Death As Our Way of Life: Deconstructing Violence in Nigeria, By Chris Ngwodo
…the political economy fosters a climate of competition and mutual antagonism between groups that perceive themselves to be locked in a no-holds-barred struggle for the national cake. It is not the case that Nigerians are fundamentally or irredeemably tribal; they are trapped in a system that forces them against their better instincts to wield sectional identities as a currency for achieving material progress.
The news cycle in Nigeria is unforgivingly relentless, so reports of clashes in Ile-Ife between the Yoruba and Hausa communities in which the latter came off worse, have passed into the ether after a shelf life of barely a few days. So too have reports of the latest violence by marauding bandits in Benue. That innocent Nigerians are frequently consumed by such carnage is a lamentable tragedy. That these deaths seem to barely command more than a few day’s worth of column inches is significant. The impact on the national psyche of the routinisation of mayhem is one of the unremarked consequences of chronic violence.
Perhaps, inevitably, these tragedies have inspired talk of how unsustainably divided we are as a nation and the disturbing persistence of prejudice and primordial hatreds. These are resilient clichés but they have to be addressed.
To begin with, all diverse societies have their patterns of conflict – ethnic, racial, sectarian, religious – and Nigeria is neither unique nor exceptional in this regard. What ails her are her alarmingly weak national security and law enforcement institutions and the inability and unwillingness of the state to punish perpetrators of violence. The state has consistently failed to address the individual crimes that escalate into group violence. The violence in Ile-Ife reportedly began as an altercation between two individuals. The mob lynching of Bridget Agbaheme, 74, in Kano in June last year began as an altercation with a fellow trader who then rallied a mob to murder her for blasphemy.
If anything is hurting Nigeria, it is not her diversity, but her inability to manage it by reason of poor governance, and more profoundly, the state’s blatant inability and unwillingness to dispense justice. Places like Kaduna and Jos that have been wracked by chronic sectarian tensions became segregated along ethnic and religious lines because survivors of bloody unrest often saw the murderers of their families walking freely. They could not possibly continue to live in the same neighbourhoods with those that had murdered their kin in cold blood. Some of the perpetrators and their own kin feared that retribution was imminent. Inevitably, the survivors sought safety in the sameness of creed and ethnicity, thus creating tribal and creedal enclaves that polarised fairly cosmopolitan urban spaces. As these injustices recur and are left to fester, these enclaves become even more insular. They become sites of socio-cultural in-breeding that render their denizens inept at civic membership of a plural society.
Justice Denied: A Nigerian Tragedy
Last November, the Kano State Government inexplicably discontinued its prosecution of the killers of Mrs. Agbaheme. The court discharged the suspects. Subsequently, her husband who had lived in Kano for over forty years fled to the South-East, citing threats to his life. Having witnessed his wife’s murder and seen the murderers who were personally known to him, he understandably could not live in the same space with her killers. The terrible fate of Mrs. Agbaheme and the fact that her husband, for all his years of residency in Kano, had to return to the South-East to feel safe, have not gone unnoticed.
There are many similar tragic stories of unaddressed injustice that have driven stakes into the nation’s soul. Gideon Akaluka, Christiana Oluwasesin, Mohammed Alkali are only some of the names on an endless list of casualties and the legions of nameless victims whose killers have gone unpunished.
Consider the story reported by Daily Trust on January 30, 2017. In August 2016, Suleiman Rabiu, a Fulani resident of Kukuri village in Nassarawa State lost four members of his family, all herders, to an armed group that invaded the village and rustled over 300 cows and 100 sheep. The four herders were abducted and brutally murdered. The story was to take a turn for the bizarre. According to Rabiu who briefed journalists in Keffi in January, the case was reported to the police who commenced investigation. In short order, the police arrested the suspected killers and rescued about 26 of the stolen cows from one Alhaji Shukha and six other individuals who had shared the livestock among themselves. The suspects were all Fulani and threatened that Rabiu’s family would be slaughtered if he persisted in seeking justice for his murdered sons.
Subsequently, the suspects were released from police custody, according to Rabiu’s lawyers, at the behest of influential Fulani members of the community. Rabiu alleged that his sons were murdered by Fulani vigilantes retained by the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN), on the pretext that the victims were cattle rustlers and kidnappers. The association has since denied the allegations and any link to the vigilantes, who they claimed were merely masquerading as a group sanctioned by the association. The case is presently under investigation, having made its way to the Police Force Headquarters, Abuja. A seasoned watcher of our criminal justice system would recognise that saying the matter is “under investigation” is a euphemistic way of saying that it has now advanced into the limbo where criminal cases in Nigeria go to die slowly away from the public’s gaze.
