Ethnic Militias and Sub-Nationalism in Nigeria: a comparative Study of massob and opc

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3:1 Ethnic Militia Movements in Nigeria

If we take Adejumobi’s characterization of ethnic militia as ‘youth based groups formed with the purpose of promoting and protecting the parochial interests of their ethnic groups and whose activities sometimes involve the use of violence’, then we can say that the prevalence of the phenomenon within the geographical space of Nigeria pre-dates the country’s independence (Adejumobi 2002, Agbese 2001:125-126).

The colonial policy of divide and rule employed to strengthen European control and dominance was significant and affected politics and ethnic relations, characterized by discord and unhealthy competition among the ethnic groups in Nigeria (Ndikumma 1998: 29-47). These ethnic relations were at times expressed in violent forms as the example of the 1953 Kano riots clearly showed. The riot was a result of some value judgement stemming from perceived mistreatment of northern delegates by the southern crowd in Lagos for opposing the 1953 motion moved at the Federal House of Representatives for independence in 1956. That kind of outbursts, the first of its kind was a selective violence targeted at an out-group emanating from the colonial administration’s invention of tradition and the mutiny of an ‘us versus them’ syndrome in Nigeria (Agbese 2003: 125). This means that ethnic related violence is situated in the public policies of the Nigerian state. This character of the Nigerian state has not fundamentally changed in spite of the transition from colonial to post-colonial dispensation (Agbese 2003: 127). Apart from the 1953 violent eruption that occurred in Kano, there has been an avalanche of violent ethnic eruptions in Nigeria. They include the 1981 bloodshed in Numan, the 1987 mass killing in Kafanchan and other parts of southern Zaria, the 1990 clashes in Wukari and Takun, the 1991 massacre in Tafawa Belewa and the mass killing in Kano city, the 1992 Zango–Kataf bloodshed, the 1993 Andoni and Ogoni bloodbath, the intermittent Warri crises between the Ijaws, Itsekiri and Urhobo, the clashes between the Hausas and Yoruba in Sagamu, Lagos, Ilorin and Ibadan, the Nasarawa crises involving the Tiv and other ethnic groups in that state, the Yelwa-Shendam and Jos clashes in Plateau state among many others.

The frequent re-occurrence of these ethnic eruptions stems from the character of the Nigerian state which was designed to breed inter-ethnic rivalries that promote the interests of the colonialists. Independence was unable to alter this character of the Nigerian state but merely re-inforced it because the texture of post-colonial politics has been characterized by domination and hegemonic context by the ethnic groups. As such, the structure and form of the Nigerian state has been sustaining this relationship of inter-ethnic distrusts and rivalry.

These inter ethnic rivalries have transformed into dimensions where violence is used; creating the conditions for the emergence of groups making claims and competing with the state for legitimacy (Badmus 2006). The fact of the matter is that the group that controls the state uses its power and economic resources to protect the material interests of some members of their folks. The result is the institutionalization of the relationship, perpetually re-inforced by economic and political hierarchies and exacerbated by deliberate policies of the ruling class that promotes ethnic exclusion and encourages alienation which ultimately results into resistance expressed in form of ethnic movements activities.

Even though most of the ethnic-related strives listed above were spontaneous, they were orchestrated to further ethnic-related interests of the elite (Okafor 1997). However, the trend has changed as violently oriented organized groups who reject the authority of the state and conduct their activities outside the confines of the law have become the order of the day. Some analysts have argued that this phenomenon is a product of the long military dictatorship in the country. They argue that military rule created the condition for the emergence of organised groups to counter state violence (Omeje 2005, Freedom House 2007). This kind of violence exhibited by ethnic militias was a part of the reproduction of the culture of militarism implanted by the state due to the long duration of military rule in the country (Adejumobi 2002).

