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Answering violence with violence

“Toleration has never provoked a civil war; intolerance has covered the earth in carnage.” – Voltaire.

Writing in a biography “The Friends of Voltaire” published in 1906, Beatrice Hall described Voltaire’s’ attitude towards Claude Adrien as one that showed that Voltaire is a person that may “disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.” This was because the French philosopher Francios Marie Arouet, known with the pen name ‘Voltaire’, who is often credited with the quote, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is famous for his support for free speech. But the quote is original to Beatrice Evelyn Hall who published under the pseudonym S.G Tallentyre.

Something which Voltaire said in his 1763 “Toleration and Other Essays” is lucidly imperative to this discourse. “Toleration has never provoked a civil war; intolerance has covered the earth in carnage.” There are few truer posits on the exegesis of the violence and the wars ravaging the human world; because intolerance as a raison d’etre of conflicts and violence is a factual commentary on the realities of everyday Nigeria; a reality that Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari and his APC have raised to a concerning high.

In all segments of black Africa’s societies, there is the crying absence of leaders with the intellectual depth who understand anthropology, (read human behaviour), in the context of the shifting realities of human’s social influences as mutating complex beings. For instance, it is lost on Nigeria’s leadership that in managing crisis, it is an a posteriori imperative as posits Festus Iyayi, to understand that it is the society, the type of economic and political system which they operate, that brutalises the individual and rapes his manhood; and that when such people, such men of poor and limited opportunities react against the state, they are only in a certain measure answering violence with violence. Any social inquiry blinded to the foregoing as a necessary normative conceptual framework, is an academic exercise in futility.

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While telling a story inside a story, Professor Fetus Iyayi defined violence in his celebrated novel “Violence”, with an intensely compelling imagery, such that a story set in Nigeria’s 1979 reality, finds meaning consistent with the prevailing socioeconomic realities of today Nigeria; the reason his definition of violence is decidedly germane. The point Iyayi makes reveals that social-mindedness is a quality lost in the many readings of social crisis in Nigeria.

While rightly bemoaning social crisis and all manners of barbarities, there is however, the lack of understanding that the precursors of socio-violence are the lack of opportunities that drive people to crime, madness, prostitution, and adultery. It is an imperative point in the reading of Iyayi. “Acts of violence are committed when a man is denied the opportunity of being educated, of getting a job, of feeding himself and his family properly, of getting medical attention cheaply, quickly, and promptly. When the socioeconomic realities of a society drive people to anti-state actions as a natural consequence, it is violence.”

People are daily visited with socioeconomic violence by the state, and persistently, governments in Nigeria, after these violations and social displacements of the people by them, continue to quell the consequent dissents with state might; visiting civil agitations with forceful aggression, which continue to breed even more violent aggressions. What exactly did people expect will be the precise consequence when people were getting drowned in mud water and shot at with ghoulishly reckless abandon? What exactly are lawmakers hoping to achieve with their plan to criminalise civil dissent? After more than a decade of opposition to the PIB, what was the National Assembly seeking to achieve with rejecting the paltry 5 per cent for host communities? Peace? Clearly, leadership in Nigeria possess little or no intelligence to end violence in a society of varying incompatible cultural influences.

Thus, the denial of space to ventilate these grievances, and the failure to justly address grievances have in no small measure contributed to the proliferation of acts of violence. The history of the attempts to forcibly quell Niger Delta agitations is an eloquent social experiment at failure. Increasingly, youth restiveness in Nigeria have taken more violent forms because consciously or unconsciously, government at all levels in Nigeria have shown that they respect, listen, and are willing to dialogue only with the violent. A point the ruling APC has more than powerfully proved. So for the violated to achieve pacification, he realises that violence is the only means. That government only listens to the violent.

However, to understand the root of the sociocultural psyche responsible for why violence has prevailed in cultural plural societies like Nigeria; a psyche which Buhari and APC have exploited, and continue to tragically maximise to their benefit, it is important to accentuate Ruth Fulton Benedict’s point in her best-selling book “Patterns of Culture” published in 1934. The American anthropologist stated that “No man ever looked at the world with pristine eyes. He sees it edited by a definite set of customs and institutions and ways of thinking. Even in his philosophical probings (sic) he cannot go behind these stereotypes; his very concepts of the true and the false will still have reference to his particular traditional customs.”

Benedict has captured anthropological realism,responsible for how humans act and organise their societies; and posited that many times, seeming pristine conceptions are products of traditional patterns of thought; that cultural leanings and structures have overtime shaped much of humans’ perceptions and outlook to issues and society in general; that knowledge has almost never taken place in a vacuum; and that progressive insights have always been products of pristine thinking which have their roots firmly hinged on cultural mental formulations.

It is not an accident of governance that Buhari considers a Tuareg of Niger a beloved “first cousin” relative, whose alliance he cherishes with the provision of rail lines, more than he cares about the plight of his fellow Igbo country man/woman who he leads as president. It is the concrete affirmation ofthe significance of Benedict’s anthropological realism, which finds evident appreciation when understood in the context of the prevailing ethnic, religious, and political conflicts in Nigeria. Behind the proliferation of the continued violence, lie deep-seated cultural mental formulations that go into defining how the different segments of the Nigerian society view and process issues of socio-political relevance.

Thus, Benedict advanced two things; one, lived experiences of human behavioursare undeniably important in formulating positive pragmatic modules aimed at achieving better human existence.Two, to nip the continued resentment of one segment of the country towards another, in the bud, cultural affinity and influences of human behaviours should necessarily drive the formulation of laws and how a plural society is politically organised. In simple terms, violence in Nigeria will only end when Nigeria is fully restructured along ethnic lines. Britain is a sturdy example. What the United Kingdom will become if it is lumped together under one unitary system tagged “One Britain”, is best left in the imagination. But one thing is certain, it will betorn into shreds in less than a decade; the reason why USSR is another cultural historic example.

But I am sceptical. Nigeria may never find leaders with the mental sophistication, elites of such elevated civility, social engineers of intellectual refinement, people who understand how to manage diverse shifting cultural realities.Hence, violence (social, mental, and physical) may not end here till intolerance covers here in carnage.

Chike Nwodo is an academic and social analyst.

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