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Last Updated: 07/07/2008The Namu Conflict: a problem solving approach
Key Words: Problem Solving, Goemai, Pan, ethnic conflict, Nigeria, Lederach, Galtung
Namu, a community in Qua’an Pan Local Government Council of Plateau State in Nigeria has been the scene of protracted conflict between Goemai and Pan ethnic groups. The two ethnic groups have co-existed for centuries in relative peace in Shendam and Qua’an Pan Local Government Councils of Plateau State. Over the years, they have also inter-married in great numbers. While the Goemai are the largest ethnic group in Shendam, the Pan are the majority in Namu community in Qua’an Pan. However, in recent years, the issue of land ownership in Namu, which has become the object of controversy between the two ethnic groups, has prompted them to redefine their relationships and sense of identity in a bid by each to seek greater control over the land. In the last five years violence has become the ubiquitous defining characteristic of Namu.
There had been several attempts to resolve this conflict, but even efforts to contain it have not proved successful. What prevails in the area is a semblance of peace. In the long run, therefore, only a problem solving approach can restore and sustain peace in Namu and environs. But how can parties who have demonized and attacked each other engage in problem solving, which is a process that has to be based on cooperation and collaboration? In spite of the potential mutual benefit that problem solving offers to disputants, the approach has remained the least patronized. This is not a result of a lack of appreciation of its utility as a tool, but because most people find it elusive to reconcile the contradiction that characterizes conflict and the need for cooperation and collaboration that joint problem solving entails. This paper seeks to analyze the Namu conflict and explore the ways in which the parties can reframe the conflict and engage in joint problem solving to transform the conflict and their relationship.
The argument of this paper
What will make parties who have actual or perceived incompatibility of goals to cooperatively engage in problem solving in order to find integrative solution to their conflict? This paper argues that parties to a conflict are more likely to transcend the divergence inherent in the conflict and embrace problem solving in order to find integrative solution if they are able to realize and appreciate their interdependent needs and aspirations that have been threatened by the conflict. This means that the amount of energy that parties are willing to commit to finding integrative solution depends to a large extent on how they are able to look beyond the present conflict and envision a future together. It is this realization that motivates the parties to try to understand and appreciate their shared concerns and find a common ground. The paper further argues that problem solving can only be successful where the process helps the parties to reframe the conflict by adopting cooperative and considerate attitudes toward one another.
Background to the Conflict
On the 13th November 2005, exactly two days after the Plateau State Government proclaimed the establishment of Namu Development Area, violence erupted and led to the death of 8 people. Plateau State Government set up a Judicial Commission of Inquiry to investigate the immediate and remote causes of the conflict with a view to officially resolve the tussle over land ownership. In April 2006, speculations about the outcome of that investigation triggered a second phase of inter-communal violence in Namu, which reverberated across neighbouring villages and Shendam. Over 200 people were killed, houses and property destroyed, and more than 4000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) took refuge in the military barracks in Shendam (Relief Web, 2006). The last violent eruption compounded the humanitarian situation in Plateau State, a state trying to recover from a vicious cycle of violence since 2001 that prompted the Federal Government to impose a state of emergency in 2004.
Several factors contribute to the ever-increasing animosity between the two ethnic groups. Limited opportunity for these rural people to increase their income, caused by declining productivity in agriculture, is increasing frustration and vulnerability. Also, it appears that Nigeria’s nascent democracy has opened a social space, which was hitherto subverted by military dictatorship. As different ethnic groups struggle to redefine their freedom and rights, the result is unhealthy rivalry and competition that often leads to the conflagration of violence. Another concern shared by stakeholders is the issue of politics and governance. The state’s handling of the twin issues of land ownership and indigene-settler relations has created room for suspicion among the two ethnic groups. Decisions about creating a Development Area in Namu should have reflected the conflict sensitivity of the area. There is also an increasing sense of exclusion and sense of grievance among the populace arising from perceived injustice.