The fact is that the character of the Nigerian state which was shaped by colonial overlords at inception has remained violent in orientation and has continuously sought to maintain control and hierarchy in society through the means of coercion (Adjumobi 2002). Governance in the country has therefore remained largely a dictatorship where the few controlling the reins of power make it extremely difficult for any peaceful agitation by the people. Madunagu (2000) reacting to this tendency, posits that it is the nature of politics whose ultimate form in Nigeria is the struggle for power, compels every political organisation and population movement at a certain stage in its development to acquire an armed detachment as a response to this culture. This argument is anchored on the fact that the colonialists utilized militarized state to further their interests and through the policies of divide and rule, were able to pitch the desperate groups that make up the country against themselves. The argument also goes to show that in the process of demanding for independence, the state became an arena of contests for these rival groups, and in turn making the group that captured it a mere replacement of the colonialists. The triumphant group uses the state to promote parochial interests which is detested by the others that lost out in the contests and whose only response is to turn to a militarized society or constitute a violent formation as a counter against this domination.

This phenomenon manifested in spontaneous violent eruptions in the form of riots and intermitent violent conflicts in the past as enumerated above. However, the 1990s was the era that saw the emergence of another mode of ethnicity spearheaded by violent oriented ethnic organizations that some have referred to as ethnic militias. This phenomenon was particularly helped by the pervasiveness of personal rule and high concentration of power on an individual as epitomized by the Ibrahim Babaginda and Sani Abacha military regimes in Nigeria. Both men who dominated the politics of the 1990s, had secrete agendas of perpetuating their hold on power, through the manipulation of a political process of the transition to civil rule programme which they built on deception with greater tendency at intimidation and intolerance of dissenting view points (Ibrahim 2003). Indeed, the character of the two regimes deepened the contradiction and crisis of the Nigerian state and the immediate result was the annihilation of civil society, thus driving individuals and groups that opposed the regimes into the trenches (Bach 2004, Guichaoua 2006). Particularly, Ibrahim Babaginda who nursed a secrete agenda of self-perpetuation, engaged in a political chessboard of banning, unbanning and banning politicians in the name of ‘learning process’ under his transition to civil rule programme. In that process so many decisions were taken including the cancellations of political parties’ primaries and election results which frustrated the politicians and the people (Kaur 2007). However, the straws that could no longer be swallowed, was the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election won by a Yoruba billionaire businessman Moshood Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) who was a friend of the ruling military establishment (Faseun 2005). The fact that he hails from an area of the country that had spearheaded opposition politics in the country gave fillip to the opposition against that regime (Albert 2001, Akinyele 2001). That election has been tagged a watershed because Abiola was perceived as a symbol of change long desired by the peoples of the geographical south of the country especially the Yorubas of southwest (Faseun 2003). Annulment of the election by the Babaginda regime was unacceptable to the political elite mainly from the south west and their rejection of that annulment plunged the country into a crisis that increasingly turned into an ethnic strive localized to the south western part of the country (Okechukwu 2000).

The most fundamental outcome of this brouhaha was the formation of Oodua Peoples Congress (OPC) by Dr Fredrick Faseun after he consulted widely with the Yoruba elite (Faseun 2003). The fact that personality like Dr Beko Ramsome-Kuti who was a well known civil right activists lent his support in the formation of the organization gives credence to the view that its emergence has something to do with the brutality of the military regimes especially that of General Sani Abacha whose penchant was to brood no opposition following the stalemate that followed Ibrahim Babaginda’s stepping aside from the mantle of power (Faseun 2005). The organisation formed originally to champion the revalidation of the annulled election of June 12 1993, has increasingly widened its objectives to include checkmating the injustice perpetrated against the Yoruba by the Hausa-Fulani ruling elite as well as promoting Yoruba cultural heritage (Guichaoua 2006, Nolte 2007, Adams 2008, Faseun 2008). The activities of the OPC which is concentrated in the south western part of the country, led to the formation of Arewa Peoples Congress (APC) as a direct response to OPC’s activities, as well as to defend the entrenched Hausa-Fulani interests in Nigeria (Adejumobi 2002).

