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HomescienceExplained | How collective memories fuel conflicts

Explained | How collective memories fuel conflicts

(The Conversation)

When a group of youths attacked shops and buildings in Tallinn, Estonia, on the evening of April 26, 2007, it sparked two days of civil unrest. This resulted in the death of a young man, injuries to 100 people, including 13 police officers, and the arrest of over 1,000 people.

The unrest was due to a disagreement between two communities – ethnic Estonians and ethnic Russians – over how they should remember the events of the World War II and the Soviet period.

These disagreements stemmed from contentious “collective memories” of events and narratives. Such shared recollections of past events can arise among a group or nation – whether factual or fabricated.

As I have shown in a paper, published in Genealogy, collective memories among individuals in a community, passed down through generations, are often at the heart of conflicts.

Collective memory is a social representation of the past. It ultimately explains how people’s shared recollections are formed within the social groups they belong to. But it also explains how they are formed against the social groups of people they do not consider themselves members of.

This creates a shared, collective past among each group that can be reignited in the present to retain the memory of the past.

This may seem to be just another word for history. But memory is not history. Ultimately, history views events with depth and from multiple perspectives.

Collective memory, on the other hand, simplifies the events – viewing them from a single perspective and reducing them to myths.

This is much like how our individual memories work. They are often faulty and driven by how we want to view ourselves. As such, collective memory is fundamentally tied to identity in ways that history aspires not to be, even though the latter may drive the former.

Collective memories can be shared in many ways. This includes family tales, folklore, institutionalised education, social media, sanctioned narratives, propaganda and education.

A glimpse into Nigeria

In my paper, I argue that contentious historical accounts shape collective memories as well as collective behaviour. The research is based on case studies conducted in April 2018 and May 2022 in Benue State, Nigeria, aiming to understand the persistence of conflicts there over time.

The paper explores how historical events in pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial Nigeria resonate today. This has reignited collective memories, influencing collective behaviour towards violence. That’s because people seek to redress current grievances through the lens of past events.

Nigeria’s history is marked by persistent violence, through the eras of European imperialism, independence, the Nigeria-Biafra war (1967–70), military dictatorships and multi-party politics.

One problem is eco-violence – conflict over water and other agricultural resources between contending groups: nomadic herders and farmers. These conflicts have persisted for decades, from colonial times to independence and the present day.

Collective memories influence people’s collective behaviour in several ways. First, they provide historical contexts to contemporary issues. Second, they link a known and collectively shared past emotion to a current event. And third, they associate current issues with societal contradictions of previous events, such as colonial efforts to divide and conquer.

The convergence of these three factors is shaping the persistence of conflicts between the nomadic herders and farmers. There are conflicting narratives between the two groups regarding the ownership of communal land. There are also differing opinions on who should have access to it – and how.

Among the farmers in the region, the conflicts are perceived as a resurgence of the 1804 jihad, a military and religious attack by an Islamic army, aimed at claiming their land. They now feel attacked again.

The nomadic Fulani herders, on the other hand, assert their rights to access agricultural resources by citing their lineage to the Sokoto Caliphate, which was created as a result of the jihad and once governed parts of the north-central region.

These contentious collective memories between the two groups shape people’s perceptions and their collective actions. And this transfer of emotions from past events to new ones complicates the peaceful resolution of conflicts. It ultimately leads to persistent violent disputes.

The ongoing violent conflicts between farmers and nomadic Fulani herders in Nigeria, similar to the 2007 unrest in Tallinn, Estonia, are shaped by differing narratives of the past. The effect of collective memories in intensifying these violent confrontations is undeniable.

Conflict resolution

Embedding collective memory within conflict resolution strategies is crucial for realising sustained peace. One way to so this is by using “cognitive reappraisal techniques”. Such techniques involve exposing individuals to emotionally charged situations to change their emotional reactions.

Temporal distancing, for example, is a cognitive reappraisal technique that occurs when you imagine a stressful event from your future self’s perspective rather than your current self’s.

Another technique, self-distancing, entails stepping back from your immediate reactions to see emotionally charged events from a broader perspective. The cognitive reappraisal technique, when applied to a conflict situation, aims to lessen group hostility, encourage peaceful responses to past violent incidents, and reduce aggressive behaviour in group interactions.

It could therefore reduce disagreements between two communities. Although adapting this approach to fit the Nigerian context may require additional studies, it holds potential.

(Olumba E. Ezenwa, Doctoral Research Fellow, Conflict, Violence, & Terrorism Research Centre, Royal Holloway University of London)

(Published 12 October 2023, 10:56 IST)

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