…the media’s formula for covering violence prioritises oppositional binaries and so favours stories of clashes between Northerners and Southerners, Hausas and Igbos, Muslims and Christians, etc. This is because the sensational and reductionist narrative of Nigeria…is as lucrative for the media as it is for politicians.
On March 16, Gideon Morik, the former Deputy Speaker of the Kaduna State House of Assembly and one time Chairman of Jemaa Local Government Area of Kaduna State, passed away. Last December, his 14 year old daughter, Anna, had been murdered by gunmen in Goska village in Southern Kaduna. Morik died heartbroken and likely with the belief that his daughter’s murderers are unlikely to face justice.
The problem is that though we can simply bury people, we cannot bury their pain which lingers and feeds into the malicious energies that sustain vicious cycles of violence. To say that these unresolved crimes undermine a sense of common purpose is an understatement; they erode faith in the state as the sovereign guarantor of citizens’ security. These injustices also fuel the reservoirs of radical resentments that are exploited by subversive anti-state demagogues. They send a message that Nigeria is a fundamentally unjust place
How the Media Covers Violence
Some pundits have complained of a lack of media coverage of the violence in Ife and attributed the lack of public outrage to the fact that most of the victims were Hausa. They argue out that if similar unrest had occurred in the North and had reaped largely southern victims, it would have been followed by a media blitz and an eruption of public indignation directed at Northerners as a whole. This point bears analysis.
It is true that there is a discernible bias and no small calculated cynicism in the way sections of the mainstream media report violence. Journalists are only human and despite the ethics of their high calling, some of them are bound to be influenced by prejudice. It seems that the media generally glosses over or ignores violence in which Northerners, Muslims, Hausas and Fulanis are the main victims – implying that the victimhood of these categories of citizens is of a lesser order. This bias is not entirely rooted in malice. Sections of the Lagos media exhibit a profound ignorance about the rest of the country that warps their reportage. This is no more than the blind spot of outward-looking coastal elites for whom happenings in their country’s hinterlands are far removed from their reality.
However, the media’s formula for covering violence prioritises oppositional binaries and so favours stories of clashes between Northerners and Southerners, Hausas and Igbos, Muslims and Christians, etc. This is because the sensational and reductionist narrative of Nigeria as a realm of violently contradictory opposites is as lucrative for the media as it is for politicians.
The media generally ignores or downplays intra-ethnic and intra-sectarian clashes such as that between the Ezza and the Ezzi in Ebonyi, Christian communities warring in Cross River and strife between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The media has not given much attention to the massacres of Shiites and members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) perhaps because of their official designation as undesirable elements. It ignores the killings of Fulanis in Zamfara by bandits or deadly gang wars in Rivers State. Fulani herders are known to clash with Fulani farmers but this conflict is evidently too “complex” and offers the “wrong” victimology. More people have been decapitated in Rivers State in the past year than anywhere else in Nigeria, but these gruesome slaughters have not drawn the sort of attention that they would have drawn if they had occurred in the North. It can be argued that it was the outrage on social media by activists rather than any mainstream media focus that drew attention to the crisis in Southern Kaduna. The apparent general principle is that scenarios in which Christians kill Christians or Muslims kill Muslims or Southerners kill Southerners, are of scant interest to the media.
Our media, political and religious elites profit from this narrative of eternally feuding ethno-religious blocs because it gives them both relevance and revenue. The media makes a calculated cynical choice through those it offers platforms and megaphones as opinion leaders. The media makes such choices when it prioritises incendiary hotheads who are guaranteed to deliver sensational and senseless sound bites over those who offer less dramatic, more sedate, and more reasoned interventions. The former drives sales and online traffic; the latter raises the quality of public discourse. The media for the most part opts for the former. These dynamics inform how the public perceives, interprets, discusses and responds to conflict in Nigeria.
No Nigerian should ever have to pack up and flee any part of his own country and it is a tragic disgrace that this happens at all. The Nigerian state must come out forcefully and unequivocally to promote and defend common and equal citizenship.
Civic Insecurity: The Need to Make Common Cause
To be clear, ethnic and sectarian animosities exist here as they do in every heterogeneous society but these are not necessarily the sole or even always the main factors responsible for chronic strife.
The challenge is that everyone feels that their people are the most victimised group and that only their own victimhood is authentic. This unhelpful sentiment is compounded by the media’s selective acknowledgment of the victimhood of some groups, while ignoring the tribulations of others.
