Communal Violence In Nigeria: Ethnic Conflict or Policing Problem?, By Raji Bello
Based on all the reports on the Numan crisis so far, the first groups that the vice president should have invited for consultation are members of the local police and DSS. He should have asked them why they couldn’t stop minor incidents between small numbers of people from escalating and triggering the catastrophic chain of events that played out in the Numan area.
The vice president, Professor Yemi Osinbajo has this week engaged in consultations with ethnic ‘stakeholders’ over the Numan crisis in Adamawa State and other episodes of farmers/herders violence in the country. His pattern of consultations is consistent with the tendency of successive Nigerian governments to portray this kind of violence as a problem that is due to a disharmony between ethnic or religious groups. By deliberately popularising this narrative, government leaders have been able to deflect attention from themselves over what is the true immediate cause of this violence: a near complete collapse of the enforcement of law and order. The farmers/herders violence has multiple remote causes, such as the competition for access to land, ecological and climatic factors, population explosion, etc., but the immediate cause is a failure by the government to guarantee an efficient law and order enforcement.
In virtually all the episodes of farmers/herders violence, there is a tit-for-tat pattern of violent attacks and this is reflected in all media reports and anecdotes on the various incidents. Typically, a quarrel and violent attack involving a small number of people stays unresolved and creates despair, bitterness and a loss of faith in the authorities. This forces aggrieved persons to embark on self-help, and a cycle of violence is triggered which would culminate in a major eruption. This is not a disharmony of tribes but a woeful failure of government to maintain peace and order through its security services and the vice president must recognise that. People in the rural areas almost always report grievances to the authorities, which are mostly not attended to and every ethnic community is harbouring grievances over this. It is true that whenever an episode of violence happens, it looks like the ethnic groups involved are hating each other but when you speak to members of the affected communities, they are often more resentful of what they see as the absence of effective governance in their areas, than they are of the opposing ethnic groups.
What is frequently implied by the statements and actions of government officials during an outbreak of communal violence is that such violence is happening because ethnic communities hate each other, but this is false. Communities may harbour a level of animosity towards each other but this is not the cause of the violence; they are pushed into acting out their sentiments and grievances by the fact that the law and order infrastructure is weak and services are not efficient. Those with the intention to unleash violence on others are often free to do so because there is no one out there to stop them. All that one needs to do to understand why such violence is common in Nigeria is to visit other countries and see how law and order is vigorously enforced, how police are present in good numbers virtually everywhere, how they are equipped with all the communication and other gadgets that they need and how domestic intelligence gathering is so efficient. I once arrived in Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, and saw two policemen walking in the airport terminal. The way that they were kitted and the sense of authority that they exuded not only made me to momentarily want to be a policeman but also made me to feel that Tunisia was not a country where I could mess with the law. This is what Nigeria urgently needs – an efficient and inspiring professional police service that no one would like to mess with.
The fact is that there is no country in the world where ethnic or religious groups do not harbour some disapproval or animosity towards other groups; what makes the difference is that some countries can stop members of their various communities from physically acting out whatever they feel through efficient policing, while others fail to do so.
Many countries do have efficient police and other security services, which means that it’s not rocket science to have them. Nigerian governments have always sought to deflect criticism of their failure in this area by framing their statements on communal violence in terms of a permanent state of conflict between various ethnic groups, which is why they usually invite ethnic or religious leaders to engage in dialogue and reconciliation, following outbreaks of violence. The fact is that there is no country in the world where ethnic or religious groups do not harbour some disapproval or animosity towards other groups; what makes the difference is that some countries can stop members of their various communities from physically acting out whatever they feel through efficient policing, while others fail to do so.
Based on all the reports on the Numan crisis so far, the first groups that the vice president should have invited for consultation are members of the local police and DSS. He should have asked them why they couldn’t stop minor incidents between small numbers of people from escalating and triggering the catastrophic chain of events that played out in the Numan area. They in turn should tell him how chronic underfunding by government, and corruption and maladministration in the top hierarchies of their security services have rendered them ineffective in serving the communities they have been posted to. This is the best place to start. Nigerian ethnic groups were not born to hate, they are being pushed to do so by a perennial ineptitude in governance.
Raji Bello, a consultant anesthetist, is on the board of governors of The Peter Bauer Foundation.