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Traditional leaders and quest for peace, security in the Middle Belt

By Joseph Atang Despite several efforts to end attacks on communities and secure lasting peace in North Central Nigeria, there has been an escalation of…

By Joseph Atang

Despite several efforts to end attacks on communities and secure lasting peace in North Central Nigeria, there has been an escalation of conflicts and increase in threats to peace and security in the region.

For instance, just two weeks ago, there were attacks in Mbadwem and Tiortyu communities in Guma Local Government Area of Benue State where 23 people were reportedly killed, while few weeks before that, 18 people were killed in Ancha village in Bassa Local Government Area of Plateau State.

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Response to these crises has been at three levels: government stick and carrot management mechanisms, interventions by Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), and traditional conflict management which has been relegated to the background.

These kinetic and non-kinetic methods only result in win-lose outcomes, as their seeming achievements are only cease-fires. 

This is because whatever might be the conclusions, there’s the tendency for those in deficit of the verdicts to continue to hold grudges, bottling them up for some time and uncorking them later.

The traditional institution on the other hand has been a very important institution since after the prehistoric savagery and barbarism stages of man.

With the advent of the feudalistic society or serfdom which brought with it kings, queens, princes and princesses, this institution remains a very important feature of the socio-political order in Nigeria.

In pre-colonial times, it constituted the nucleus of the political and spiritual architectures of society as traditional rulers were the sole political and spiritual heads of societies.

In playing these roles, they, amongst many other functions, intervened in conflicts in their various types and levels from simple contractual disputes to wars, from inter-personal to inter-communal conflicts.

But the advent of colonialism and the capitalist society brought with it the western-style government infrastructure called democracy which resulted in traditional rulers relinquishing their political authority completely in some parts of the country.

The advent of Christianity and Islam also has resulted in traditional rulers sharing their spiritual authority with the clergy.

Consequently, the role of traditional rulers in conflict management has, until recently, not been given adequate recognition by governments in the Middle Belt, though they’re allowed to perform their various pre-colonial conflict management roles.

A paradigm shift in the roles that traditional rulers play in dispute resolution is therefore needed.

In achieving a paradigm shift, government needs to take advantage of this by strengthening the traditional institutions to perform these roles more effectively.

This can be done by assigning a constitutional role to the traditional rulers, giving them more capacity in different models of Alternative Dispute Resolution, especially the monitoring of conflict and early crisis warning signs, as well as getting them involved in the security architecture of states by making them members of the State Security Council.

This fits into the innovative approaches envisaged by the Middle Belt Brain Trust (MBBT) towards addressing the rising cases of violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt.

From the MBBT baseline study as well as its interactions with traditional rulers individually in Benue State and both individually and collectively in a town hall meeting in Nasarawa State, for example, it is evident that the region is blessed with a highly educated, enlightened and respected crop of traditional rulers who are committed to peace and can be very useful in Early Warning and Early Response (EWER). 

There is no uniform model of EWER for traditional leaders in the Middle Belt since each system is dictated by the objective behind it and the context for which it is meant.

However, the basic successive stages of a dependable EWER are data collection of indicators to an impending conflict or crisis, including root causes or systemic/structural conditions that encourage conflict, proximate accelerators and triggers that set off a conflict or crisis, and intervening factors that reduce the possibility of root causes and proximate factors to set off the conflict or crisis.

The second stage of data analysis reveals if, when, why, where and how the conflict or crisis will erupt or become manifest.The third stage requires the reporting of the early warning outcomes to relevant authorities.

While the fourth stage involves keeping records of past conflicts and crises, information on their development, preventive strategies that were used, to what effect and at what cost. 

This fits into the innovative approaches envisaged by the MBBT towards addressing the rising cases of violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt.

The challenge however, according to the traditional rulers, is the poor or lack of early response by relevant authorities.

MBBT also found that while traditional rulers are dedicated to reporting early warning outcomes, there is the absence of systematic record keeping by them as memory is the prevalent mode of record keeping.

But they complement other agencies of the state, especially the judiciary, at the community level, in dealing with civil conflicts or disputes.

Most civil disputes can be resolved out of the court system so people in dispute can have mutual agreement and resolve to work together. This builds a sense of ownership by the parties and they are invested in upholding the mutually agreed solutions.

The general impression amongst people at the community level is that going to court is not a path to peace because the wound of the party that loses in the case is never healed through that process.

Besides, the judiciary in Nigeria has its own problems. It is bogged by allegations of corruption and interference by highly placed persons.

The traditional institutions can be of immense benefit to the judiciary in complementing their efforts at resolving civil conflicts before they degenerate into violent conflicts.

As the de facto arbitrators at the community level, their technical capacity needs to be built and their roles be codified so the institution is strengthened to continue playing the role of grievance managers.

When these are done, the region is bound to witness a de-escalation of conflicts and crime.

Joseph Atang, an expert on peace and conflict resolution, contributed this piece from Abuja

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