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A look at Bala Usman’s analysis of communal conflicts in Nigeria

Chief Eric Teniola cut his teeth in journalism as Senior Reporter with The Nigerian Tribune newspaper between 1973 and 1974. He later obtained a diploma in journalism from London School of Journalism, United Kingdom in 1974 while on the job at The Nigerian Tribune newspaper. Shortly after he left to become the Oyo State Editor with The Nigerian Herald newspaper between 1974-1975. He later moved on to The Punch in 1975 but remained as Oyo State Editor till 1977.


Teniola served as the Senior Correspondent to Constituent Assembly in 1977. He became the National Assembly Editor of The Punch newspaper between 1979 and 1983, and later the News Editor in 1984, holding the position till 1986 when he was promoted to Editor, Evening Punch in 1987. He has been Press Secretary to former Governor Ekundayo Opaleye, Bode George and Biodun Olukoya.

He was later called upon to take up the position of the Deputy Director Press at the Presidency Oûce of Secretary to the Government of the Federation, a position he held from 1994 to 2000. He later became the Director, Press at the Presidency in 2000 and held the position till 2007. He is now back as Managing Director of Ten Topic Nig Ltd. He is a syndicate columnist in mainstream newspapers across the country and regularly contributes to Time magazine and The Economist. This serial contains some of his notable published works.

In view of the recent tribal clashes, it has become necessary to take a look at a paper presented by Dr. Yusuf Bala Usman (19452005) of the Department of History, Ahmadu Bello University.

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He made the presentation at the Presidential Retreat on “Peace and Conflict Resolution in some Central States of Nigeria,” held at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies, Kuru, Jos on 24th – 26th, 2002. Dr. Usman died on 24 September 2005. He was the founder of Centre for Democratic Development, Research and Training at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.

Below is the paper:

The most primary of the fabrics binding all human communities, throughout the world, from the earliest Stone Age hunting and gathering bands, up to today, has been the provision, on a sustained basis, of the security of life, and of the means of life, to the members of that community. But, even from that very ancient period of human development, one of the most difficult political problems that human communities and polities have faced, is that of establishing on a feasible, and operationable basis who is a member of the community and who is not. For this defines where the boundaries of the community and the polity begin and end, and who comes within that community and who is outside it and constitutes an actual or, a potential threat to the security and safety of its members.

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But, also one of the most permanent features of human development has been that these boundaries have to keep changing and, generally, expanding. This is to be able to incorporate others, who do not have the same ancestry, but who move in due to all sorts of factors and constitute a dynamic force in improving the cultural, technological, economic and even political levels of the community. Human progress at all levels, even at the level of genetic development, is inseparable from immigration and the inter-mixing of different groups to form new groups. But, this process always challenges the existing order and generates tension, stresses, which can be used to set off violent conflicts. These are lessons of history we have to face in Nigeria, as others are facing them in all countries of the world.

The communal conflicts in Nigeria which, since the 1980s, have become more frequent, more widespread and more violently destructive of life and property, are indications of failures to tackle and peacefully resolve the current manifestations of this age-old problem of the relationships between public safety, identity, the boundaries of the community, the basis of citizenship rights and social, economic and political progress. Since 1980, some of the well-known incidents of violent communal conflicts in the country are listed below:

  1. The Kasuwar Magani conflict, Kaduna State, in 1980;
  2. The Maitatsine Uprising, Kano City, in December, 1980;
  3. The Ife-Modakeke conflicts, in April, 1981;

4.The Maitasine Uprisings of Kano, Kaduna and Maiduguri, in October 1982;

5.The Maitasine Uprising, Yola, February, 1984;

6.The Maitatsine Uprising, Gombe, April, 1985;

  1. The conflicts in Numan and neighbouring areas of Adamawa State, in 1986-88;

8.The conflicts in Kafanchan, Kaduna Zaria and other parts of Kaduna State, in March 1987;

9.The conflicts at Wukari, Takum and other parts of Taraba and Benue States, in 1990-1992 and 1999-2002;

10.The conflicts in Tafawa Balewa and other parts of Bauchi State, in 1991, and 2000-2001;

11.The conflicts in Zango Kataf and other parts of Kaduna State,in February and May, 1992;

12.The conflicts in Obi and Toto LGAs and neighbouring areas of Nasarawa State, in 1995-1999;

13.The conflict in the Andoni and Ogoni areas of Rivers State, in 1993- 94;

