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The Issue of Sovereignty

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The author, Eric Teniola, looked at Bala Usman’s analysis of communal conflicts in Nigeria, saying that 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.

Today, he dwells on the issue of Sovereignty and begins a new chapter narrating the enthronement of the Right Reverend Dr. Humphrey Bamisebi Olumokaye as the 8th Bishop of the Diocese of Lagos, Church of Nigeria Anglican Communion.

But all of these violent communal conflicts are generated and sustained not over disputes about the peopling of Nigeria, but over more local disputes which derive their credibility and legitimacy from this view about the peopling of the country. These local disputes are over which ethnic, sub-ethnic group or religious community owns an area of Nigeria, the land, the titles and the entitlements and the other assets of the area. The claims and counter-claims in these disputes are justified, generally on the following grounds: that the area was part of the territory and the homeland of a particular ethnic or religious community; that colonial conquest, the attainment of independence and all the constitutions and the laws enacted since then are said to have confirmed this ownership; and where they are said to have attempted to abrogate it, are said to be simply unjust, and therefore, unacceptable.

In the Jos Metropolis, for example, the dispute has virtually always been over who “owns” Jos, the Birom or the Jasawa? In most parts of Plateau, Nasarawa, Taraba, Bauchi and Benue states, the disputes leading to these violent communal conflicts have almost always centred around claims and counter-claims over prior rights in a particular area, between the Jukun and the Tiv, for example.

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There is already, widely peddled, the view that all these disputes can only be solved at a Sovereign National Conference, where the ethnic groups which are said to be constituent units of the Nigerian Federation will send their delegates to deliberate upon the terms and conditions on which they will continue to live together in the Federal Republic of Nigeria, or the procedure to follow, to breakup this federation, and allow each ethnic group to establish its own sovereign nation state alone or with others.

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There is no theoretical basis of, not only these claims of monolithic ethnic groups and exclusive ethnic domains within a federal democratic republican polity, but also of the very notion of how Nigeria has come to be constituted, and by what entities and the basis of the sovereignty all its citizens exercise collectively over all its territory and resources, which is, under the present Constitution, vested in a democratically-elected Federal Government.

A lot of this seems to take us away from the actual subject of this retreat which is “Peace and Conflict Resolution in Some of the Central States of Nigeria”. But, it actually does not, because the violent communal conflicts in these states are the outcome of psychological, ideological, political and economic processes which are nationwide, continent-wide and even global.

The attack and the denigration of the nation-state in Africa and of its sovereignty and territorial integrity by Africans, funded and encouraged by countries which fiercely promote and defend their sovereign rights, their interests and even the borders of their nation-states, generates, in many parts of Nigeria an atmosphere which encourages violent ethnicity and conflicts, in defiance of the fundamental democratic principle of peacefully resolving all conflicts. All this despite that these European and North American countries and their African proteges, campaigning against the nation-state in Africa, are very loud in their claims about their love for democracy and peace.

We have, fortunately, for this examination of the premises of this campaign a lecture by Professor Itse Sagay, who is widely promoted by the media as an eminent scholar and a jurist, with authority on constitutional matters. In the Ibori Vanguard Lecture, under the auspices of an organisation of the political goons and praise-singers of James Ibori, Governor of Delta State, at the Lagoon Restaurant, Lagos, in May, 2001, Sagay, brought out, in explicit terms, one of the basic premises on which this campaign is being conducted. He stated that:

“In the beginning there was no Nigeria. There were Ijaws, Igbos, Urhobos, Itsekiris, Yorubas, Hausas, Fulanis, Nupes, Kanuris, Ogonis, Gwaris, Katajs, Jukuns, Barons, Agnas (sic) Ogojas and so on. There were kingdoms like Oyo, Lagos, Calabar, Brass, Itsekiri, Benin, Tiv, Borno, Sokoto Caliphate (with lose control over Kano, Ilorin, Zaria, etc.) Bornu, Opobo, etc. prior to the British conquest of the different nations making up the present day Nigeria these nations were independent nation-states and communities, independent of each other and of Britain”.

These opening statements of his lecture reveal a level of ignorance of how peoples, nation-states came to be what even a secondary school pupil should be beyond. Of course, at the beginning there was no Nigeria. But when was this beginning? Was it 37,000 years ago, when we have the earliest evidence of human activity in the Nigerian, area, in the form of Stone Age tools on the Jos Plateau? There was certainly no Nigeria then. But, were there the Itsekiris or the Yorubas? Or was the beginning only c.1861, on the eve of the beginning of the British conquest of Lagos? There was no Nigeria at this beginning. But was there an Itsekiri Kingdom? This kingdom ceased to exist for forty-eight years in 1848-1886, and was replaced by a British-controlled governorate of the Rivers.

Even in 1900, when the British proclaimed the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria, largely on paper, were there any Igbo? Kenneth Dike has made it clear that there was not. As for the Yorubas, they were just being formed, and the process of forging a Hausa ethnic identity from the Sakkwatawa, the Katsinawa, the Kanawa, the Zagezagi, and others, had hardly started. As for the Tiv, it is not clear yet when they developed the common ethnic identity of being “Tiv”, in spite of the elaborate genealogical patterns which are said to form the basis of their political relations. There were many sovereign nation-states in pre-colonial Nigeria. Benin was one. Opobo and Calabar were others. There were the Sokoto Caliphate and Borno. Some of the village confederations in many parts of Nigeria also retained their sovereignty until the British conquest. But, even these village confederations were not conterminous with ethnic and sub-ethnic groups. They were territorial entities which survived and were able to grow and resist bigger polities because they attracted migrants with all sorts of agricultural, crafts, military and other skills and built networks using these.

All the citizens of the various sovereign polities of Nigeria were forcefully made British colonial subjects, because their polities proved incapable of effectively incorporating and absorbing the useful skills, resources and values which others from outside had. In fact, not only did they fail to do that, but they came to be fragmented by conflicts often tied up to claims of ancestry and origin; such that they were at war with one another and with others and could not stand up to the British. The late Ken SaroWiwa made this point clearly about the way, violent internecine conflicts wrecked the Ogoni polities, in his book, Genocide in Nigeria: The Ogoni Tragedy. He stated that: “… in the latter half of the nineteenth century internecine war became the order of the day. By 1900 these wars had virtually destroyed the fabric of Ogoni society and the Ogoni were forced to survive in independent villages “.

Conclusion – The point here is that in the Central Nigerian Uplands, the Middle Benue Basin and most of the rest of Nigeria, the issue of sovereignty was resolved in favour of the British because, to serve their own imperialist interest, they represented a much more inclusive, open, and economically productive social and political order. The current violent communal conflict in our area of concern, and elsewhere in Nigeria, raises the issue of the urgent need for a political contest between the ‘forces which seek to move forward independently of the British and build this much more inclusive, incorporative order, or to retrogress into futile, defensive, and retrogressive autochthony.

In the Middle Benue Valley and the Central Uplands of Nigeria the notion of the ethnic domain, with the Tiv migrants in the Wukari LGA claiming the areas as Tivland and the Wukari authorities rejecting them as intruders will not go away through any importation or exhortation, or preaching. In the Jos Plateau, the contest over whose ethnic domain Jos is, between the Birom and the Jasawa, will not go away in the same way.


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