Urhobo Historical Society

Some Lessons for Nigeria’s Niger Delta

By Akpobibibo Onduku

Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, UK

Conflict is an intrinsic and inevitable aspect of social change.  It is an expression of the heterogeneity of interests, values and beliefs that arise as new formations generated by social change come up against inherited constraints.  We might agree with John Burton, who argues that conflicts are struggles between opposing forces, implying that the issues are more serious than those relating to disputes, possibly stimulating physical confrontations.  But the way we deal with conflict is a matter of habit and choice.  It is possible to change habitual responses and exercise intelligent choices.  Conflict has now become a persistent feature of modernity and a universal phenomenon but the manner and approach with which we handle conflicts in Nigeria is worth reflecting upon.  We should strive to transform potentially violent conflicts into non-violent alternatives.  By way of clarifications, the prevention of direct violence and war is sometimes referred to as ‘negative peace’ while the overcoming of structural inequalities and cultural blindness whether actual or perceived, is considered to be ‘positive peace’.

The fundamentals of resolving conflicts involve raising consciousness about cultural differences to enhance intercultural communication and generating guidelines for intercultural interaction. Actors committed to conflict resolution processes have put the strategic structural and psycho-cultural frameworks of resolving conflicts to test in most crisis-ridden regions of the world.  The structural theory explained a conflict as one of incompatible interests, which arose from the structure of the community, whether the community is that of a nation, a region, or a local community.  On the other hand, the psycho-cultural places a greater emphasis on identifying the fears and misconceptions arising between communities, the lack of available trust for political negotiation work and the need to develop relationships between conflictants that are conducive to negotiation, compromise and cooperation. 

Over the years, we might have observed that the sensibilities of a majority of our leaders at all levels have opted not to consider good listening and exploring cultural factors as effective conflict resolution skills.  Conflicts have, therefore, developed and escalated at different levels to full-scale violence with all the attendant consequences of destruction, waste, cessation of productive activities, refugee problems and environmental disasters.  But often, many of these conflicts are the direct result of human rights violations, injustices or perceived injustices.  It is a truism that the conflicts have directly or indirectly led to more violation of natural rights creating a situation that appears to be a cycle of hopelessness, thereby posing a threat to national stability, peaceful coexistence and economic development.  The denial of basic rights relating to food, employment, housing or cultural life and large-scale discrimination and exclusion from the decision-making processes of society are root causes of many of the grave crises of our nationhood.  Prolonged conflicts have affected rural life and local occupation, crippling productivity of subsistence practices leading to chronic food shortages, malnutrition and famine. 

Building peace prevents conflicts and instability, improves governance, enhances sustainable development and strengthens the rule of law, which is necessary for cultivating a stable democracy.  Therefore, a very sincere commitment is needed to ensure that the dust of violence expressed differently across the country permanently settles.  Looking to the future with some hope, we can only see the growing concerns of few Nigerians that think and dream of the survivability of their beloved country with little efforts from the recycled and emerging political leaders within.  I think we can move closer to achieving sustainable peace in every geopolitical region of our country if only we could opt for positive peace efforts which takes into consideration of the different forms of injustice.  It is high time we appreciated the fact that to resolve conflicts, we must hold genuine and sincere consultations.

We may like to take into cognizance, the fact that, conflict resolution had always been controversial, both in relation to outside disciplines, and internally amongst its different protagonists and schools.  It has drawn persistent fire from critics at different points on the political and intellectual spectrum.  On the one hand, realists consider it as a struggle between antagonistic and irreconcilable groups in which power and coercion were the only ultimate currency.  The ideological perceptions of some of those working in the field of peace research and conflict resolution were regarded as compromising, and the attempt to combine ‘scientific’ academic analysis with a normative political agenda as intellectually suspect.  Due to the high regard to protect individual interests, the use of games zero-sum and non zero-sum approaches and that of the prisoner’s dilemma are commonly adopted and parties try to reframe from original positions, interests and needs with an acceptance of a third party intervention. 

It has become even more pertinent, due to the politicization and polarization of political space, to put up a practical and conscious ability to tolerate cultural and individual differences in whatever degree.  Our leaders seem not to be at peace with themselves.  They need to build an individual peace effort in other to avoid being in conflict with the other person.    Even if we apply existing theories to our specific conflict situations, the question will be as to what extent we can tolerate differences absolutely.  For instance, issues such as the signing of the offshore/onshore oil dichotomy bill should be frugally considered with all sincerity.  Our over forty-two years of nation building seems to place us more in a state of greater uncertainties.  Not quite long, a documentary on Nigeria in one of the British Television stations portrayed our nation as one where nothing works.  Accepting this or otherwise is another debate altogether.  The realities in the images left of the Niger Delta communities like Oloibiri, Odi, Kaiama, Opia-Ikenya, Okerenkoko, Ogoniland, Choba, the oil city of Warri et cetera portrays to a considerable extent as to how we handle conflicts.  In same manner, the army invasions of the Zaki-Biam and neighbouring communities in Benue State, the Jos religious clashes and the scary aftermaths of the Miss World Beauty pageantry in Kaduna and Abuja, all remind us of our preparedness and abilities to react to impending anarchies.  

Most of the prevailing conflicts are coiled around the intrastate conflict typology due to revolution or ideology, identity or secession and factional.  The violent conflict behaviours have been characterized by threats, coercion and destructive attacks and therefore require attitudinal change.  Emphasis now should be placed on integrating the different levels of peace-building and conflict resolution and the application of a ‘bottom-up’ approach.  In addition, the multi-track conflict resolution approach is also pertinent for some particular conflict situations.  Our contemporary conflicts have also reflected a weakening of state structures, the gradual collapse of sovereignty and a local breakdown in state systems.   Effective peacebuilding therefore, needs to be grounded in the integration and coordination of a wide range of local level actors as possible linking opportunities from divergent fields of interest in developing creative synergies for peace.  Peace takes more than an end to fighting.  We have observed that conflict situations are often very costly in lives and in resources.  Those involved are also desperate and have high expectations for an intervention.  But interventions must be entirely neutral and non-partisan.   Resolving violent conflicts such as the ethnic and communal conflicts in the Niger Delta should go beyond identifying and addressing the underlying causes of the conflict.  But an intervention should be geared towards a win-win outcome for the parties involved to prevent resurgence.