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The peacebuilding roles of rituals in the indigen-settler conflict in South-Eastern Nigeria: Interview with Dr Chimaobi Onwukwe


Please briefly introduce yourself

My name is Dr Chimaobi Onwukwe.  I am a senior lecturer in the Department of Linguistics and Communication Studies/Igbo, Abia State University, Uturu, Nigeria where I have worked for over a decade now. I was a research scholar on a UNESCO global project on indigenous and marginalized youth in Sub-Saharan Africa, Centre for lifelong learning (2017-2019), as well as research fellow at the Institute for French research in Africa (IFRA), 2020.  I have  over 30 publications in international and national peer-reviewed outlets. My main research interests are formal linguistics (morphology, phonology, semantics), sociolinguistics (of migration), communication and cultural studies (onomastics and indigenous peacebuilding studies).

What project have you worked on during your fellowship period?

My study reflects on the conflict resolution mechanisms embedded in African traditional institutions for promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development. In particular, the study examines the peacebuilding roles and significance of rituals, divinations, enchantments in the indigen-settler conflict in Nigeria with a focus on the conflict in Igbo land. The Igbo are traditionally religious, and everyday religious practices govern their lives. At the centre of indigen-settler conflicts is land and associated resources. Land to the Igbo, is a culturally significant entity, and the dictates of its use are religiously explained. Drawing on data from semi-structured interviews and in-depth focus group discussions, the study documents and analyzes rituals, enchantments, and divinations on land related matters as well as exploring peacebuilding significances in specific indigen-settler conflicts across Igbo traditional communities. The study provides original insights to bottom-up peacebuilding approach to indigen-settler conflict which sheds light on “African knowledges for Global challenges”.

What are the findings of your project so far?

Achieving sustainable peace has taken the centre stage of the discourses on indigen-settler conflicts in Nigeria. The focus is more on the use of modern land use laws for peacebuilding. However, there is little discussion of the indigenous peacebuilding roles and significances particularly of the everyday traditional religious practices. This underscores the need for the inclusiveness of locals, their cultures and practices for long-term resolution of this particular conflict in Nigeria. This study examines peacebuilding roles of rituals, divinations and enchantments in indigen-settler conflicts in traditional Igbo communities or South-eastern, Nigeria. Indigen-settler conflict in traditional Igbo communities takes the form of intra-ethnic communal conflicts/crisis. This is different from the inter-ethnic kind of indigen-settler conflict often reported in many communities in the middle-belt regions of Nigeria in which different ethnic communities live together. The traditional Igbo settlement trajectory reveals a hierarchy of a sort in which ‘seniority’ is recognized. A community that first settles in a place assumes the ‘senior ‘status with subsequent settlers been considered as ‘junior'. In some cases, this hierarchy is not overtly represented yet cannot be ignored. Conflict between such communities is described as indigen-settler conflicts, and often involve contestations over land and associated resources for example economic trees like palm tree as well as indigenship. These are usually land and similar resources in the boundary or communal areas.

The Igbo are traditionally religious, and this is partly represented in their belief in many deities/spirits among which is the land deity (ala deity). Land to the Igbo is a culturally significant entity, and dictates of it use are religiously explained. The ala deity is an agent of morality, justice and equity. Any desecration of the land is seen as immoral, and unjust (iru ala), and the deity must be placated or appeased (ikwa ala). The peacebuilding roles of ‘everyday’ socioreligious practices are enforced by the activation of the ala deity. It was identified that rituals, divinations and enchantments are deployed to achieve peace by enforce the forces of the deities/spirits. It was further discovered that divination is deployed as a means of engaging spiritual forces to gain insight into the cause of the conflict, or to gain access to ways of resolving the crisis.

The conversation between the diviner and the spirits involves the use of certain spiritual items/artifacts for example cowries which are thrown on the floor and their positionings are interpreted to mean different things including signalling the kind of rituals to be carried out for peace or resolution of the conflict. It was also revealed that some enchantments are performed which are primarily to check any form of violation of the agreement or peace by casting curse, spells and bonds between the parties. while divination is engaged to gain insight into a problem or reveal the cause of a challenge, enchantment is engaged to activate some spiritual forces to perform a particular function ranging from casting spell/curse, bewitching or bonding. The study documented some divinations and enchantments, as well as identified some linguistic features (such as use of proverbs, eulogies, idioms, euphemism, repetition, rhymes, and pause) and the semantic import of the lyrics of the conversation between the diviner or enchanter and the spirits/deities. The study further identified some artifacts, their spiritual meanings and how they are used, such as pots, cowries, staff, powder, kola nuts, and alligator pepper during enchantments and divinations.

How does the project speak to the overall theme of “African knowledges for global challenges?

The project contributes to foregrounding “Africa” as a starting point for interrogating existing knowledge as well as developing new knowledges relating to conflicts, with regard to particularly conflict management and peacebuilding. While most African communities rely on their local/traditional institutions, knowledge and practices in resolving and managing their day-to day grassroot conflicts and crises, there is very little discussion or recognition of these methods/practices. The study contributes to addressing this gap, highlighting that huge insights could be drawn from and by telling the African indigenous peacebuilding perspective. By reflecting on the conflict resolution mechanisms embedded in African traditional institutions for promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, the study addresses the theme of “African knowledges for Global challenges”, providing original insights to bottom-up peacebuilding approach to indigen-settler conflict. The study supports that ‘everyday’ socioreligious practices offer huge peacebuilding roles which should complement or be integrated into the conventional peacebuilding mechanisms in delivering sustainable peace in indigen-settler conflicts in Nigeria.

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