A nation in need of peacebuilders [OPINION]

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By Simon Kolawole

Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, prominent Igbo politician and businessman, was in the news last week for his comments on the Yoruba-Igbo face-off in Lagos. Speaking at the first anniversary of Prof Chukwuma Soludo’s governorship of Anambra state, he appeared to be pursuing a reproachment between the two largest ethnic groups in southern Nigeria. But he started with a tough tone, saying: “Never, never again can we allow anybody to take the life of any innocent Igbo person. All of us are going to bite the person.” He then switched to a heartening tone that, in my opinion, was more conciliatory: “I want to tell those in Lagos to realise that there is no war between us and Yorubas.”

What he said next, or didn’t say, is the matter we are still trying to settle. “Yorubas are—,” he said, appearing to pause before continuing: “There are just political rascals and we are going to handle them.” Initially, I thought I heard “they are just political rascals”. But given the flow of his speech, I was circumspect. I shared the video with a friend, an Igbo who lives in Canada. We often try to discuss ethnic matters dispassionately. He thought he heard Yorubas are rascals. Although I also felt it sounded so, I took it more like a cheeky comment not meant in a sinister way. My colleagues at TheCable and I went back and forth on it and concluded Iwuanyanwu said “there are” not “they are”.

Iwuanyanwu later issued a statement denying saying “Yorubas are rascals”, disclosing that one of his children is, in fact, married to a Yoruba. Sadly, the simmering tension between Yorubas and Igbos over the elections, exacerbated by anti-Igbo comments by MC Oluomo, the glorified motor park tout, only got worsened after the “rascals” news went viral. While some Yorubas felt offended and wanted an apology, many latched on to it for political use. I do not know Iwuanyanwu personally but having watched him from afar for over three decades, I would say I have never seen him as an ethnic bigot or a rabble rouser. He is a proud Igbo, sure, but he doesn’t come across as a promoter of hate.

However, lost in the “rascals” storm is what Iwuanyanwu said about addressing the issue. “The elders have directed secretary general of Ohanaeze Ndigbo to set up a commission of inquiry to find out things destroyed, and people are going to pay,” he said. I have my reservations with this approach. When there is a conflict with intense emotions as we have witnessed in the last few weeks, I believe the process of mediation and reconciliation needs to be deeper and wider than that. There is nothing wrong with finding out what happened and seeking compensation for the affected, but a one-sided approach will not solve any problem. We will only be dealing with symptoms and side effects.

As I have written a million times, maybe more, conflict is part of any human society. Children born of the same parents have conflicts. As Iya Kola, my grandmother, used to tell me when I was a kid, even the tongue and the teeth quarrel — as close as they are. “When your teeth bite your tongue, that means they are fighting,” she would say. In various societies, there are conflicts along different lines: racial, gender, class, inter-ethnic, intra-ethnic, religious, ideological, and so on and so forth. More so, in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society such as ours, conflicts are inevitable. And I am realistic enough to accept that they will not disappear overnight. The real challenge is how to manage them.

In 1999 or 2000, I attended a training on alternative dispute resolution with focus on mediation. One major take-away that has shaped my general attitude to life is that there are conflicts that can never be resolved. Therefore, don’t be in denial: you have to admit it. For instance, Christianity says Jesus is the Son of God. Islam says God does not have any son. Both faiths can never come to an agreement on this, so it is a waste of time trying to reconcile their theologies. What you do, in this instance, is to foster tolerance and mutual respect for each other’s beliefs. That is why I am at home knowing that not all our conflicts in Nigeria can be resolved. I am more interested in how we can manage them.

Pray, what do we benefit from fuelling turmoil that can set the country on fire? I was not yet born when Nigeria went to war in 1967, but from all the accounts I have read, it was not a picnic. Military officers who fought during the war have told tragic stories of friends killing friends and course mates decapitating course mates. I am also told that there was hardly any Igbo family that was not affected in the ensuing devastation. People speak bitterly about the pogroms and what led to the pogroms till this day. Those who witnessed the Civil War, either on the Nigerian or Biafran side, are not very eager for a repeat — but much of the hotblooded Tweeter generation fantasises war as a Netflix series.