No group in Nigeria is specifically marginalised. Nigerian citizens all suffer from lack of civic protections and the predation of a dysfunctional state. The Igbo in Kano, the Hausawa in Jos and the Tivs in Taraba to the extent to which they suffer as minority communities, and all of us, suffer from the same basic affliction – civic insecurity. These tribulations continue in part because various groups, even while trumpeting their victimhood, also want to preserve the right to maintain their own prejudicial and discriminatory actions against others.
In the 1960s, the United States federal government used the National Guard to integrate schools, implementing federal law on racial integration and overriding racist state governments. In a similar vein, the Nigerian federal government should use all its might to secure and promote the rights of Nigerians everywhere in Nigeria. No Nigerian should ever have to pack up and flee any part of his own country and it is a tragic disgrace that this happens at all. The Nigerian state must come out forcefully and unequivocally to promote and defend common and equal citizenship.
Impunity, Self-Help and Anarchy
For some people, episodes of strife offer an opportunity to vent bigoted condemnations of whole ethnic and religious groups. Such punditry must be given short shrift. Evil is a universal phenomenon, not the cultural property of any one ethnicity or religion. Good and bad people abound in Nigeria. Bad people cloak their heinous crimes in cultural robes because they know that they are not in any danger of being brought to justice by a delinquent state.
At other times, this culture of impunity is sustained by political actors who have a vested interest in sowing chaos. Where such actors hijack the official coercive apparatus through state capture, two things happen. Their use of state power to demonstrate sectarian and sectional prejudice creates a situation in which their ethnic and/or religious identities become a license for others to tar their communities with the taint of their crimes. Thus, if a compromised and manifestly bigoted political leader is a Christian, then all Christians are blamed for his acts; and if he is a Muslim, all Muslims are blamed for his acts. This dynamic scarcely bodes well for communal harmony.
Secondly, having failed to exhibit impartiality, the state itself loses legitimacy. Many Nigerians do not see the state as a neutral arbiter that objectively upholds the rule of law and is committed to the equal defence of all Nigerians. This loss of confidence in the state has escalated over the years as a result of its incompetence at protecting Nigerian lives and its own complicity through heinous acts of official violence in the devaluation of Nigerian life.
And yet it does not require a lifetime of researching conflict to conclude that no group in Nigeria has a monopoly of violence, victimhood or villainy. Mass murder and genocidal evils occur because the government fails to address crimes as crimes, or prefers to appease the perpetrators due to some political calculations or simply negligently leaves injustices to fester. Consequently, aggrieved groups adopt violent self-help to secure themselves and retribution as a strategy for winning concessions from the government. This is a sure path to anarchy.
As much as 52 percent of Nigeria is rural and these communities plagued by government neglect, the exodus of their young to urban areas, and their entrapment in existential stagnation have become sites of frontier violence. These are places we tend to speed by or speed through on the highway, or fly over by airplane…
The problem with allowing inter-communal violence take root is that it is the road to mutual genocide. When the state fails to punish culpable individuals, whole communities are held liable in the prevailing hysteria of the moment. Vengeful vigilantism visits its wrath upon entire groups, consuming innocents, and priming the land for yet more retribution. Blood guilt by association takes precedence where the rule of law is perceived to have failed. This recalls the lines from J.P. Clark’s poem, “The Casualties”:
All casualties of the war,
Because we cannot hear each other speak,
Because eyes have ceased to see the face from the crowd
The apogee of dehumanisation is when people perceive themselves less as distinct individuals than as anonymous elements of a category slated for mass liquidation.
The failure to punish exponents of brigandage has also fostered something else in theatres of sectarian conflict – a generation of closet psychopaths now accustomed to the demonic thrill of mayhem and murder who emerge to wreak havoc during bouts of unrest before melting back to hibernate in a feigned normalcy that is no more than a lucid interval before yet another homicidal rampage.
We have yet to count the psychic and psychological costs of the normalisation of violence in the society. According to a 2015 by the National Population Commission, 60 percent of Nigerian children experience violence. In 2013, the National Association of Clinical Psychologists warned that Nigerians have been living in a climate of fear over the past decade due to “a rising tide of religious, political and ethnic tensions as well as militancy and incidents of kidnapping” leading to an increase in “cases of anxiety disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress, anger and general existential fears.” Such relentless exposure to violence is a malign form of socialisation slowly desensitising us to savagery.
The Economics of Violence
We also must not overlook the socioeconomic and class dimensions of what is typically described as “ethno-religious violence.” The fact is that upscale neighbourhoods where upper middle class urbanites reside generally do not record such violence. One does not hear of ethno-religious violence in Victoria Garden City, Banana Island, Rayfield, or Malali. These bouts of mayhem rarely occur in gated communities, estates and Government Reserved Areas (GRAs). They typically occur in slums and ghettoes.