14.The conflict in Karim Lamido LGA, Taraba State, in 19961997;

15.The conflicts in the Ogoni and Okrika areas of Rivers State in 1994- 1996;

16.The conflicts in Nembe and Kalabari areas of Bayelsa State, in 1996-1999;

17.The conflicts in the Bassambiri and Ogbolomabiri areas of Bayelsa State, in the 1990s;

18.The conflicts in the Okpoma Brass areas of Bayelsa State in the 1990s;

19.The conflict in the Sangama, Soku and Oluasiri areas of Rivers and Bayelsa States in 1993-2001;

20.The conflict in the Burutu LGA of Delta State in 2000-2001; 21. The conflicts in Warri and its environs, 1997-2002;

22.The conflicts in the Okitipupa area of Ondo States in 19982000;

23.The conflicts in Mushin, Ajegunle, Ketu and Agege and other parts of Lagos State, 1999-2000;

24.The conflicts in Kano State in 1999-2000;

25.The conflicts in the Kaduna Metropolis, in 2000;

26.The conflicts in the Jos metropolis and environs, in 20012002;

27.The conflicts in the Quan-Pan LGA of Plateau State, and the Azara District of the Awe LGA of Nasarawa State, in 2001;

28.The conflicts in Awe LGA and other areas of Nasarawa State, in 2001- 2002;

29.The conflicts in Ife and Modakeke areas of Osun State, in 2000-2001;

30.The conflict on the Mambila Plateau in 2001-2002;

31.The conflicts in Gombe State, in September, in 2000;

32.The conflicts in Sagamu and other parts of Ogun State, in 1999-2000;

33.The conflicts in Agaleri and Omuleri areas of Anambra  State, in 2000;

  1. The conflict in Gwantu, Kaduna, in 2001.

There were, of course, many other cases of violent communal conflicts which did not get prominent treatment in the media, or, by the government and opinion leaders and politicians. The violent clashes between Fulani and other nomads; and Hausa and other peasant farmers in the Sahelian states of Kebbi, Sokoto, Katsina, Kano, Jigawa, Yobe, Borno, Bauchi, Gombe, and in the other central Nigerian states, hardly receive much attention in the media and by the state governments and at the federal government levels. They are not only, almost annual, events but, the destruction of lives, livestock and property involved, is significant. But, since these violent communal conflicts, between farmers and nomads, occur entirely in the rural areas, the governments do not seem to feel threatened by them and so they accorded them low priority, as they generally do with the whole of rural Nigeria.

As for most of the media, a report of a conflict between Hausas and Fulanis, even when their reporters, ensconced in the urban centres, learn about this, is not attractive for coverage. It exposes as questionable, the dominant dichotomies of conflict they insist on imposing on the general domestic and foreign perceptions of  Nigeria politics, which are, that it is has, and has always been, a matter of rivalry: North versus South; Christians versus Muslims; Hausa-Fulani versus Middle Belt minorities; and Hausa-Fulani versus the rest.

Therefore, over this and other types of conflicts, government, pronouncements and media reports do not give an adequate picture of the extent of violent communal conflicts in the rural areas of Nigeria, particularly where they do not involve the disruption of oil production, or, oil pipelines. Some indications of the extent of the reporting of these conflicts may be obtained from the State Security Service and Nigeria Police returns from their local government offices. But, it is not clear how much of this is systematically assessed and compiled, to build a broad picture for each local government area, each state, and for the whole country, to make possible a comprehensive and sustained nationwide analysis of the pattern, nature, causes, courses, and consequences, of all incidents of violent communal conflicts.

The empirical data required to study the contemporary manifestation of these communal conflicts and from these, dig into their historical roots is, largely not available. Even the few tribunals and commissions of enquiry established to investigate these conflicts produce reports, which sometimes lead to white papers, which hardly go beyond the desks of top government officials and some editors of media houses.

What is being attempted in this paper, therefore, is, on the basis of a general impression of these conflicts which place them in a historical perspective. However, this is not going to be history at the micro, or, the ground level, dealing with who first settled where, but history at the meta or the broader level of conceptualisation. This meeting is a Presidential Retreat, where the broad parameters of the problem should be addressed and where wrangling over details of historical events should be left to other levels of the exercise of attempting to tackle and solve the problem. This presentation largely examines some of the existing perspectives which dominate the Nigerian public and government’s view of the causes of these violent communal conflicts, particularly those which are not normally addressed in current public discourse on the problem.

