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Will Nigeria Emerge Intact From Ethno-Religious Strife?


By Stephen Gbadamosi

24 June 2012

The incessant bombing of churches and Christian populated areas in the Northern part of Nigeria by members of the Boko Haram sect is causing concern in some quarters, with examples of countries like the former Soviet Union being cited as countries that started the same way and ended as history. In this piece.

TO many observers of events in the last few days in Nigeria, it seems the spate of bombings that has claimed hundreds of lives of mostly Christians in the Northern part of the country has assumed a dimension moving towards an emergency. Renewed hostilities in Kaduna and Yobe states a few days ago, in which more than 100 people have been reported killed, have raised fear that the unity of Nigeria may no longer be fait accompli.

Three churches were reportedly attacked last Sunday, a development that followed the trend of bombings by the Islamic sect since it deviated from attacking mainly government establishments a few years ago.

In the wake of the recent bomb attacks and reports, some leaders of thought have been harping on the possibility of balkanisation of the country. National chairman of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), Chief Bisi Akande, was quoted in an interview to have doubted the continued existence of the country after 2015.

“The last 13 years of Nigeria is a period of waste and it is the unusual resilience of Nigerians that will sustain this country till 2015 because all confidence in the court has been destroyed. Let’s see what happens after that election, whether there will be any Nigeria,” Akande was quoted as having said.

In a similar vein, frontline cleric and Prelate of Methodist Church Nigeria, His Eminence, Dr. Sunday Ola Makinde, gave stern warning that Nigeria needed to be sure that it was not threading on the verge of break-up.

Dr. Makinde, who spoke in Lagos against the backdrop of the renewed coordinated bombing in Kaduna, Zaria and Yobe, noted that “if something serious, strategic and meaningful is not done, we may just be working our way towards another avoidable civil war.

“For how long are we going to remain silent? Here we are begging the issue, while innocent people are dying and their loved ones are yet to get justice. Is it a crime to be a Christian in any part of Nigeria? Every time we raise the alarm and call for action, they would say it has no religious colouration, and it saddens my heart the more whenever I hear that.”

The Petroleum and Natural Gas Senior Staff Association of Nigeria (PENGASSAN) has also warned of the possibility of the attacks and counter-attacks working as catalysts to the country’s break-up.

The oil workers’ union said in a statement signed by its National Publicity Secretary, Comrade Deji Kolawole, that developments in the country pointed towards the manner in which former Yugoslavia disintegrated.

“The attacks on Christian worshippers in Kaduna and Zaria last Sunday, claimed by the terrorist group, Boko Haram, and the consequent reprisals on innocent Muslims, represents a dangerous descent into anomie, reminiscent of the horrific inter-ethnic and religious war that marked the violent break-up of former Yugoslavia,” PENGASSAN warned.

Also, in a renewed bid to get their compatriots to abdicate their places of business and abode in the North, leaders of thought in Igboland were reported to have asked for evacuation of Igbo people from the troubled Northern part of the country. Leader of the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), Chief Ralph Uwazuruike, told journalists that it had become imperative for Igbo people in the North to return home until normalcy was restored to the region. Many more Igbo leaders have since spoken in the same vein, with Igbo residents in Kano particularly said to have expressed readiness to quit the embattled region.

But by far what political watchers described as most fearful of these alarms is the warning given by the government of Russia in a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the country on Tuesday.

Russia had said in the statement that “we condemn the terrorist attacks in Nigeria. Using people’s faith to incite religious strife and extremism is inadmissible and highly dangerous.”

What some people consider as being fearful in this is that Russia is considered as an experienced nation in matters of insurgency, civil war and country break-up. Others have expressed fear that countries that ended up the way of Russia and its neighbouring countries with which it was known as Soviet Union, as well as Yugoslavia, British India and Czechoslovakia began their decent to disintegration with similar occurrences to the current boiling temper over the Northern killings. It is believed to be as bad as some leaders already calling for evacuation of people of other nationalities from the North, just as fear is said to be mounting over possibility of attacks on Northerners residing in the Southern parts of the country.  

What happened to USSR?

