Ife Crisis: Unity or justice? by Ropo Sekoni

It is therefore misleading for anybody, especially police investigators of crime, to resort to pontificating about unity, instead of addressing the matter of fairness of investigation.

I had lived in Ife before and even had friends in Sabo while I was teaching at the then University of Ife. I remember that despite the self-isolation of Hausa-Fulani people in Sabo, the degree of integration and harmony between Yoruba and Hausa-Fulani residents of the eastern part of the ancient town was not hidden from even casual observers of inter-group relations. The two communities: indigenes and settlers had over forty years ago many cases of inter-ethnic marriage. It should therefore be disconcerting that what used to be a peaceful community has suddenly become, in the vocabulary of the central police force, a threat to Nigeria’s unity.

This column had written almost ad nauseam about the use of words that hide real problems in order to make those who use such words to be seen as occupying a higher moral or political ground than others. Unity and Security are two of such words. When motorists fail to park on the highway to allow politicians or their spouses in a convoy overtake them, they are warned by the police or SSS operatives to desist from acts capable of endangering the security of the country. Similarly, when two or more citizens of the country fight over whatever riles one or all of them, security personnel quickly warn them against acts capable of derailing the unity of the country.

The response of the police to queries by Yoruba organisations about police investigation into the killing of Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba people in Ife brings to focus the danger inherent in misusing the word Unity. Hear the response of the police spokesperson on charges of lack of fairness in the investigation that found only one side of a violent conflict culpable: “They should be mindful of national security and they should be mindful that every Nigerian has the right to live in any part of the country. National unity is very important. So, any association that goes to fan the ember of disunity should know that they are not doing this nation any good. The era of impunity is over.”

Anyone reading these words would think that Hausa-Fulani people have just arrived in Ife and are being prevented from settling down by Ife indigenes. The reality of Ife is that it has been home to thousands of Hausa-Fulani people for a very long time. Historians claim that these two distinct Nigerian communities had lived together or side by side in peace since the advent of the trade in kolanut in pre-colonial Nigeria. Over the years, the relationship grew beyond commerce into romance across ethnic and even religious lines. It is therefore misleading for anybody, especially police investigators of crime, to resort to pontificating about unity, instead of addressing the matter of fairness of investigation.

All the organisations that had raised concerns about the result of police investigation of the Ife crisis have raised points pertaining to justice while police spokespersons have focused on issues of unity. As this column had observed many times in the past, Unity seems to be one word that has been over ‘Nigerianised,’ to the extent that it means different things to different sections of the polity. Is unity an end or a means to an end? If unity— a condition or situation of harmony or accord is a means, what is it supposed to produce in a diverse society? If it is an end, what is it expected to create for or in citizens of a plural polity?

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Furthermore, what is supposed to be the role of justice— impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments, or conformity to truth, fact, or reason—in a homogenous or heterogenous society? Many people who believe in the power of reason would readily think that justice is the foundation for unity or harmony. When citizens, regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliation, raise issues about absence of thoroughness or fairness in investigation of crimes, they should be seen as being concerned with justice rather than “whipping sentiment into the police investigation” and thus threatening the country’s unity.

The questions that are still not answered by those who conducted investigation into the Ife violence are legion. Did the police discover that only Hausa-Fulani people were killed in Ife? If the answer is no, did the police try to find out who killed non-Yoruba people who died in the fracas? Did the police first focus its investigation on the indigenes with the hope of looking at the other side of the conflict later?  Is this why the police said “outside those paraded, investigation is ongoing and we are still going to arrest anybody found to be involved”?

If investigation is still ongoing, why did the police then rush to parade suspects as criminals in Abuja, hundreds of kilometres from the scene of crime? Would it not have been enough to just keep those already identified as suspects in detention until completion of the investigation? How fair is the ‘media trial’ of suspects in a judicial system that affirms that suspects are innocent until proven guilty? If there is any behaviour that can threaten unity in a multiethnic society, it is for law-enforcement agents to look at two parties in a conflict and rush to parade suspects before international media in Abuja while investigation is still ongoing. Such action is worrisome in view of the statement by the police spokesman: “This is no ethnic or religious clash; these are people who have been living together for years. Issues came up and that is why the police are there to ensure that anybody that takes law into his hands will face the full wrath of the law.”  What does the police hope to achieve by taking suspects who have lived together for years in Ife with their victims to Abuja—to please the central government or embarrass the attorney-general of the state in which the crimes were committed?

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One lesson arising from the new mission of the police: “The Nigeria Police Force under Inspector-General of Police Ibrahim Idris is stamping out impunity in totality. Gone are the days when people will take up arms and kill other Nigerians and go free,” is that anybody in the country that kills other citizens—be it in Kaduna, Benue, Enugu, Mile 12 in Lagos, etc—will be identified for immediate punishment. But the police should ensure as they apply the Ile-Ife template to other parts of the country that nobody is paraded as criminal until such person has been found guilty of crime in the court of law and that suspects for all killings since the assumption of the new IGP should be identified without delay.

Another lesson is that the state government in Osun needs to set up a commission of inquiry to look for remote and immediate causes of the crisis in Ife, given the fact that the two communities along Sabo in Ife had lived in peace and harmony for too long for the kind of violence between Hausa-Fulani and Yoruba residents of the ancient city to be left just in the hands of regular or special police investigators. Such inquiry will generate more lessons that need to be learned towards diversity management.

What was designed to be a meeting to enrich the country’s unity in Abeokuta last week ended as another act of exclusion. The Senator Ken Nnamani Committee on Constitution and Electoral Reform organised a Southwest public hearing that was poorly publicised. The region had a better organised public hearing in 2014, preparatory to the National Conference sponsored by former President Jonathan. The preparation for the Abeokuta public hearing sells the commitment of the All Progressives Conference to “Initiate action to amend our Constitution with a view to devolving powers, duties and responsibilities to states and local governments in order to entrench true Federalism and the Federal spirit” short. Any serious effort to entrench the ‘Federal spirit’ in the constitution ought to be inclusive and be seen as inclusive. It was a similar decision to exclude critical sections of the polity in the era of Sani Abacha that led to the 1999 Constitution, which citizens and even the APC government want to change, for not being a people’s constitution.

 

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