Their Grievance: Learning from history

I do not have any proprietary rights over wisdom, what I write below is based on what I have read and observed. I do not approve of violence – you need to see my 5ft 6in frame to know that I am not built for violence – and there can be absolutely no excuse for wantonly taking the lives of other human beings.

I have been in a handful of discussions on different social media fora in the last 24 hours where the (ongoing) violence in certain parts of Northern Nigeria is being discussed and condemned. A lot of these have eventually assumed an ethno-religious hue, alongside the call that Major General Muhammadu Buhari should lend his voice to call for an end to the violence. The blanket tar that has been used to paint the whole Northern Nigeria is that of a frontier of primitive tribal and religious bickering; and that the terms of our corporate existence as a nation-space called Nigeria should be re-negotiated.

Often when criticism is levelled against acts of destruction and violence, virtually all the critics fail to question (never mind trying to resolve) the precipitants that led to these events. This seeming inability (or is it an unwillingness) to examine and resolve the causes of such upheavals, inevitably keeps the society in a vicious circle. History (Nigerian history as well as that of other nations) is replete with instances where seemingly civilised segments of the society descend, and quite rapidly, into an orgy reprehensible violence which they never believed they could.

One of the points that I find is very biased is that this is Northern Nigerian or Northern Muslim behaviour. It is as insensitive as it is baseless. From the Aba riots of 1929 (Eastern Nigeria), through to the 1960’s Operation Weti e and Agbekoya uprisings (Western Nigeria), Maitasine Riots (Northern Nigeria), Warri riots, Niger Delta “militants” campaign against the oil industry (South-South) and the Jos riots (Middle Belt) – our nation’s history is littered with all manner of mayhem that it would be tendentious to attribute these to some inherent belligerent trait in any tribe. The 1966 coups, the subsequent pogrom against Igbos in other parts of Nigeria and the Nigerian Civil War all give an insight into how quickly everyone can tumble from their perches of racial haughtiness and become barbarians given the excuse and the opportunity. Anecdotes abound of how some Igbos (who barely 2 years earlier were victims of some of the most abominable crimes against any tribe in Nigeria), toward the end of the civil war, turned on the minority ethnic groups in what was left of Biafra and many were killed in extra-judicial circumstances – the term used to describe them was “saboteurs”. This perhaps shows how quickly victims can become tormentors when disorder sets in.

Have the Agbekoya riots or the Ife-Modakeke riots made the Yorubas a “violent race”? Or have the actions of Colonel Boyloaf and Tom Polo condemned every Ijaw man to being called a “militant” for the rest of his life? Just as the actions of a clutch of Igbo men in 1969 against some Ndonis have not resulted in the Igbos being called barbarians, it then becomes a simpleton’s conclusion to say the disturbances in the North of Nigeria happen because Northern Nigerians (whatever that means) are innately bellicose. I do not want to start a religious argument here either, but for those who are quick to add a “Muslim” dimension to this, I would urge you to do a crash course in Judeo-Christian history and see how steeped in blood it also has been.

Having tried to show that the same madness is capable of besetting any group of persons, regardless of creed or language, it then becomes important to try to assess what gives rise to these events. Underlying every instance above is an unaddressed sense of grievance – I would like to think of it as “disenfranchisement”. The mistake that has been made over and over, when an injustice is deemed (and I have said “deemed”) to have been perpetrated, is that those who are not involved simply shrug their shoulders and move on. To the group that has felt slighted or left bereft of what it believes to be its entitlement, it is not quite as easy to gloss over. In 1966 January, rightly or wrongly, Nigerian soldiers of Hausa/Fulani descent felt cheated by a coup deemed to have been plotted by Igbo officers, which left both the civilian and military Northern leaders dead. By the end of the third week of January 1966, the Sardauna of Sokoto, the Premier of Nigeria and Brigadier Zakariya Maimalari were dead. [Never mind that Lt. Col Arthur Unegbe was also killed in the coup and Maj. Gen. JTU Ironsi barely escaped being killed; and Northern soldiers and at least one officer from present day Benue State participated in the coup.] Virtually nothing was done [from the point of view of the aggrieved] to address their misgivings. History may judge on the rights or wrongs, but 6 months later the country was headed to a civil war.

The Igbos have always been a republican ethnic group without kings and have governed themselves by universal adult male suffrage for years – “Igbo a ma eze” is an expression that means “the Igbo do not recognise, or have no regard for, kings”. The British unilaterally appointed warrant chiefs in a bid to carry out indirect governance, ignoring the customs of the people that were being governed. Aba women’s riots were precipitated as a consequence of this amongst other issues. Many contemporary views agree that this upheaval is indicative of an un-redressed defect in the British colonial style of governance.

The perennial Niger Delta unrest, regardless of how the politician in Abuja sees it, is a result of decades of neglect of the environment and the people where the bulk of the nation’s wealth is derived. Until this is addressed coherently and comprehensively (and not by some witless truce or amnesty), it does not take a genius to figure out that this would continue in one variant or another for a long time.

The civil disturbances in Kaduna and Kano in the past 24 hours have their roots in a perceived electoral injustice. I say “perceived” because except a court determines otherwise, the elections returned Dr. Goodluck Jonathan as the President-elect. It would however be wishful thinking to assume every segment of the society believes the numbers stack up to reason or that the elections were fair. The segment that feels robbed is the segment that is protesting at the moment. That we are a nation divided at the moment is putting it mildly, and it behoves President Jonathan to do his best to assuage the sensibilities (and emotions) of those who are aggrieved; curfews suppress physical movement, not human emotions.

For those who are quick to say “let them go to hell”; let caution be the guard over their mouths, for no one has the monopoly of violence – not the Egbesu, not the Boko Haram and not the Agbekoya – and should things get exacerbated, it is sadly the innocent who will suffer more before things are properly resolved.

This is not an academic article and I am not trying to give it a hue of academic legitimacy; however here are some other references that could prove interesting.

1929 Women

Federalism and ethnic conflict in Nigeria


Holy Inquisition


Igbo religious philosophy

Igbo Enwe Eze

Max Siollun


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