It must be a mark of the academic sensitivity of the Institute for Peace and Strategic Studies, (IPSS) at the University of Ibadan for it to pay attention to the realm of communication and conflict in its mandate of teaching, research and publishing. Communication and conflict is where much of the theoretical and meta-theoretical convulsions in the social sciences can be located today. One encounters awareness of this right away in this 2015 book, Communicating Peace and Conflict where the three editors, Professor Isaac Albert, Dr Olushola Ishola and Professor Olusola Oyewo, all of the University of Ibadan, invoked the Yoruba adage about what a polite language can produce as opposed to the havoc a harsh expression can trigger, (p. 1). But who determines which words are harsh and which ones are polite and how? That is where the the theoretical convulsion comes in, with respect to meaning and meaning making, linking language and conflict.
That is what the book can be argued to be a response to. It is not in the form of a single theme text but a many sided exploration of how words and the world co-constitute peace or conflicts as the case may be. It is a 17 chapter package that starts from the problematic of meaning, the sites where this plays out such as the media, a topic explored in two chapters – media discourse of identity diversity and terrorism; the deconstruction of electioneering campaign rhetoric in Nigeria as essentially the scripting of animus and apologia; the question of trust and confidence building in inter-religious conflict management in Nigeria and community radio in discursive empowerment. Trust and confidence building in inter-religious conflict management is not an analysis of language and conflict in that domain but a very interesting chapter for its elaborate list of managers of inter-religious conflicts in Nigeria, taking almost four pages.
This is not an exhaustive list of the realms of language or communication and peace covered in the book which extends as far as examining indigenous communication in relation to post-conflict healing and reconciliation in Northern Uganda. There is also an interesting chapter on how children constitute a conflict site with its own language requirement to manage. It is a chapter that would gladden child rights activists in its listing of the defining conflict elements in a child, especially those that have lost the privilege of parental shield or find themselves in conflict situations. One of the contributors took time to look at role perception between advocacy groups and journalists in conflict situation, touching on the age-old gulf between journalists and its critics. It is a chapter that is bound to interest a general reader curious enough to see how two ‘naturally’ assertive discursive communities such as advocacy groups and journalists might achieve peace communication in situations that tests the will of even the best of human beings.
In the end, there is an agenda setting essence about the book under review. The agenda one suspects is yes, communication can drive peace as well as fuel conflict but how and why does that happen. This would seem to be the point in the array of case studies even as the scholars were writing from different points of departure, analytical sensibilities and methodological consciousness. In doing so, it also seems there is an ambition to show how serious or complicated the nexus here is. Again, this is what the editors appeared to have been responding to in one of the examples they cited to illustrate the nexus.
Kano City has witnessed many violent conflicts, some of it because of the way they read the word crusade that appear in Christians publicity of their routine programme of worship. So, why might a Christian handbill proclaiming a crusade in Kano trigger a violent reaction as has happened in the past? The editors put the analysis this way: “To the Muslim Hausa/Fulani host community in Kano, the word crusade does not have the meaning the Christians attach to it”. Crusade, as the argument goes, almost always remind Muslims of the conflict between the two faith in the past. Against that context, an innocent handbill proclaiming a crusade suffers from being interpreted as taking ‘war’ to Kano.
Instructively, the chapter in question is titled “Contexts and Meanings in Communicating Peace and Conflict”. Although they diverged from pursuing a discourse analysis of this problem, they were out rightly suggesting to the reader the basis of the inherent capacity of language to produce peace as well as war. That basis is that words in themselves have no universal meaning. Any word can mean anything. It all depends on context and contexts are specific to individuals or groups rather than universal.
That is to say that words mean only that which they mean to individuals or groups, depending on where they are coming from. Hence, the sensitivity of Muslims to a word such as crusade because it is part of their historical experience just as the word terrorism has a different meaning for a Christian in, say, Borno or Yobe State who has experienced Boko Haram violence. If meaning is not universal, then it means the only guarantee for peaceful co-existence is dialogue through which two different groups can narrow their differences.
In critical scholarship, the best example in this regard is the question of what an apple is. It is a fruit but it can be eaten raw just as it can be taken as apple juice or apple flakes or something else. So, what is an apple? The only way what an apple is would not degenerate to a conflict is if all those disputing what it is engage in dialogue, understand their differences better and come to grips with the point that apple is what they all agree that it is. In other words, there is no such thing as apple in itself. The word apple does not refer to anything specifically. The standard social analytic lingo for this in International Relations, for example, is “anarchy is what we make of it”. Apple or the giant elephant that its different observers encountered is what we all say it is. That is why dialogue and consensus rather than any universal master codes, master keys or master techniques from the United Nations, African Union or experts are the best guarantees for peaceful coexistence.
This must be the message that the Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies is passing to complex national communities such as Nigeria in publishing this book. It falls within the mandate of the field of Peace and Strategic Studies which has itself encountered a major, additional shift from Clausewitzean ‘centre of gravity’ analysis to ‘Virtuous War’ based on representational violence. Representational violence centralises the media and, by implication, language use in warfare, consisting substantially of topological re-imagination of space through digital technology to secure tactical advantage. That is how Drone Warfare has come about, for example, relying on hyper-reality. This reading of the text is well located in the intellectual tradition which argues the constitutive force of language, the same constitutive force that centralise language channels to become central to conflict because the language is the language of deterrence for the weaker of any conflict party where power relations are unequal.
The reading or meaning a reader makes of a text such as this book could differ remarkably from the reading of a same text by the text producers. Nothing is, therefore, correct or wrong about the lens employed in this review. It would be interesting if IPSS circulates its books beyond those who have professionalised conflict management down to ordinary readers. Peaceful co-existence is too important to leave conflict management awareness to any set of professionals. There is a sense in which this book, especially if expanded and etched more firmly in critical security studies, may not be anything less than good old Ibadan coming back to setting the intellectual agenda, this time not in History but in Peace and Conflict Studies, a discipline which has simply attained a certain stature in the social sciences because of its combination of analytical as well as problem solving competencies.