A Letter to Governor Imoke BY OBASESAM OKOI
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A Letter to Governor Imoke BY OBASESAM OKOI

Obasesam Okoi

by crossriverwatch admin

Obasesam Okoi
Obasesam Okoi

Dear Governor Imoke:

I have followed with keen interest political developments in the state since 1999, often comparing and contrasting your development policy to that of your predecessor Governor Donald Duke. Compared to Duke, you have made great strides towards rural development. The big focus on rural transformation is reflected in two fundamental changes. First, there is an improvement in economic and social conditions in rural communities. Second, rural populations have been integrated into the mainstream of economic activity, blurring the rural-urban divide created as an unintended consequence of Duke’s urban transformation policy. In the absence of oil revenue, you have taken advantage of cultural globalization to consolidate the tourism economy, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to the state annually, including foreign investors.

But there’s a problem. As Nigeria’s emerging tourism triangle, a visitor to Cross River might wonder why villagers are beheading their neighbors. A prospective investor might be tempted to look to Akwa Ibom if the political climate in Cross River is not conducive for investment. But a thoughtful development analyst will recognize that the problem is not always with the villagers, but the government’s inability to provide the framework for conflict resolution. The primary concern for governance lays on the hesitation of tourists to visit Cross River due to insecurity.

One of the defining characteristics of Cross River is that it is predominantly agrarian. Although we are witnessing progress towards tourism, we must be realistic that for us to evaluate its long-term impact on economic development, such a transformation needed to include pragmatic steps to tackle inter-communal conflict. This is important because in the absence of mechanized agriculture the practice of shifting cultivation frequently pushes individuals to scramble for fertile lands to meet their subsistence needs. Contradictions arising from land encroachment often strain relations between neighboring communities, leading to the eruption of inter-communal tensions that exacerbate massive population displacement, economic disruptions and untold human suffering.

Your government has made impressive attempts to find solutions to inter-communal conflict. Unfortunately, these solutions, however promising, are often weakened by some technical oversight. This weakness stems from government’s inability to integrate conflict resolution frameworks in development planning. While your government has been successful in transforming rural economies through infrastructure modernization, there is need also to modernize the infrastructure for conflict resolution.

So far, efforts have been mostly concentrated on the constitution of Commissions of Inquiries to investigate the remote causes of conflict and, where possible, make recommendations to the government. However, these commissions often fail to make connections between governance failure and conflict. This weakness is a direct consequence of the failure to recognize the specific context in which inter-communal conflict occurs as well as the inability to diagnose accurately the underlying social tensions that build up to a specific conflict event. As such, the solutions they propose often do not provide prospects for sustainable peace.

For the most part, Commissions of Inquiries fail to recognize the importance of human rights in conflict resolution. Where human rights are taken into consideration, they are vaguely defined. In the absence of creative alternatives the government is left with no option than return to the traditional practice of deploying quick intervention forces to stop the violence. While this option has proven successful in ending hostilities, the absence of armed confrontation does not imply that peace has returned to affected communities. In many instances, old antagonisms have been revived by unresolved contradictions.

In my opinion, resolving inter-communal conflict requires effort to strengthen the governance machinery. Governance, in this context, implies putting in place the mechanism for resolving third party effects arising from the irrational behaviors of individuals. In economic logic this third party effect is known as externality. Let me emphasize that an entire community does not cause conflict. Inter-communal conflict is mostly instigated by the actions of individuals, but the negative consequences often spillover to entire communities. As individual actions continue to produce harmful consequences for society, the effect on third party creates a policy problem that requires governance. The role of government is to protect citizens from uncertainties arising from the irrational behaviors of individuals.

Unfortunately, the recent conflict between Nko and Oyoadama communities had exposed government’s inability to resolve inter-communal conflict. Equally catastrophic was the invasion of Inyima by the Oyoadama community, all of which appealed for governance transformation. Why is this important?

Recently, I expressed concerns about the government’s approach to intervention in inter-communal conflict. I felt that the suspension of traditional leaders following the Nko-Oyoadama conflict, even though it appeared as a wise decision in the short run, only offered a quick-fix solution to a very complex problem. Underlying this complexity was the failure to provide a realistic, long-term response, to the problem. By analyzing online reactions to this conflict, and placing phone calls to eye-witnesses, I was able to predict scientifically that not too long there would be an outbreak of conflict between Oyoadama and one of its neighboring Yakurr communities. My prediction came to pass when the Oyoadama community invaded Inyima, leading to mass displacement. To forestall these tragedies, I have proposed some transformations that I believe might be useful to the government.