In Kaduna, a riot in Badarawa does not get into Malali GRA despite their proximity to each other. In Jos, Rayfield residents rarely even know when there is unrest in Ungwan-Rogo. Misery, hopelessness and poverty are fertile ground for the polarising forces of identity and group violence to germinate. These are the forgotten places that Adams Oshiomhole once described as Government Rejected Areas (GRAs); they are developmental dead zones distinguished and degraded by a total absence of social services, governmental attention, and brimming with a seething mass of frustrated humanity long stripped of a future and a hope.
…this generation’s mission, to paraphrase Franz Fanon, is to domesticate, democratise, reform and civilise this system so that it serves all Nigerians. It is nothing short of redesigning the entire political economy itself.
Roughly the same neighbourhoods in Maiduguri that incubated the ultraviolent Maitatsine cult in the early 1980s became hotbeds of Boko Haram three decades later. Decrepit suburbs soon breed sociopaths and subversives and the pied pipers of extremism fish for broken souls in benighted places. Sambisa Forest moved from being a game reserve that fell into dereliction to being a haunt for bandits and then finally to being a base for a terrorist insurgency. Ungoverned spaces eventually become ungovernable places. As much as 52 percent of Nigeria is rural and these communities plagued by government neglect, the exodus of their young to urban areas, and their entrapment in existential stagnation have become sites of frontier violence. These are places we tend to speed by or speed through on the highway, or fly over by airplane, little realising that they are brewing the next round of threats to peace and order.
What Is a Nigerian Life Worth?
What is ultimately at issue is how much value we place on human life as a people. State and civil society alike are responsible for this valuation. The sanctity of human life is an absolute principle that permits no exceptions or pet prejudices or sacred hatreds. It either applies equally to all or not at all. It is simply untenable to profess outrage over the killings in Ile-Ife, while rationalising the murder of Shiites and pro-Biafra protesters. One cannot claim victimhood or marginalisation while purporting to reserve the right to oppress and kill “infidels”, “non-indigenes”, “settlers”, “apostates”, or any other category of human beings deemed second class citizens and worthy of extermination.
So as we polish our hash tags and sharpen our advocacy against other people’s monsters, we must also look within to exorcise our own demons. Rather than demonising each other, Nigerians should join forces and demand that the state and their elected leaders fulfill their sworn constitutional duty to uphold the security and welfare of the people.
We need major public policy changes and reforms in the security, law enforcement and justice sectors. On the legislative front, we need tough laws against hate crimes and hate speech in order to counter dangerous demagogues. A key part of these reforms necessarily involves the establishment of a truly modern police force whose directive principle will be the protection of the citizenry rather than just the safeguarding of elites. This also means unshackling security and law enforcement institutions from the control of politicians and making them truly independent.
A higher valuation of Nigerian life and the primacy of common and equal citizenship must become the core of a national security doctrine and inform a new paradigm of governance. We must abolish the “indigene-settler dichotomy” and all extant forms of institutional discrimination which explicitly or implicitly promote a hierarchy of citizenship. Such institutionalised discriminations constitute the architecture of structural violence which frequently erupts into open communal warfare.
Racism, tribalism, chauvinism and bigotry are human frailties which exist in every society. In Nigeria, we have amplified these ills by making ethnic and religious identity, usually in the guise of “state of origin” and “indigeneship”, a key of access to social and economic opportunities. Thus, the political economy fosters a climate of competition and mutual antagonism between groups that perceive themselves to be locked in a no-holds-barred struggle for the national cake. It is not the case that Nigerians are fundamentally or irredeemably tribal; they are trapped in a system that forces them against their better instincts to wield sectional identities as a currency for achieving material progress. In effect, it is a system that weaponises our differences and creates economic incentives for discord and strife. This edifice built on the notion of a tribal contest for oil rents has to be dismantled.
But can a system designed to maintain the privileges, security and wealth of the elite suddenly of its own accord begin to serve all Nigerians? The realistic answer is “No.” Nigeria’s rent-seeking ruling class does not care if ordinary Nigerians live or die because it is sustained by oil rents rather than tax-paying citizens. Thus, this generation’s mission, to paraphrase Franz Fanon, is to domesticate, democratise, reform and civilise this system so that it serves all Nigerians. It is nothing short of redesigning the entire political economy itself.
Chris Ngwodo is a writer, consultant and analyst.