Nigeria has a history of cycles of conflicts and this consistency in violence keeps affecting the ability of governments at all levels to provide stable social, political and economic environments for the development of the country. No matter what policies are introduced, government keeps being forced to modify itself to manage the conflicts and this includes shifting revenues that would hitherto have been used for development to cope with these crises.
Why do we continue to see these Conflicts? The simple answer would be that these are ‘a struggle over values and claims to scarce status, power, and resources’ which are currently limited in the country and further compounded by the mismanagement and corruption that have reached alarming levels and have become entrenched in the country. Conflicts are not inherently violent but some have gradually taken on a violent approach with the idea being that violence would help bring about a conversation between the parties involved to reach some kind of resolution on the contentious issues. So, the increased level of violence has sometimes been seen as the beginning of a conversation between two parties as a way of engaging in a conversation between the parties either deliberately or accidentally. On the flip side, it has been argued that violence might not be the beginning of a conversation, but rather its end. This might be due to the inability of the disputing parties to reach any form of agreement resulting in the commencement of violence, which might later force them to resume some form of conversation.
I am particularly concerned about the idea of the conversation being the foundation for either the beginning or end of violence especially in the context of the violence in Nigeria. A conversation as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary is a ‘talk between two or more people in which thoughts, feelings and ideas are expressed, questions are asked and answered’. While this might be the case, it is important to understand the existence of power dynamics within conversations, because without acknowledging this we cannot appreciate that in every conversation between conflicting parties, there will be an uneven distribution of either economic, political or social power at some level. This will mean that conversations will always be seen as unfair
So, if power dynamics exist within conversations will that still be a conversation or would that then be considered a negotiation or a ‘negotiated conversation’? It can be argued then that if we look at violence as being a form of a conversation, then we must assume that at least one of the parties taking part in this conversation is at a disadvantage and thus sees violence as the best way for them to be heard.
Taking the case of the continuing violence in the Niger Delta, the Boko Haram inspired violence in the North East of Nigeria or the conflict in southern Kaduna, can we see these as conversations and how can we approach them to change the way in which this ‘conversation’ is playing out? There were initial calls by certain sections of the country for the government to engage all violent groups in a conversation, while some other sections of the Nigerian state believed that engaging them in a conversation would only legitimize such group and create the risk of other groups with grievances taking up violence as the only way to get attention.
The Niger Delta ‘militants’ or ‘activists’ depending in what side of the fence you are on, see the government as having used its power to abuse the region and feel that, after several attempts at some peaceful resolution, violence was the only option because it hits the government where it hurts most; oil production and revenue. But the government has so far not taken the need for conversation seriously, or if it has we are unaware of its efforts. With Boko Haram, conversation really did not seem like an option even though it was suggested and the starting point of their demands would have made any conversation with the group, very uncomfortable to say the least. We now have the Indigenous People Of Biafra (IPOB) and government has used its power to curtail any attempts at a conversation believing that force was the best option. In southern Kaduna, the conflict keeps recurring after a period of lull and raises the same issues regarding why groups resort to violence as a way of bringing issues to the table.
So, has not conversing with the likes of IPOB reduced their legitimacy or should government really be talking to them? I am not sure if a conversation with any such groups legitimises their cause anymore than such groups already feel. However, the emergence of these groups indicates a problem in the Nigerian state. Whether our leaders wish to admit it or not, we must recognize that the Nigerian state has fundamental cracks that need fixing so that we can avoid a situation where the aggrieved feel that the only way to be heard is to take up arms that will force government to engage them in some form of ‘negotiated conversation’.
The question now becomes, how do we begin this process? I believe that the best option will be a national conversation between all groups in the country. I know we have had several such ‘conversations’ in the form of national conferences. However, we must admit that these were largely a talk shop for the boys and girls and a way of pushing predetermined agendas.
What is required now is an all-inclusive conversation portal that will allow every group, ethnic, religious or otherwise no matter how small to table its grievances. Of course, this takes us back to the issue of power dynamics and whether the voices of the small and powerless will be considered. I believe that this kind of conversation portal will enable the voices of everyone irrespective of size or power to be heard and documented. We can then use this as a building block for what should be a multi layered conversation ladder that will help us reach the level of stability that will ensure some meaningful development. This is because the current instability in the country distracts government from focusing on creating or implementing policies that will raise standards of living by reducing poverty, unemployment and existing inequalities around the country.
Credits: Dr. Bala Mohammed Liman wrote this piece from Kaduna.