The first transformation is to enforce property rights. The theoretical standpoint for this solution is informed by the wisdom of a classical economic philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who established the philosophical premise for property rights as a response to governance failure. Bentham suggested that property must be understood as an object that produces good consequences. By good consequences he meant the options needed to prevent the happening of mischief to individuals.

For Bentham, a society’s wellbeing must be measured against the balance of “pleasure and pain.” This implies that if farmland is the cause of conflict between two communities, the government must intervene by weighing the interests of both parties against a course of action that would generate the greatest good. If that land must satisfy the interests of both communities, then the most efficient solution is to privatize it. Privatization is, in this context, a consequence of conflict and a conflict resolution mechanism. This does not however resolve the conflict, but only provides a pragmatic step towards resolution.

The option of privatization resonates also with one of the most important policy debates concerning the management and access to commons resources. This debate emerged from a publication by Garret Hardin in 1968 titled “Tragedy of the Commons,” in which he argued that poor communities are not good stewards of natural resources and the commons, and unless these resources are placed under the management of the state and private property regimes, poverty will force individuals to mismanage them. Applying this argument to the context of inter-communal conflict in Cross River shows that Hardin’s conclusions are right, to the extent that the government can as well be implicated in this contradiction. Communities are fighting over land resources because the government has failed to provide governance, that is, to put in place the framework for conflict resolution.

The second transformation is to use mechanized farming as a solution to inter-communal tensions arising from strained boundary relations. Agricultural land that is the cause of conflict between communities should be converted into a mechanized farm that will promote economic development, facilitated by public-private-community partnership. I coin the term “public-private-community partnership” to include the role of communities in privatization decisions, as opposed to the traditional public-private partnership. The role of government would be to attract private partners with the resources to transform the land under contention into an economic resource that would serve the interests of both communities, without compromising the ability of the investor to maximize profit.

The third transformation is what I refer to as “Consensual Power Sharing.” This option will utilize a problem-solving committee where elites from adversarial communities will work cooperatively in articulating their fears, hopes, challenges and opportunities, facilitated by a neutral actor such as an NGO. Government intervention would be to create a neutral environment where stakeholders will come into a memorandum of understanding that would culminate in a mutually beneficial power sharing agreement on how the cultivation of the contentious land will rotate between the two communities. Such a strategy requires both communities to hold equal power over the land but take turns to cultivate it and also respect the right of each community to take its turn in every farming season.

This transformation is important to the extent that it attests to government’s ability to balance the interests of both constituencies, while also ensuring justice and fairness in its intervention approach. It will also help the government to predict conflict trends and behavior necessary to manage and, where possible, prevent cataclysmic events that often spell doom for communities in every farming season.

The forth transformation is to impose a levy on erring communities. I call it the “Peace Levy.” In one of my correspondence in 2012, when a student leader was shot dead at the Cross River University of Technology, I advised of the importance of a Peace Levy. As draconian as this option may seem, it comes with realistic consequences that suggest individuals tend to behave rational when they are mindful of the consequences of irrational behavior.

Imposing a Peace Levy on warring communities implies that an entire community will bear the burden for the sin of an individual. This would be followed by a three months grace period to fish out the perpetrator. Such a solution will drive internal accountability which would in turn create the need for a surveillance system to fish out the perpetrator. The idea is not to divide society between “good” and “evil” but to prevent the third party effect whereby an entire community often bears the cost of a crime perpetrated by an individual. Where a perpetrator is brought to book within the grace period, the community can then be relieved of its Peace Levy. Alternatively, the levy can be used to fund a peace and development project.

Let me quickly respond to those who might be fast to dismiss these transformations as an attempt to promote “Western,” monolithic ideas. I do not intend to promote a monolithic worldview but to show that there are instances where traditional and market liberal ideas can be a saving grace rather than a nightmare, especially when such ideas provide realistic insights for responding to governance failure. However, these transformations will be ineffective unless their implementation is based on strategic calculations. By strategic calculations I mean government effort must be coordinated in partnership with private and community stakeholders.

In conclusion, Cross River cannot continue to rely on traditional instruments for managing conflict in the 21st century. While traditional systems cannot be dismissed in entirety, we must understand that inter-communal conflicts are driven by multiple factors that push individuals to scramble for resources to meet their daily needs even if that comes at the risk of encroaching traditional boundary markers. To prevent the recurrence of inter-communal skirmishes across the state, there’s a need to embrace, rather than dismiss, pragmatic wisdom, and better still, appreciate the best of modern and traditional conflict resolution systems.

Obasesam Okoi is an international development consultant, policy analyst and researcher on conflict resolution & natural resource governance. He is affiliated with the Arthur Mauro Centre for Peace & Justice, University of Manitoba, Canada.

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