In my life, I have witnessed inter-communal crises and street riots, including the End SARS uprising, and I would not participate in promoting anything similar to these till I die. The consequences of unrests are multifarious. Where do we start from? Is it the dislocation? Having to hurriedly move from one part of the country to the other not because you killed somebody but simply because of your tongue or creed? Or is it the uncertainty? I was an adult when the June 12 crisis engulfed Nigeria from 1993 to 1998. Only God knows how many times I left home for office and ran back midway as vehicles started driving against traffic to escape sporadic shootings by the security forces.

Is it the economic devastation? Millions of Nigerians rely on daily income to sustain their lives. Many market women feed their families from daily sales. In the event of violence and instability, their lives will be ruined. How many offices, banks, markets and shops will open when soldiers are patrolling the streets and shooting at random? Promoters of strife need to sit down and count the costs. Maybe they do not have the mental capacity to understand the consequences. Maybe they cannot be bothered: it is either their way or the highway. Those trying to push the country into war are like a child vowing to give his mother sleepless nights: he too will not sleep. There will be no winners.

I will say this again: we need a peaceful country before we can talk about progress and prosperity. You cannot even be talking about justice without the peace. Comfort for the tree is comfort for the bird. If the tree is inhospitable, the bird will not perch at ease. It is in the interest of the bird for the tree to be cosy and comfortable. I wish those stirring strife can understand this fact of life. If you sow discord and instability, neither you nor your family will know peace too. The desire to propagate hate may look intoxicating now but when the consequences hit, there will be no medals to be distributed. Therefore, the protagonists and antagonists will do us a world of good by beating a retreat.

I pray day and night for Nigeria to have more peacemakers than rabble rousers. Peace-building seems to be going out of fashion. We now appear to have entered an era when those who should promote peace, mutual respect and understanding are the ones stoking the fire of hate and strife — all because of the political emotions of the moment. People who should call hate mongers to order and make genuine efforts to help heal our wounds are the very ones pouring fuel on the naked fire. Some are doing it openly and brazenly while others are at the backend engineering things, with their hands barely hidden. The penalties for this mischief, borne out of desperation, will sadly not spare anyone.

Nigeria urgently needs peace builders — old and young, men and women, southerners and northerners — irrespective of “tribe and tongue”. Desperate and unconscionable demagogues and ideologues are on the rampage and are rapidly expanding their fanbase and reach. Go on social media and you will understand what I am saying. We need a new army of peace builders to counter this disturbing affliction. We need Nigerians who are determined to work for the peace and progress of Nigeria without regard to ethnicity, religion and political affiliation. We need them to step up to the plate not just to dilute but also to overwhelm the hate-mongering and ethnicity-baiting.

As for me, I made up my mind ages ago to be an agent of peace. I was a guest at the CORA Book Trek session a week ago to read and discuss my debut book, ‘Fellow Nigerians, It’s All Politics’. The book, a collection of essays on the Nigerian project, attributes the underdevelopment of the country largely to political intrigues that are not targeted “at the greater good of the society”. One question I was asked was why I was always “sitting on the fence”. I’ve been getting this accusation for years apparently because I don’t ignore the different sides to an argument. The truth is that I don’t sit on the fence — just that I don’t say what some people want me to say. I don’t amplify their prejudices.

As I told the audience, I didn’t jump into journalism. When I chose to be a journalist, I had a purpose in mind: to be a promoter of peace and national development. There is, thus, a method to what I write. I don’t just boot my laptop and start typing like a headless chicken. And I can boldly say that I have never promoted ethnic or religious hate even when I have been a victim myself. It is not that I am such a wonderful patriot, but I recognise that these things are part of life and the best option is to temper your own emotions so that you can see clearly and proffer solutions with a sense of responsibility. The cheapest thing is to take sides and be hypocritically blinded to your own faults.

Today, I plead with well-meaning Nigerians to raise their voices and drown out the noises of those currently working overnight to pitch Igbos and Yorubas against each other in the name of politics. It is time to break the monopoly of hate mongers. Warning: if you choose to be a peace builder, there is a price to pay: you may be accused of being politically correct or sitting on the fence. Refuse to be blackmailed by the merchants of strife. Above all, people are free to demand justice if they feel aggrieved. People can support any candidate they like. But nobody has a right to provoke or attack others because of their choices. We must put our primordial emotions in check for the greater good.

Culled from TheCable

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