While the issue of ownership of Namu and other underlying factors mentioned above continue to precipitate the conflict; the frequent resort to fighting by the two ethnic groups, over the slightest provocation, is an indication of growing propensity for aggression among the people. It is clear, therefore, that the confrontational approach adopted by the parties to the conflict has created a worrisome situation of high insecurity and potential for protracted conflict. This confrontational and antagonistic approach has also kept the two sides perpetually asunder and unable to find common ground when faced with contentious issues.
When social conflict occurs, like the case in Namu, it leaves the parties with the option to choose how to respond. The parties may decide to yield, withdraw, contend, compromise, or join in problem solving. The efficacy of each approach will depend largely on the situation or context. However, among the five approaches, it is problem solving that offers the parties the ultimate opportunity to address the underlying causes of the conflict and find a win-win or positive sum outcome (Ramsbotham et al 2005).
For the Goemai and Pan people, withdrawal or avoidance was never an option since they share a common space and have social and historical ties. None of the parties was willing to yield or concede to the position or demand of the other since it involves land – because land is the primary and tangible mark of group identity in Africa (cf. Orock, 2005). A compromise may result in a win-lose outcome that cannot guarantee sustainable peace among the two ethnic groups. Each side’s claim of ownership of Namu land has a political undercurrent that none can forego, as demonstrated by the controversy and violent confrontation that occurred about the State Government’s choice of a location of a headquarters for the newly created Namu Development Area. Instead, the two ethnic groups adopted a contending approach (Ramsbotham et al, 2005) in dealing with the conflict. This confrontational approach has resulted in a spate of violence that has become a vicious cycle in the area.
Problem solving is the approach that can help the parties to move beyond the present intractability and create durable peace in the area. Problem solving is an ongoing process that provides the parties to a conflict the opportunity to constructively engage in an interaction that helps them to focus on the conflict and work together to find integrative solution that addresses their interests and the underlying drivers of the conflict. Again, the question is what will make the parties agree to come together and what attitudes will sustain their commitment to the problem solving? The works of John Paul Lederach and Jay Rothman offer us important insights into the ways that parties to a conflict move toward joint problem solving. According to Lederach (1997), parties to a conflict need to appreciate their common, interdependent future. They need to envision the possibility of moving from the present state of polarization and intractability into a harmonious relationship that is based on mutual accommodation. It is not easy for parties to develop such a shared vision once they are involved in a conflict. The Goemai and Pan have to come to terms with the fact that they have to coexist together. Acknowledging that they have to coexist together will give them the motivation to seek to cooperate with each other.
Rothman (1997) points out that every conflict has a transformational power, which we need to harness. He has developed a framework called the ARIA Framework to show how this transformation works. The four letters of the framework represent the four elements of conflict transformation. They denote Antagonism, Resonance, Invention, and Action, respectively. The first time that parties to a conflict meet, they will naturally adopt adversarial approaches and express views that seem diametrically opposed to each other. Each side will blame the other for the situation and define the conflict in a subjective way. This antagonism, according to Rothman (1997), should be seen as a normal phenomenon in the quest for the parties to try to engage in problem solving. Antagonism provides parties the opportunity to ventilate their feelings thereby bringing the conflict to the fore. Adversarial framing of the conflict should not be seen as counter-productive. That is the starting point!
The parties have to move from antagonism to resonance. Resonance is a process whereby the parties will reframe the conflict and merge their different subjective frames of the conflict into an inter-subjective definition. This will require what Rothman (1997) refers to as reflexive reframing. Reflexive reframing is a personal journey that enables the parties to gain each other’s perspective by putting themselves in each other’s shoes to understand the interest and needs of the other. Reflexive reframing requires a shift from self-projection to realizing our human fallibility, from blaming to respective responsibility, from negative attribution to analytic empathy, and from “us versus them” to “we.” When parties are able to reframe the conflict they can find a common ground and identify their common needs and aspirations that have been threatened by the conflict.