Formed in 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) was a major world power before its demise on December 25 1991. What watchers of world politics have mostly attributed the breakdown of Russia to was the cold war of the 80s. Mikhail Gorbachev, who was the last president of the Soviet Union, was said to have attempted some reforms that were later to turn problematic. He was also said to have embarked on reorientation of Soviet strategic aims and that this contributed to the end of the cold war as well as ended the political supremacy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), leading to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

But beyond the cold war, other variables that contributed to the Soviet Union dissolution included problems of ethnic nationalities. The Soviet Union is believed to have accommodated over 120 different ethnic groups.

It is believed that Lenin had long contributed to what would later become USSR’s problem. He believed that nationalism would disappear under communism and ‘a Soviet people’ would emerge. This was said to have proved to be fundamentally false. Russian nationalism and beliefs of superiority were to set the stage for ethnic conflict within the USSR. This was said to have been aided by the collapse of the economy during the era of Gorbachev. Besides, being a multicultural society, individual republic’s demands for independence were said to have always caused chaos in the USSR. The then leader, Gorbachev, could not let one territorial adjustment take place as there were 120 changes wanted by various ethnic groups. He was reported to have often allowed the groups to fight it out, but he would send in soldiers only when demonstrators started demanding for independence. A report had it that it was in a bid to stop an anti-Soviet or secessionist demonstration that the military trampled upon Baku, carrying out an operation that left over 100 victims in its wake. In essence, it was Gorbachev’s liberalisation programmes, called ‘glasnost and perestroika’ that was said to have inadvertently brought emergence of long-suppressed nationalist movement and ethnic disputes that would result in balkanisation of the Soviet Union.

Today, the Soviet Union is dismembered and has given way to 15 republics. These are Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belorussia (now Belarus), Estonia, Georgia (now Republic of Georgia), Kazakhstan, Kirgiziya (now Kyrgyzstan), Latvia, Lithuania and Moldavia (now Moldova).

Others are Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.

The Yugoslavia experience

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) also lost its status as a united country to conflicts that bordered on ethnic disturbances that also had religious colouration. Reports had it that by 1990 Yugoslavia had been combating with many problems before it finally broke up.

Most significant among these problems were said to be the strong nationalist feelings and the various political cum economic problems confronting the country then. Experts have also been quick to point out the ‘multi-ethnic make-up and relative political and demographic domination of the Serbs.’

In March and April of 1990, Slovenia and Croatia held their first multi-party elections in almost 50 years. The Communist reformers lost to parties favoring national sovereignty within Yugoslavia. Later in the year, similar parties won election in Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. President Izetbegovic of Bosnia-Herzegovina and President Gligorov of Macedonia were looking for a democratic way to keep Yugoslavia a decentralised and reorganised union of states.

Reports also indicated that President Izetbegovic and President Gligorov were concerned about Slovenia and Croatia leaving the Yugoslav federation because they would be left with only President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia. Milosevic was said to have rejected ideas for a looser federation of Yugoslav states.

An account of World History Chronology about Yugoslavia’s break-up had it that “according to the post-Tito Constitution, the federal Presidency, the highest executive position, was to be chosen each year by a different Yugoslav state. In 1991, it was Croatia’s turn at the federal Presidency. They selected Stipe Mesic, a noncommunist and moderate.

“The Serb leaders blocked the election. The Croatians, authorised by the Croat Parliament, the Sabor, responded by declaring their independence at the end of June 1991.

“The Sabor created a democratic constitution that guaranteed many civil liberties to all its citizens, including the Serbs and other minorities within Croatian borders. It provided the rights for minorities to have their own schools which could teach their own languages.

“In May 1992, the United Nations (UN) and the European Community (EC) pushed the Croatian government to go even further by guaranteeing districts self-government where Serbs were the majority. During the spring negotiations of 1991, guerrillas, aided by President Milosevic and Serb leaders, invaded every Serb majority district or village in Croatia and armed villagers who then violently invaded non-Serb majority districts and villages. The Serbs also controlled the Federal Government’s army.

