Civil war: Averting another Nigerian experience

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The latest happenings around the country have continued to raise deeper questions about the unity of Nigeria. The nation is going through pain and tragedy. And one could easily catch a glimpse of its soul. 

Questions that readily come to mind are; what are the causes of banditry and kidnapping? What propels the insurgents in the Northeast? What makes a once religious and ethnic tolerant society intolerant; and breeds ethnic chauvinists? How can agitations of militants and secessionists be stopped? Can all these lead us back to the dreaded civil war? It is time to resist these forces; “a stitch in time saves nine”.

Nigeria has been a multi-ethnic society and was almost ripped apart by sectarianism, that is why a school of thought has bastardized the idea of a “Nigeria Republic” and called it an “unholy union”. They are ardent believers of pundits like Robert D. Kaplan, who has written that multiethnic Nigeria is likely to split into several pieces”. What if there is a clear solution to Kaplan’s hypothesis; he could be wrong? 

Certainly, there has been a popular assumption that a homogeneous society is the most peaceful. Indeed, mono-ethnic countries like China should find it easier maintaining domestic law compared to nations with numerous religious or ethnic groups. The actual problem with heterogeneous countries is centred on politicians, who largely lack visionary objectives, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The political elite take advantage of the differences to organise factions among group lines and perpetuate their selfish aims. 

In the early 1960s, a declassified diplomatic wire from the US State Department archives described the position of politicians then as a “complicated African politics, in which tribes, religions and economics all play a part, are involved in the situation”. The North is at odds with the East, where “large oil deposits have been discovered. There have been threats of secession by the east; threats of violence that would make Congo look like a child’s play. 

Till today, little or no effort has been made by opinion leaders and politicians to nip this disastrous trend in the bud. The ideology of politics in these climes is still grossly misunderstood; campaigns are still conducted not on platforms of progressive ideology or policy but based on personal abuse and vitriolic ethnic chauvinism. It is high time we embraced the nationalist idea. The world is changing and Nigerians need to move with it. Our ethnic demography may have played a role in the last civil war; it should not be so now. The conventional view that violence in Africa is a product of the legacy of arbitrary colonial borders that bundled rival tribes together is archaic and should not prevail. 

Odd as it may seem, it has been established that regardless of how ethnically mixed a state is, the probability of a civil conflict decreases as a country gets richer. Multi-ethnic countries that are rich show less tendency to fight it out, for instance, the Walloons and Flemmings in Belgium.

In a comprehensive 2003 study, Stanford civil war experts James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin noted that: “it appears not to be true that a greater degree of ethnic or religious diversity — or indeed any particular cultural demography — by itself makes a country more prone to civil war.”However, Fearon and Laitins study noted that civil war can spark off under certain circumstances that favour rebel insurgencies. These insurgents may be anti-colonialists, greedy opportunists, communists of various stripes, ethnic chauvinists or Islamists. They are usually protected by a sympathetic rural population, a mountainous terrain and also funded by foreign support. These groups take advantage of a weak and corrupt government. On this premise, Fearon and Laitins’ argument becomes peculiar to Nigeria. The government’s inability to holistically tackle small bands of rebels may lead to a failed state. In the early 1990s, Northern Nigeria had only a few cases of kidnapping and banditry. Such news usually emanates from the Niger Delta region where militants, parading as economic agitators, kidnap expatriates and demand for huge ransom. Through the years, we have seen a paradigm shift, leading to an exponential increase in kidnap and banditry in the Northern region. What can be the cause of this?   

It is common knowledge that there is a causal link between poverty and crime. Perhaps the overdue neglect of the government’s role in ensuring equality and providing conducive environment for businesses to flourish has worsened the situation. Churns of graduates in the streets with no employment or skill to sustain their livelihood can rebel. Take, for instance, a kidnapper who makes a million bucks in a week. What other job can he do to fetch him such a huge amount? They have decided to master the power of the gun and settle for the big business of kidnapping, and so far it is thriving.  

Furthermore, the alarming rate of uncontrolled arms around Nigeria is disturbing. The Guardian online Editorial, April 28, 2021, published a startling figure. In what was described as a “grim statistics”, it said, “Most worrisome is that the number of 6,145,000 illegal weapons offered by General Abdulsalam Abubakar far outnumbers the estimated 586,600 firearms in the possession of armed forces and law enforcement agencies collectively.”  

Certainly, the proliferation of arms is contributing greatly to the insecurity and lawlessness we see today. The arms business cartel is fuelling conflicts in Africa as postulated by Crawford Young, a former dean at the National University of Zaire. Young points at the illicit sale of arms, dwelling largely on “novel financial and military factors”. This brings us back to the question of how insurgents finance and acquire military hardware. The effort of government in tracking the bureau de change establishments that were directly facilitating the finance of Boko Haram activities through their businesses is commendable. Indeed, rebels may not necessarily need popular support as far as they can manage to finance themselves. This calls for an urgent need for government to hasten the prosecution of those found wanting in order to deter and starve the insurgents.  

Therefore, it remains the responsibility of all Nigerians to make this country a better place to live in. Security agencies should keep a watch full eye on our porous borders. We should also be careful in choosing leaders amongst us. The incentives of leaders should not differ from those of the people that they represent. Let us be wary of politicians who are “ethnic champions” they have no interest in a national outlook. Our debate should now focus more on the need for adequate policing and economic development. 

Sanyari writes from the

Department of Mass Communication,

University of Maiduguri, Maiduguri, Borno state.