By By Simon Kolawole
conflictI had not been to Abia State in ages. My visit to Umuahia sometime last year set me thinking yet again about the Nigerian condition. That was when today’s topic nestled in my mind: the role of conflict in development. It is not just leadership and corruption that impede development: conflict is a strong repellent. Chief Orji Uzor Kalu, as the governor of the state from 1999 to 2007, was most of the time at loggerheads with President Olusegun Obasanjo. The battleground was the media. Orji Kalu’s airline, Slok, was eventually grounded. Abia suffered as the state was denied plenty federal juice as a result of the conflict.
Kalu eventually defected from the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to form a new party, Progressive Peoples Alliance (PPA), as Obasanjo squeezed him out. Then in 2007, Kalu anointed his Chief of Staff, Chief Theodore Orji, ?as his successor. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), clearly playing Obasanjo’s script, arrested and detained Orji before the election just to get back at Kalu. Some of us in the media were hearing the voice of Jacob and feeling the hand of Esau. We criticised EFCC. Nevertheless, Orji remained in detention. But he still won. EFCC had to release him to be sworn in. We were ushered into President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s era of “rule of law”.
Sooner than later, Orji and his “godfather”, Kalu, were at daggers drawn. A state in desperate need of peace and development went into a standstill. In 2010, this cold war became an open conflict and hot words were exchanged in the newspapers. It appeared Abia was programmed for conflict. That had been its lot since 1999. But while Orji and Kalu fell out, the relationship between Orji and the elders of the state (who were also not on good terms with Kalu) improved tremendously. Orji’s performance in the last four years, in my opinion, is certainly way beyond what he recorded between 2007 and 2010. Significantly, unlike Kalu, Orji is in the good books of Abuja. This means a lot in the Nigerian equation.
Last year, on a visit to Dr. Eze Chikamnayo, the Commissioner for Information and Strategy (who jocularly calls me “my leader”), my first shock on entering Umuahia was that the market was gone. It had been a nuisance in the centre of town. The traders now have something like a whole city to themselves, with heavily subsidised buses taking shoppers back and forth. For the first time, I saw dualised roads in Umuahia. I saw new government structures under construction ─ a multi-storey secretariat, a judiciary complex and a conference centre. I visited the Specialist Hospital and Diagnostic Centre. I visited remodelled and rehabilitated schools. I saw new housing estates. Umuahia is beginning to look like a capital city. These projects, Chikamnayo said, are replicated all over the state. Obviously, when conflict is minimised, there is a good chance for development.
Thus, in the hierarchy of development repellents, conflict has to take its pride of place. But we often understate it. Conflict comes in two species: violent and non-violent. The Boko Haram violent conflict has dragged Nigeria, particularly the North, backward but we do not seem to understand this simple fact. Apart from the death and destruction, the climate of fear has scared away investors from several parts of the North. Infrastructural development has been hampered by insecurity, which has also gulped resources. What we spend on security and compensation for victims could have been spent productively. And this is to say nothing about the grand paralysis of economic activities and the ruin of poor people’s livelihoods.
While our politicians are still busy playing 2015 politics with Boko Haram, the conflict is killing us softly. We do not seem to worry with our enormous security spending in the last five years. Do the math. It could have done the whole country some good if spent elsewhere. A threat to any part of Nigeria is a threat to all, but narrow-mindedness means most of us cannot see beyond our nose. Some Northerners were busy saying President Goodluck Jonathan was behind the bombings, while their friends from the South said it was those who lost the 2011 elections. While we were busy whipping up sentiments, the militants were getting stronger and meaner. If we were wise enough, our energy would have been spent on how to quench the fire, no matter who started it.
Away from violent conflict, we have two forms of non-violent conflict, and both are repellents of development. One is legal and the other political. Because of the way and manner we conduct elections in Nigeria, there is every tendency for legal conflict. The declared loser will go to court to seek justice. You cannot beat a child and order the child not to cry. But, then, this has a cost to development. The declared winner not only faces enormous distraction with the uncertainty beclouding his legitimacy, he is also going to take liberty with state resources to defend himself in court. Fictitious contracts are often awarded to create slush funds to pay lawyers and bribe judges. Many times, these cases go all the way to the Supreme Court. What a cost to economic resources, including precious time. Only a few governors get things done while their election is a subject of litigation.
The second manifestation of non-violent conflict is political. One example is the infighting in Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF), which has cost Nigeria billions of naira. I hesitate to say billions of dollars. Many projects have been stalled as a result of this as the gladiators flex muscles. I wish I could compute the amount of money that has gone into chartered flights as the governors fly around the country day and night to plot strategies. The kind of money that has gone into bankrolling media wars could have been spent sinking boreholes and filling potholes. The failure of the 36 governors to sit under one roof to continue with their peer review-driven development initiatives on polio, agriculture, education and water has injured the progress of Nigeria in many aspects.
Another manifestation of non-violent political conflict, which we discussed today using the Abia example, is the one between godfathers and their godsons. It is very commonplace in Nigeria. When someone helps you to gain political power, there are implications that, if not well managed, could be dire. To avoid running into conflict with your godfather, you have to kowtow to him. And if you do, you could be in trouble. You run the risk of being in government without being in power. And if you don’t kowtow, you could also be in trouble. You risk instability in your government. This is a major development repellent in Nigeria. Conflict, either violent or non-violent, is not in the interest of our progress. When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
As we continue these regular conversations on the stumbling blocks to our development, we need to promote conflict into the discourse. Poor leadership is no doubt the major hindrance, and corruption is inevitably an icon of poor leadership. And conflict? Don’t underrate that repellent. It can kill. The political actors must learn to manage conflict in a way that it will not hurt development. They can pick their battles.
By Simon Kolawole

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