The journalistic infatuation with indulging big languages, cultural groups and centres of power and authority would make it difficult for some readers to come to terms with any platform paying attention to places such as Iwewe and Olanyega which they cannot even locate on a map of Nigeria. For such readers, places such as Iwewe and Olanyega are the other of the normal. And it must be either dangerous localism or tribalism for journalists who focus on those types of conflicts. But conflict denied publicity is conflict exacerbated. In any case, Iwewe-Olanyega is not Iwewe and Olanyega. Rather, it is the story of a decaying federalism in a dysfunctional state, a story of elite failure and the depressing complications of identity politics. It is also evidence of a society where rule of law and conflict management have been thrown to the dogs.
There are many who consider it heartening that, unlike when Ugbokolo fell to local terrorists in late 2016 to 2017, the Nigeria Police this time detected and punished the DPO who is believed to have aggravated Iwewe-Olanyega violence. The point, however, is that the matter was beyond the malfeasance of the DPO. The local and national elite conflict sensitivity and peacemaking capability went to sleep. Otherwise, local and minor in magnitude, that conflict had a history that ought to have interested the Nigerian State, through its local intelligence and conflict management mechanisms, more than 40 years ago. When observers point at that, they do so for the reason that Iwewe-Olanyega conflict had all the ingredients that make for intractability: land, site, name, communal sense of honour on both sides and ‘self’-defense. How no one saw that, with all these ingredients, it was a matter of time before something gave is incredible. And it implicates a huge pool, from the youths to the absentee local elite to the local political leaders, (councilors, politicians and political office holders), the SSS, the LGC, the Idoma Traditional Council and what have you!
A win-win approach was desperately needed rather than a win-lose resolution that was being sought in the courts and which had been dragging. No one with the social standing and moral stature to be believed on both sides offered an opportunity for a win-win. And not the Nigerian State either. That is what would have happened even in some other smaller African countries where alternative dispute resolution is more elaborate at communal levels. Typical of Nigeria’s arrogant federalism, its intelligence and policing must be about big issues, big ethnic groups, power and flamboyance, not peace and social justice. So, until violence erupts, it is not concerned enough. And even when that happens, it still has little capacity to respond effectively nowadays. For instance, the unconfirmed but mightily believed rumour mill is that the now de-ranked and deposed DPO at Ugbokolo was bribed as to have allowed the peacekeeping detachment at the school premises to ‘disappear’. So, a federal police and, by implication, federalism, is implicated in the February 20th, 2019 reprisal.
Does it mean that this sort of a problem would no longer be the case were the subsisting federalism to be unbundled? Would doing so produce a more sensitive and competent conflict management regime across the country? That is the sort of lie advocates of restructuring are peddling when, in fact, the most depressing conflict management failures are almost always instigated by local elite, making Abuja the saving grace in the end. Of course, current agitation for restructuring have its origin in historical misperception of each other by the North and the South as well as what General Danjuma has now called ‘war without fronts’, those championing it have surprisingly offered nothing more substantial than what Political Science has always known as decentralization. And there is nothing unwelcome in that.
What this points to is how Nigeria might appear to be still groping about achieving communal harmony. Can it do this with rule of law or must it turn to social justice or does the answer lie in harmonizing the two? Who does that? Is it the political parties so that it doesn’t matter who their presidential candidate is or should it be the job of an entirely new administrative body?
This is the sense in which Iwewe- Olanyega is about but beyond some two, far flung local areas somewhere in Benue State. It is about numerous other forsaken communities across Nigeria even as Iwewe-Olanyega presents a specifically interesting story. It all started with the colonialists who, from hindsight, benevolently established British style public primary schools that did not just certify pupils but served as finishing schools. They were about five or so of them in those days in Edumoga District of present day Okpokwu LGA of Benue State. The earliest Headmasters and leading teachers of these schools are still the referents. In the case of the school at Olanyega, names of the late L. D Agbo, Alexander Onah, Mr. Emmanuel Ogwuche would readily come to mind, among many others.
Today, the LGEA Primary School, otherwise the famous St Peters Primary School, Olanyega is in ruins and may never stand ever again. If care is not taken, it will now rise as a Police Station, a ‘law and order’ centre as opposed to a centre for knowledge that it was. All those rock solid buildings we don’t see again are now in ruins, loses to violence that was absolutely avoidable. Along with it is the Court at Olanyega, making the violence to be more than physical structures but also to history and memories of those symbols, particularly the memory the hundreds of thousands if not millions who attended that school that produced ‘Oligogo’, ‘Adekunle’ and so on. Names such as ‘Oligogo’, (onomatopoeia for the powerful, long shots peculiar to him) and Adekunle’ were nicknames for some of the most fascinating footballers the now defunct St Peters Primary School, Olanyega Football Club produced. If it were recently, the two and, in fact, many members of that First 11 would certainly have headed for international soccer stardom because there is no way he wouldn’t have been noticed.
Perhaps, the planners and executioners of the invasion of Iwewe and of Olanyega should be congratulated for executing them without spilling blood. Although so much have been destroyed in a spate of two nights, there is a signal in deliberately refusing to spill blood. That signal is that Iwewe and Olanyega have fought as brothers. Going by the Achebean wisdom that anger against brother does not go as deep as to be felt in the bones, the conflict parties have given all peacemakers a very crucial hint to follow in the peace process that should follow quickly because the individual and collective privations involved is simply too substantial to let time heal the wounds. It will be interesting to see how the Supreme Court of Nigeria; the IGP; the Benue State Commissioner of Police, the Edee of Edumoga; the Idoma Traditional Council and probably the rather politically problematic local elite would wade in. Great would be the one who can conscientise any (I)NGOs to extend humanitarian and relief materials. Or, if any rich enough persons can. Or, if any politicians can. It is unimaginable that a people experiencing the level of poverty in Edumoga District would add violent conflict to it!