In the Niger-delta area, the emergence of militant groups calling for an end to injustice, environmental degradation and deprivation followed the same pattern of state repression (Obi 2002). Though agitation in that region of the country, predates the era of military rule and even independence, it was the non-violent campaign led by Ken Saro Wawa and his Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni Peoples (MOSOP) in the early 1990s that prepared the stage for militant ethnic movements in that region (Osezua 1999,Emmanuel 2006).

Th Ogoni agitation took a violent dimension with the formation of a youth wing of MOSOP called National Youth Council of Ogoni People (NYCOP) whose activities challenged state authorities and Ogoni establishment. This violent posture contributed to the death of four Ogoni leaders who they accused of collaborating with government and led to the militarization of the area by government who had to deploy a joint police/military detachment called Internal State Security Force. Notwithstanding that Ken Saro Wiwa and some of his comrades were hanged by the Abacha military regime, the activities of MOSOP/NYCOP succeeded in stopping oil exploration in Ogoni area and attracting national and international attention to the Ogoni cause because Mr Saro Wiwa laid down a foundation of intellectual struggle, anchored on a well articulated document called the Ogoni bill of rights (Isumoha 2004). That document which was signed by thirty traditional rulers and eminent persons of Ogoniland on behalf of the Ogoni people and presented to the government and people of Nigeria in November 1990 was what gingered the youths into taking violent option to realize the objectives enunciated in the document (Isumoha 2004).

It was the Ogoni struggle, coupled with the organizational prowess of Ken Saro Wiwa that not only helped to awaken the entire populace of the Niger Delta to the neglect and destruction that oil exploration brought to the region but in addition, internationalized the plight of the Niger Delta peoples (Osaghae 1995). As Osezua (1999) rightly observed, the advent of the phenomenon of mass protest in Nigerian politics was marked by the rise of MOSOP in their passionate demand for a fundamental restructuring of the Nigerian state. The Ogoni revolt succeeded in forcing the multinational oil giant, Shell, to suspend operation in the area for many years (Obi 2004:104). Though Ken Saro Wiwa paid the supreme price in 1995 when he was hanged by the military administration of Sani Abacha on charges of the murder of four prominent Ogoni chiefs, the flames of agitation and activism in the Niger delta which the Ogoni struggle sparked off in the area instead of abating, rather reverberated across the Niger delta and increased in intensity. It was this impetus that was arrived at by the Ijaw who came out with the Kaima Declaration on December 11, 1998. The issues surrounding the Kaima Declaration changed the coloration of the Niger delta struggle and took it to another level beyond where the Ogonis left it. For instance, the declaration had called for the immediate withdrawal from Ijaw land of all military forces of occupation and repression deployed to the area by the Nigerian state, warning oil companies not to employ services of the Nigerian armed forces to protect its operation; otherwise they will be viewed as enemy of the Ijaw people (Ojeifa 2004). It demanded that oil companies stop all exploration and exploitation activities in the ijaw area so as to put a stop to gas flaring, oil spillage, blow out etc that have despoiled their environment. It advised all oil company staff and contractors to withdraw from Ijaw territories by the 30th of December 1998 (Ojeifa 2004).

The immediate reaction of the Nigerian government to that declaration was to unleash violence and manhunt on the masterminds of that declaration. However the youths of the area with memories of the Ogoni struggle were undeterred by the response of the Nigerian state but were determined to carry on with their resolution. The result was the course to take a different approach to mass protest from those of the Ogonis, leading to the violent militancy approach that informed the formation of rebellious organizations challenging state authority. The Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) and the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND) are the major militant organizations operating in the area with trail of clashes with security operatives since the return to democratic dispensation in Nigeria (Jason 2006). The group’s strategy apart from the confrontations with police and other security operatives also include kidnapping raids and asking for ransome, sabotage, bunkering and terrorism. These activities reduced the state revenue and the oil companies explorative capacities in that region.