Irrational Forces

One of the widespread attitudes towards these violent communal conflicts, especially in the immediate aftermath of the bloodshed and other devastations, is that these are just the results of madness by those involved. It is often said that the brutal killings of non-combatant human beings, particularly children and women, by burning them alive and cutting  them up with knives and cutlasses, and gunning them down as they run away, and the destruction of vehicles, buildings, livestock, crops and all physical assets, which take place in these conflicts, are the outcome of some irrational forces unleashed, which defy logic or any sensible mode of explanation of human behaviour.

The perpetrators of this violence, on both sides, and even the actual planners, do not appear to gain anything tangible beyond the satisfaction of eliminating an “enemy”. But, in many cases, this elimination has also involved the destruction of some of the key human and material assets on which the economy of the community, no matter how inequitable, rests. The dispossession, exclusion and alienation which marked the situation of many of the perpetrators of this violence are not brought to end by this orgy of destruction. The wisdom in the old adage of, everybody should be his or her neighbour’s keepers, comes back to haunt the perpetrators.

Having eliminated their neighbours, they often find that it becomes much more difficult to keep their body and soul together. For, where families have lived as neighbours for years, even if not for generations, the elimination of the rnembers of one family by members of the other, in these violence communal conflicts, leaves wound in the psyche of those involved which are in most cases not obvious, but are often said to be mentally and emotionally far-reaching.

But, in spite of all these consequences of violent communal conflicts, there are people always organising and executing them, and even repeating these, in the same areas. This does give some grounds for the view that the whole thing is a result of some irrational forces, beyond rational explanation. But when these conflicts are investigated by tribunals and commissions of enquiry their findings, based on clearly stated and reliable evidence, are that these irrational forces, whatever significance they may have for particular individuals, do not provide an adequate explanation for the conflicts. The evidence shows that these conflicts are the results of calculations, planning, organisation and execution which within, the perspective of those involved, are rational and logical. That is, these people had tangible, identifiable material, political, and other nonmaterial basis for their action and used these violence to seek to attain concrete political, economic and other goals. But, of course, we can only be sure when the Federal Government brings together all these reports, assesses, compiles and analyses, them to see what lessons are to be learnt.

Racial Conflicts

There is also the view that these violent communal conflicts are caused by deep-rooted racial differences, between the various ethnic groups of Nigeria, at very basic levels of psyche, culture, behaviour and outlook.

The conflicts in Taraba and Nasarawa States are, by some people, ascribed to the inherently aggressive drive of the Tiv as a distinct race, always fighting neighbouring races. The conflicts in Plateau, Nasarawa, and Taraba states are also ascribed by some people to the inherent expansionist and imperialistic drive of the Fulani, who are said to, inherently, always trying to subjugate other people. Similar attributes are ascribed to the Jukun, who are also presented in these racist terms.

But this racist perspective on Nigerian history, and politics, may have become widely disseminated recently and made legitimate by the proponents of the concept of “the Yoruba Race”, from Egbe Omo Oduduwa-Action Group-UPN-

Afenifere political tradition, like the late Chief Bola Ige and Chief Abraham Adesanya. But, there is no empirical evidence to support  that there exists anything like a “Yoruba Race” or, any other race, constituting an ethnic nationality in Nigeria. The Tiv, the Fulani, the Jukun and all the others, do not constitute races which have differences which provide the basis for violent conflicts between them. They certainly have come to constitute ethnic nationalities in Nigeria, but not races as distinct biological entities separate from others. The picture painted of Nigeria, particularly abroad, as an unviable nationstate, because it is an artificial amalgam of incompatible and antagonistic racial groups, who have virtually nothing in common, has no scientific basis.

Fortunately, there is, easily available to non-specialists, a concise essay, written for laymen, on the issue by Peter Uche Isichie, a medical scientist, as an appendix to one of the books of his wife Elizabeh Isichie, on the history of Nigeria. In this appendix, titled “Genetic Markers in Nigeria”, Uche Isichie, marshals the evidence to show that there is no genetic basis for the racialisation of Nigerian ethnic groups. His introduction to the appendix is quoted here because it clarifies how authoritative genetic evidence is over the issue of ethnicity, race and racial differences. Isichie states that:

Many years have gone by since historians first appreciated the value of genetic evidence from the study of blood constituents in historical analysis. Blood constituents lie entirely outside human volition; the light they shed on past relationships is therefore, invaluable. The frequency of any varies from population to population, but they are known to be almost identical in populations related to one another. The incidence of any particular gene in any population remains relatively constant and stable for many centuries and this has provided a basis for genetic studies in various populations.

