Jos Massacre, the Biafra question and tolerance

BY: Damilola Daramola
Life as a graduate student can often insulate you from things going on in the world at large. Although the question a student is trying to answer deals with solving real-world problems, the lens that a graduate student looks through is often so narrowed that one might forget the big picture. As such a student forgets that the point of research is not to memorize quotes or analyze essays, but to provide steps to a solution that makes the world a better place. Sometimes it takes an unfortunate event to jolt us back to the reason why we are educating ourselves.
The happenings of March 7th in Jos (Plateau State of Nigeria) which ended the lives of between 300 – 500 people and injured almost twice as many has been that event for me (New York Times Article). A group of muslim men attacked the town of Dogo Na Hawa and began killing and butchering the villagers. Houses were set on fire to smoke out people and as they started fleeing, they were cut down. The motivation for these men was the attacks that occurred in January 2010. At that time, a group of Christian men and been involved in similar clashes with the Muslims suffering most of the death toll. It’s hard to pin point when all this fighting began, but clashes in Jos have been happening as far back as when I was a student in secondary school at the age of 14, perhaps even before then. At that time, the reports were classified as religious clashes and people grumbled about how Muslims can be extreme and the conversation stopped after the violence was stopped. There are some who believe that Muslims are nothing more than a violent religios group, but there are extremists within both Christianity and Islam. The Bible and any Christian will tell you that belief in Jesus Christ is the only way to eternal life (John 14:6 & John 3:16). On the other hand, you have Muslims also saying that Islam is the path to finding God and the jihad is mentioned as the process of spreading principles of Islam: “Fight those who believe not in Allah . . . until they pay the tax in acknowledgement of superiority and they are in a state of subjection.” (Quran 9:29) Although only a well-versed Christian or Muslim can explain the context for these passages, history shows us that extremists have also used these texts to taint the names of these two religions. Therefore a place like Jos where both religions exist creates a volatile situation in the wrong hands.
In the conversations I have had with other Nigerians about this recent massacre, there have been numerous suggestions of separation/secession as the solution. This was the same idea that the Eastern region of Nigeria had when secession was being planned to form the country of Biafra in 1967 (resulting in Civil War). Some have strengthened the argument stating that Nigeria is just an idea by the colonial masters who made up boundaries and therefore as Nigerians, we should be able to divide along the lines of ethnicity. Yet I remember when there were similar clashes between the Ife and Modakeke in Osun State who are of the same Yoruba ethnic group. In a country where there are more than 100 different languages, it’s easy to see that even if Nigeria were to separate along the dividing rivers i.e. North, East and West, divisions still exist within these areas and there is no guarantee that clashes like this will cease. The diversity of Nigeria, along ethnic lines, shows that more than ever the conversations we should have as a people should center on tolerance as opposed to separation and the first step to tolerance is education and awareness. There are few programs that focus on teaching our history and I want to use my experience in boarding school as a reference point. Out of a graduating class of about 400 people, less than 30 people had to learn history and even then the purpose of learning was to pass an examination as opposed to learning in order to know the fabric of the nation. It’s no wonder that if you ask Nigerians today about the Civil War (also known as the Biafran War), most of those who are aware are the Ibos who were directly affected by the terrors of the time and have heard firsthand accounts from family members. A similar scenario plays out in the United States where mostly blacks are aware of the real civil struggles and that knowledge drops sharply when you go outside of the race. The phrase “Those who don’t remember the past are apt to repeat it” is clearly showing that the events that led to the secession of Biafra can emerge again.
In an interview with Christiane Amanpour on March 10th, Former President Olusegun Obasanjo mentioned that the crisis goes past religion and is based on ethnicity, social and economic factors (Obasanjo Interview). One cannot separate the fact that religion plays a major part in the day-to-day activities of most Nigerians. In most rural areas where poverty is rampant, the hope that religion offers is often a salve for the current situation of individuals. Therefore people are apt to place more trust in their religious leaders than belief in themselves and their abilities to change their situation. Therefore if one combines the words of an extremist religious leader with the mutual distrust among ethnic groups, it is only a matter of time before simple disagreements blow up into massacres. If education about tolerance is going to begin, it has to begin in places of worship because that is where most of the illiterate population can be found. This can then be extended to the schools where young minds are being cultivated. If I understand my neighbor as a person and value their life and way of thinking (irrespective of religion and ethnicity), there is no reason why we cannot co-exist together.
I realize that this article raises many issues (religion, ethnocentricity, colonialism and education) that cannot be covered in 1000 words, but I am hoping that the dialogue that ensues can attempt to tackle these issues as they are not just peculiar to Nigeria, but to the continent as a whole. Is our problem the different languages we speak, the social separation that exists between different ethnic groups or the thought that we cannot co-exist as a nation because of the divisions that the colonial masters have created?

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Damilola Daramola is a Post-doctoral Research Associate at the Center for Electrochemical Engineering at Ohio University, USA, where he conducts research on hydrogen production from wastes like ammonia and urea. He received his Doctoral degree in Chemical Engineering from Ohio University and frequently writes on personal growth and science.

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One Response to Jos Massacre, the Biafra question and tolerance

  1. congratulations Damilola, this is very insightful article!! More insightful that those who dedicate books to it and still just simple scratch the surface or even worse pick sides and appoint themselves as having all the answers! Indeed, the Nigerian problem is embedded in defining who is and what is Nigeria. Is it boundaries, religious or ethnic identification. Somehow I wonder why all of these can't be the criteria instead of one of them or two of them. And of-course religious and political elites have not helped the dialogue as much as they could have. In the pressure for power well spoken leaders twist religious texts for their own good.

    In his book the Bottom Billion, Paul Collier argues that for well-resourced diverse nations like Nigeria, democracies fail he states; the heart of the resource curse is that resource rents make democracy malfunction” he uses oil to demonstrate that “oil and other surpluses from natural resources are particularly unsuited to the pressures generated by electoral competition” (p. 43). “The sort of democracy that the resource-rich societies of the bottom billion are likely to get is itself dysfunctional for economic development” (p. 51). He argues that resources rich poor countries are not compatible for democratic growth because democracy is not only about elections, it’s about maintaining the support of the masses, and that is a costly business particularly he cites the extends of patronage politics in poor countries. I wonder then what for Nigeria is the way forward? And what role is access to resources playing in the instability in Jos?

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