It was the Kaima Declaration and confrontational dispositions of the Ijaw groups, which drew the line for the government to launch clampdown on the arrowheads behind that gathering, an action that further militarized the area, leading to the deployment by government of a joint police-military operation called ‘Operation Restore Hope’ (Ramsome-Kuti 1999:10). Even though the administration of Olusegun Obasanjo’s was able to arm-twist Asari Dokubo, leader of NDPVF into surrendering, MEND which emerged afterwards adopted ‘formlessness’ as a strategy of asserting claims on the Nigerian state. Emmanuel (2006) posits that this was necessary because the organization realized that since Asari Dokubo, the arrowhead of NPDVF was identified, it was easy to immobilize him and hence his group. The long incarceration of Asari who was released shortly on assumption of office by Shehu Yar’Adua in June 2007 was enough to transform MEND activities into what may be regarded as insurgency as noted by Jason (2006). MEND is among the twenty-four ethnic based minority rights groups with radical bent in the country (Adejumobi 2002),

The core east or the Igbo area is not an exception; violent oriented organizations with different agendas also exist in the region and the Bakassi Boys was one typical example. The organization enjoyed patronage of state governors before the clampdown on it by the federal government shortly before the 2003 general elections which ultimately reduced its visibility (Babawale 2004: 53-56). The group initially came into the scene to fight the rising crime in Aba and Onitsha, two cities that are boisterous with commerce and its success was to attract the attention of Abia and Anambra state governments which passed laws that legitimized the activities of the group. But given the limitations of the state on security matters and the increasing notoriety of the group in the run up to the 2003 general election, the federal authorities felt that there should be a stop and subsequently proscribed the organization. This proscription was followed by a clampdown on the organization that consequently reduced its visibility. But by far the most daring organization in the east, with national tentacles is the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) whose activities have been purely confrontational with security operatives. Its demand for an independent Biafran state from Nigeria is a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Nigerian state. The group which claims a philosophy of non- violence, has since its formation in 1999 engaged in rallies, use of uniform of former Biafran police and soldiers, hoisting separatists flags and circulating maps that show boundaries of Biafra among many other things (Bach 2004:5). The organization has also organised successful sit-at-home calls that were widely adhered to in the Igbo area and beyond (Obi 2004:10). The organization avers that their objective to actualize Biafra is hinged on the official marginalization of the Igbo in the power equation in Nigeria and the non-acceptance of the Igbo by other groups in Nigeria (Adejumobi 2002). According to Badmus (2006) even though the organization professes non-violence in its campaigns, the history of its activities had been characterized by long trail of clashes with security operatives most of the time leading to loss of lives. For instance, the group’s attempt to forcefully remove a parasitic group called the National Association of Road Transport Owners (NARTO), which was extorting money from the motor parks and markets in Onitsha resulted in a backlash, when the NARTO mobilized resistance. The consequent crisis generated by that clash was what warranted the deployment of joint police and military outfit in the town to dislodge the feuding groups. Ethnic organizations that are yet to attain the level of organizational sophistication depicted above, manifested this tendency through the texture of violence unleashed mercilessly on little provocation. Sophisticated weapons are employed in most of the recent inter-ethnic conflicts.

A study carried out in 2005 revealed that the use of small arms and light weapon (SALW) has increased the scale of lethality, the degree of intensity, casualities and the extent of livelihood destruction with wider developmental impact for the country (Ginifer and Ismail 2005:5). They identified the weapons now in use in Nigeria to include AK-47 assault riffles, automatic pump action shortguns, bazookas, bretta pistol, browning pistol, carine riffles, double-barrel shortguns, G3 riffles, general purpose machine guns, along with other traditional weapons such as machetes, spears, cutlasses and knifes (Ginifer and Ismail 2005:5). All these weapons are what have been deployed in the frequent ethno-religious conflicts ravaging the country including those of the northern and middle belt regions such as the ethnic clash in Riyon district of Jos between the Fulani herdsmen and ethnic Beron, Mambila militia group and Fulani herdsmen in Mambila region of Taraba state that claimed 98 lives and displaced 53,791 can only be described as mini wars.

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