From the available evidence from genetic studies of Nigeria’s ethnic groups, Isichie wrote that:

A cursory look at the provisional genetic map of Nigeria available data shows that there is some similarity in the genetic constitution of most of Nigeria’s people. Although differences may be seen between certain communities within the country, this difference in the vast majority of cases is not as great as what is found when they are compared with other racial groups or even some groups within the continent of Africa itself.  So it is possible that the original people in the area now regarded as Nigeria were descended from the same ancestral stock and that the difference in the genetic pattern within the country may be due to bombardment by external genes.

And, that:

These facts together with the overall similarity in the genetic pattern showing in most of Nigeria’s people confirm in essence the picture which historians have reached on other grounds, rejecting any idea of dramatic migration from far a field and emphasising the great antiquity and stability of settlement. Nigeria’s peoples are probably descended from quite small Stone Age populations living pretty much within the country’s present boundaries.

Clearly, the genetic evidence available shows how baseless the view that these communal conflicts arise from racial differences and antagonisms, since the ethnic nationalities of Nigeria do not belong to different races, much as there is now a determined campaign to impose racism as a significant factor in Nigerian politics, against all the scientific evidence and the historical experience of the people of all parts of the country.

The Peopling of Nigeria

Alongside this racist outlook which produces this view of the causes of these violent communal conflicts is a certain perspective on the peopling of Nigeria. According to this view, there are the original, autochtonous, indigenous, inhabitants of the area that has come to be Nigeria, from the earliest times and there are those who are foreign immigrants from outside the borders of these areas, who have no territory of their own and whose search for this is one of the major causes behind all these violent communal conflicts. The position is that these autochthons have always been here and have always occupied the areas of Nigeria where they are found, with the recent foreign immigrants like the Fulani, the Kanuri, the Shuwa Arab the Chamba and the Tiv, for example, coming in to attempt to take over the homelands of the autochthons from various parts of West, North and Central Africa.


But, this view on the peopling of Nigeria is not supported by the historical evidence available. The most substantial and reliable of this evidence is in the findings of historical linguistics. Even though the genetic origin of a people speaking a particular language today may not be the same as the origin of the particular language they now speak, historical linguistic evidence gives us the most reliable indications at present with regards to the peopling of Nigeria. Kay Williamson who has been studying linguistics in Nigeria for the last forty seven years, and is now one of the world’s leading historical linguists, still working at the University of Port Harcourt, has fortunately addressed this issue of the linguistic evidence of the early peopling of Nigeria. She, like Uche Isichie, started out her contribution on this by giving an explanation as to the theoretical significance of the evidence from historical linguistic. She states that:

A genetic classification is one which classifies languages in terms of their origin and development from earlier languages. It is normal for a language to develop different dialects, and these will, if left to themselves, gradually develop into distinct languages. The original language is called a proto-language, and the languages which have developed from it at a later time are called its daughter-languages. The daughterlanguages may in turn give rise to their own daughterlanguages in which case they have in their turn become proto-languages. By observing the similarities between languages, especially those which have developed one particular proto-language, as innovations and have been retained by the daughter-languages, a family tree showing the approximate development and relationship of the various languages can be drawn up.

What Kay Williamson is bringing out is the fact that all languages, which constitute in most cases, the most important single basis of the identity of an ethnic group, have never been fixed, immutable, unchanging, phenomena. Languages, as she brings out, change and are transformed. She also points out that the proto-languages of dialects, sometimes dying out, or, also becoming transformed from what they originally were. Hence, ethnic groups— nations and nationality are not natural or biologically fixed entities, but historical formations which are changed by the historical process, one of the most crucial dimensions of which has always been language development and differentiation.

When we turn to the question of the peopling of Nigeria and the issue of the autochtonous and the settlers, in the Nigerian area generally, Kay Williamson, proposes that the linguistic evidence available indicates that of the language groups in Nigeria, the earliest to settle in the Nigerian area are those speaking the Gur and the Adamawa Ubangi languages .The Gur languages are spoken in northern parts of Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin and the Borgu areas of Nigeria.

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