“Macedonia declared its independence on September 8, 1991. The republics of Serbia and Montenegro proclaimed a Federation Republic of Yugoslavia on April 17, 1992. Other countries like the United States, France, and Britain maintained that Yugoslavia should be unified and not divided. Therefore, they did not acknowledge the declarations of independence. The German government did acknowledge Slovenia and Croatia as independent and regarded the Serbs as aggressors. Throughout 1992, there were many different peace negotiations offered to President Milosevic. Milosevic found the solutions offered by the UN and EC as unacceptable. Croatia, therefore, organised a military action to recapture control over Serb occupied areas.

“There was fierce fighting between Bosnian-Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. The Serbs massacred thousands of Bosnian-Muslims and engaged in ethnic cleansing. The capital, Sarajevo, was surrounded and besieged by Bosnian-Serb forces. A cease-fire was reached February 23, 1994. On March 18, 1994, an accord was signed to create a Muslim-Croat confederation. Fighting continued in 1995, but the balance of power shifted toward the Muslim-Croat alliance. Massive air strikes at Bosnian-Serb targets on August 30, 1995 brought about a new round of peace talks and the siege of Sarajevo ended on September 15, 1995.

“These new talks created an agreement to create autonomous regions within Bosnia. Tens of thousands of Bosnian-Muslims and Croats were forced to leave their homes to avoid the aggressive attacks of the Serbs. Largely, the military actions of the Bosnians and Croatians were defensive. They were not involved in the systematic ethnic cleansing as were the Serbs. By 1995, the United Nations, Russia, Western European governments, and the United States recognised the independent states of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The international community backed by the power of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the UN assisted Bosnia in achieving a democratic and peaceful transition to independence with a state constitution that allowed rights to its minorities also in order to provide a good example to the Serbs. The UN singled out Serbia as the aggressor in the Bosnian conflict and installed economic sanctions on it.

“A peace agreement initialed in Dayton, Ohio on November 21, 1995 was signed in Paris on December 14, 1995 by leaders of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. About 10,000 NATO troops moved in to police the accord. By August 1996, 45,000 troops remained. Meanwhile, a UN tribunal began bringing charges against suspected war criminals. Elections were held on September 14, 1996, for a three-person collective Presidency, for seats in a federal parliament, and for regional offices. The UN lifted sanctions against the Serbs on October 1, 1996, after elections were held in Bosnia.”

How religious differences broke India and Pakistan

Those who have followed histories of nations have contended that religious differences and insurgency similar to what is currently happening in Nigeria were partly responsible for the partitioning of British India “on the basis of religious demographics.” The result was the creation of the sovereign states of the Dominion of Pakistan (later the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh) and the Union of India (later Republic of India) which took place in 1947, on 14 and 15 August, respectively.

Wikipedia account of the dissolution noted that the partition of India was set forth in the Indian Independence Act 1947 and resulted in the dissolution of the Indian Empire and the end of the British Raj. It resulted in a struggle between the new states of India and Pakistan and displaced up to 12.5 million people in the former British Indian Empire, with estimates of loss of life varying from several hundred thousand to a million (most estimates of the numbers of people who crossed the boundaries between India and Pakistan in 1947 range between 10 and 12 million).

It was also gathered that “the violent nature of the partition created an atmosphere of mutual hostility and suspicion between India and Pakistan that plagues their relationship to this day. The partition included the geographical division of the Bengal province of British India into East Bengal, which became part of the Dominion of Pakistan (from 1956, East Pakistan). West Bengal became part of India, and a similar partition of the Punjab province became West Punjab (later the Pakistani Punjab and Islamabad Capital Territory) and East Punjab (later the Indian Punjab, as well as Haryana and Himachal Pradesh).”

The two self-governing countries of India and Pakistan legally came into existence at the stroke of midnight on 15 August 1947. It all began when the All India Muslim League (AIML) was formed in Dhaka in 1906 by Muslims who were suspicious of the Hindu-majority Indian National Congress. They were said to have complained that Muslim members did not have the same rights as Hindu members. A number of different scenarios were proposed at various times. Among the first to make the demand for a separate state was the writer and philosopher Allama Iqbal, who, in his presidential address to the 1930 convention of the Muslim League, proposed that a separate nation for Muslims was essential in an otherwise Hindu-dominated subcontinent. According to Iqbal, such a separation was imminent in a near future, according to his vision.

