Since the return to civil rule in 1999, ethnic and religious conflicts across the Nigerian federation have claimed an estimated fifty thousand lives. These conflicts have not just been inter-ethnic or inter-religious; they have also been intra-ethnic and intra-religious. They include clashes between the Ife and the Modakeke in Osun State, the Aguleri and Umuleri in Anambra and the Ezza and Ezillo in Ebonyi State. Sectarian clashes between Christian and Muslim partisans dominate the headlines because they cohere with a popular mythical narrative of Nigeria as a nation embroiled in a clash of civilizations. Less reported is the intra-sectarian animosity that has seen Sunnis and Shiites clash in Zaria and Sokoto, or the war of attrition waged by Boko Haram and allied extremist sects on other Muslims who oppose them.
The escalation of conflict suggests a correlation between democratization and violence. After the long decades of military dictatorship, democracy was supposed to inaugurate an era of peace and prosperity. Why has it led to so much strife? A major reason is the nature of democracy itself. As Claude Ake once wrote, “The military is a taut chain of command; democracy is a benign anarchy of diversity. Democracy presupposes human sociability; the military presupposes its total absence, the inhuman extremity of killing the opposition. The military demands submission, democracy enjoins participation; one is a toll of violence, the other, a means of consensus building for peaceful co-existence.” Democracy creates greater spaces for self-definition and self-understanding by various groups and interests.
Under military dictatorships, political identities are necessarily constrained by the code of totalitarian uniformity that permits only two actors – the state and the citizenry. Democracy opened the flood gates of expression and activism. Repressed identities and resentments surged to the surface. For example, during the military era, the notion of Arewa – northern Nigeria as a political monolith – was an article of faith in the media. One of the most important political developments since 1999 has been the fraying of northern identity. The ecumenical regionalism of Ahmadu Bello, and the dubious provincial cronyism propagated by some northern elites during military rule has collapsed into the chaos of self-determination and cultural and political rediscovery.
Since 1999, the previously plain canvas of northern homogeneity has fractured into sharp colours of resurgent ethnic identities. New narratives that involve the Sayawa, the Adara, the Nupe, the Berom and the Bajju have become prominent revealing the ethnically heterogeneous and fairly fractious reality of the north. Democracy offers opportunities for various flags of identity to be hoisted in the sun. This is precisely what is happening. Democracy is conducive for diversity in a way that totalitarianism cannot be. This is why Nigeria’s diversity has become troublingly thematic in recent times. It is all part of the renegotiation of political realities that is promoted by democracy.
However, the fundamental problem is that in a multi-religious and multi-ethnic polity where democracy is still primitively defined as a game of numbers rather than a contest of ideas, it is bound to generate the tyranny of the majority. Most of the conflicts in Nigeria revolve around the relational dynamics between ethnic and religious majorities and minorities. This is compounded by a rentier economy in which numbers are used to corner resources, economic advantages and social opportunities to the detriment of minority groups. This accounts for the extant apartheid system in which certain groups define themselves as indigenes and landlords and classify other citizens as settlers and tenants. Most states entertain discriminatory policies in employment practices and admission into public schools that make nonsense of Nigerian citizenship.
In such circumstances, where an illiberal democracy sustains restrictions on the civic status of citizens, the tyranny of the majority is countered by the rage of the minority. Conflict is inevitable. Where majorities can hijack the apparatus of the state and direct its machinery of coercion against perceived opponents, minorities resort to anti-state violence. The structural violence of majoritarian tyranny is equalized by the actual physical violence of minoritarian terrorism. Militancy and aggression, in this sense, constitute the eloquence of those rendered voiceless by the system.
The biggest factor in the escalation of conflicts since 1999 has been the inability or unwillingness of the federal government to act as a neutral arbiter of contending provincial passions to prevent them from erupting into interminable cycles of strife and vengeance. This governmental function includes the protection of minorities from victimization and the prosecution of sponsors and perpetrators of violence. The simple truth about cycles of violence is that they are perpetuated when crimes go unpunished. In a multi-ethnic and multi-religious polity, these derelictions of duty by the federal government constitute an invitation to communities to devise their own means of defence – which can only mean higher levels of sectarian violence. In some of our theatres of conflict, we have already witnessed ugly scenes of unpunished violence and retributive aggression. The wanton slaying of innocent Muslims has been defended as “reprisals” for the atrocities of Boko Haram and ostensibly “legitimized” by the negligence of the state. But to accept that it is permissible to target people for the sins of their supposed kin is an invitation to mutual genocide.
Therefore, a new national security doctrine must have as its cornerstone the sanctity of citizenship. This means protecting the rights of Nigerian citizens everywhere in the federation from discrimination and violence. It also means recognizing ethno-religious violence and political terrorism as the most potent threats to the union. During the 1970s and 1980s, armed robbery assumed epidemic proportions in Nigerian cities. The federal government recognizing that it was dealing with a new security threat, established special anti-robbery squads and tribunals to speedily and decisively address the spate of violent crime. The proliferation of bomb-making technologies and the sophistication of Boko Haram, allied terror groups, and sundry militant gangs represent an escalation of violence. In addition to all other measures, special anti-terrorism tribunals should be established to deal speedily and thoroughly with these crimes against Nigerian humanity. Terrorism, in this sense, should not just be limited to Boko Haram’s outrages but expanded to include political violence and all crimes that are currently categorized as ethno-religious violence. This would also cover hate crimes and hate speech, particularly in religious, political and media rhetoric that encourage prejudice and bigotry. This is the way to restore dwindling civic faith in the state’s capacity to protect citizens’ lives and property.
The federal government must also recognize the adverse national security implications of the majoritarian hegemonies thrown up in a young democracy. It must commit to protect ethnic and religious minorities everywhere in the federation, not merely as “minorities” or endangered species but as citizens with equal rights. Polemicists who see chronic conflicts as an opportunity to dissolve the union are wrong. The issue is not our diversity. It is how to guard against the tyranny of the majority in a democracy. And there is no possible post-Nigerian configuration in which there would be no ethnic, religious or political minorities.
(All images sourced from Google Images)