severally only to be tagged “retaliation”. Who is retaliating against whom? What does the law say about the ownership of land? Who are those who took the law into their hands in settling their dispute? How did the perpetrators escape without traces? Who should be called for resolution talks? Who are those to sit for the exercise? Who are they representing? Who were or are in charge of security in the area? Do they still have integrity? These I believe, are the questions any reasonable state should be asking itself. Only answers to these questions can lead to solutions to these needless and barbaric killings cloaked under primitive, revisionist historicism.
The distinction between historicism and contemporary dynamics is unambiguous. While history is germane in the search of the background to these conflicts, it cannot justify or explain away murder let alone mass murder. The world has moved across many ages and phases of man’s history, the recent age is the age of globalization and information essentially, freedom. The age where every human reserve the right to life, freedom and freedom of expression, freedom to own properties and freedom to alienate same for many reasons under the ambit of the law. Whoever must challenge these freedoms must do so under the law, except, of course, the law is not in existence. This speaks to the anarchic nature of man but more abundantly, to the failure and fast deterioration of modern society as it is. For what is the essence of a law that could be broken at will by elements within its jurisdiction because of their connections to the upholder and interpreters of the law? It is nonexistent, a farce, a nullity and a disgrace.

E.O. Ojelabi is a Public Affairs Analyst.

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