Wikipedia noted further that “the Sindh Assembly passed a resolution making it a separate nation in 1935. Iqbal, Jouhar and others worked hard to draft a resolution, working with Mohammad Ali Jinnah, who had until then worked for Hindu-Muslim unity and who now was to lead the movement for this new nation. By 1930, Jinnah had begun to despair at the fate of minority communities in a united India and had begun to argue that mainstream parties such as the Congress, of which he was once a member, were insensitive to Muslim interests”

It is a fact of history that most of the Congress leaders were secularists and resolutely opposed the division of India on the lines of religion. But as similar calls by such people in Nigeria that the people should not allow religion or ethnicity to divide them appear to be going unheeded, those who wanted India balkanised failed to see reason. Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi and Allama Mashriqi were reported to have expressed the belief that Hindus and Muslims could and should live together in peace.

Gandhi, in his opposition to the division, was quoted as saying, “my whole soul rebels against the idea that Hinduism and Islam represent two antagonistic cultures and doctrines. To assent to such a doctrine is for me a denial of God.”

Reports said for years, Gandhi and his adherents struggled to keep Muslims in the Congress Party and in the process enraged both Hindu nationalists and Indian Muslim nationalists. Gandhi was assassinated soon after partition by Hindu nationalist, Nathuram Godse, who believed that Gandhi was appeasing Muslims at the cost of Hindus.

Wikipedia wrote that politicians and community leaders on both sides whipped up mutual suspicion and fear, culminating in dreadful events “such as the riots during the Muslim League’s Direct Action Day of August 1946 in Kolkata (then “Calcutta”) in which more than 5,000 people were killed and many more injured. As public order broke down all across Northern India and Bengal, the pressure increased to seek a political partition of territories as a way to avoid a full-scale civil war.”

The Muslim league’s demands for a separate state were later conceded. The Congress’ position on unity was also taken into account while making Pakistan as small as possible. Within British India, the border between India and Pakistan (the Radcliffe Line) was determined by a British Government-commissioned report prepared under the chairmanship of a London barrister, Sir Cyril Radcliffe. Pakistan came into being with two non-contiguous enclaves, East Pakistan (today Bangladesh) and West Pakistan, separated geographically by India. India was formed out of the majority Hindu regions of British India, and Pakistan from the majority Muslim areas.

The Sudan, Rwanda experience

Coming closer home, the experience in Sudan and Rwanda may also offer a good reference point for Nigeria. The case of Southern Kordofan in the North of Sudan and along the disputed border with South Sudan appears instructive here. It is said to be home to the most productive oil fields under Khartoum’s control.

Many people of the state were reported to have sided with the Southern rebels during the civil war that for long ravaged the nation. The people were said to have felt betrayed by the 2005 peace deal which put the state under Khartoum’s control. 

Historians said in the 1980s, local discontent at political marginalisation drove many Nuba people to sympathise with the Southern rebels. The Nuba are people from several black African tribes who have distinct languages and culture which clashed with the government’s ‘Arabist policies’ and conservative brand of political Islam. Khartoum was said to have responded to this by arming Arab-majority militias.

In 1992, the governor of Southern Kordofan formally declared a jihad in the Nuba Mountains. Reports said the campaign included the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population, starvation, murder, rape, enslavement and land seizure.

Hundreds of thousands of Nuba were forcibly displaced, and as many as 200,000 people died. The North’s forces targeted Muslims, Christians and animists.

It is noteworthy that Sudan had been at war for half a century, with impoverished border regions clashing with Khartoum for more political power and a greater share in the country’s wealth. There is already an ongoing humanitarian crisis in Darfur in the West where at least 300,000 have reportedly died and about 2.2 million reportedly displaced by fighting since 2003.

The genocide of Rwanda, according to some people, should also serve as an event to learn lessons from by Nigerians. It began with ethnic strife between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes of the East African country. According to a Wikipedia account, estimates of the death toll that was to follow ranged between 500,000 and one million “or as much as 20 per cent of the country’s total population.”

It was described as the culmination of longstanding ethnic competition and tensions between the minority Tutsi, who had controlled power for centuries, and the majority Hutu people, who had come to power in the rebellion of 1959–62 and overthrown the Tutsi monarchy.