When parties are able to find a common ground, appreciate their collective and respective concerns they will then be in a position to work together to the third stage called the “invention.” Invention refers to a process whereby the parties will work collaboratively to find integrative solutions. Integrative solutions address the deep-rooted concerns of the parties involved. The innovation and creativity required to create a solution that addresses the interests and needs of the parties will often entail thinking “out of the box” and going beyond paradigm.
The benefit of collaborative problem solving is that the solution is very likely to be acceptable to both parties. It is not a solution imposed by a third party. Once such a solution is found then the parties can move into the fourth stage called “action.” Action here refers to a process whereby the parties cooperatively implement the integrative solution. This process of carrying out joint project has the benefit of enhancing group cohesion and integration. These processes can repeat themselves with different situations and lessons learned from the experience can help in strengthening the parties’ conflict resolution mechanism.
The ARIA Framework can be compared to Johan Galtung’s model of conflict. Galtung suggested that conflict could be viewed as a triangle, with contradiction, attitude, and behaviour as its vertices (Ramsbotham, et al, 2005). The contradiction or structural violence in the Namu conflict includes the government’s discriminatory policy, poverty, marginalization, and indigene-settler divide. The attitude or cultural violence is manifested in the way that migratory history is distorted, the way they despise each other, and demonizing each other. The behaviour of the parties includes direct violence and sabotage. Rothman’s ARIA Framework is based on the premise that a positive attitude change is the necessary ingredient that can sustain problem solving. This is analogous to Galtung’s idea that in order to end cultural violence there must be change in attitude. It is this attitude change that can help the Goemai and the Pan to work together to transform the conflict.
The problem with problem solving, therefore, is that it is a learning and discovery process. It is also a journey that leads parties to a conflict to use their own resources to address the underlying causes of the conflict. The Goemai and Pan are more likely to transcend the polarization that the conflict has created and embrace problem solving in order to find integrative solution if they are able to realize and appreciate their common needs and aspirations that have been threatened by the conflict. This means that the amount of energy that they could be willing to commit to finding integrative solution depends to a large extent on how they are able to look beyond the present conflict and accept their coexistence as inevitable. It is this realization that will motivate them to try to understand and appreciate their shared concerns and find a common ground. By reframing the conflict and developing positive attitude toward one another they can sustain their commitment to the peace process.
Problem solving is not an unattainable goal. It is a process that can be realized if the Goemai and Pan will appreciate their interconnectedness and try to gain each other’s perspective. As confrontational as the initial encounter may be, the prospect for joint problem solving should not be given up. Problem solving is not a one-off event. It is a continuous process that will improve with time. The whole process is incremental and therefore, the little progress that has been made must be appreciated.
Lederach, J.P. Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace.
Orock, R.T. (2005). “Indigene–Settler Divide, Modernisation and the Land Question: Indications for Social (Dis)order in Cameroon.” Nordic Journal of African Studies 14(1): 68–78 (2005).
Ramsbotham, O., Woodhouse, T. and Miall, H., (2005). Contemporary Conflict Resolution: The prevention, management and transformation of deadly conflicts, 2nd edition. Polity .
Relief Web (2006). “MCC assists displaced people in central Nigeria.” Accessed on 17/02/2007 from http://ocha-gwapps1.unog.ch/rw/rwb.nsf/db900sid/EKOI-6P33H2?OpenDocument.
Rothman, J. (1997). Resolving Identity-Based Conflict: In Nations, Organizations, and Communities. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
 This is my opinion as a peace building practitioner who had worked in the area for about 6 years.
 From the information I gathered while working as a peace building practitioner in Plateau State, Nigeria.
Yakubu Joseph holds a Master's degree from the University for Peace. Yakubu is the former exective director for Peace Advancement in Nigeria (CEPAN) and Zonal Coordinator for the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP, Nigeria).