by Matthew Hassan Kukah
Today, July 28th marks the centenary of the outbreak of what would later be called the First World War. Any thinking about the world war or any war at all, must ask the question, where did war come from? In 1940, the renowned anthropologist, Professor Mead had argued that contrary to what the authors of aggression theory in the social sciences had tried to argue, warfare was not in our genes, not part of our DNA. Drawing from the Eskimos and some Indian tribes, she illustrated that even in the face of threats, some of these tribes did not necessarily respond by going to war. War, in her view was a mere human invention in the same way that cooking food (instead of eating it raw), trial by jury or certain burial rituals were all invented. Thus, just as people respond to new inventions by abandoning the old ones, so also will society abandon war if something superior to war as a means of settling disputes were invented.
For example, she argued, there are cultures which lack the vocabulary for vendetta and they do not resolve their quarrels by war. In such cultures, deep animosities and quarrels are resolved when individuals go to the temple to register their grievances or quarrels with the gods. They then proceed to swear never to have anything to do with one another again and carry on with their businesses. Mead associated war with the class stratification of society and concluded that: War is nevertheless inevitable unless we change our social system and outlaw classes, the struggle for power and possessions, and in the event of our success, warfare would disappear and the symptoms vanishes when the disease is cured.
I have had to return to Professor Mead because precisely on July 28th, 2014, the world would be marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. It was on that day that Austria Hungary reacted to the brutal assassination of the Archduke by declaring war against Serbia. Given the persistence of violence around the world, it is doubtful that we will have time to recall the first effort to externalize and internationalise human folly, bestiality and stupidity through war.
According to popular myth, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo the present capital of Bosnia on June 28th, 1914 triggered the First World War. I had always known about this since reading bits and pieces of my history. However, I never dreamt that one day, I would be in Sarajevo, indeed standing on the spot where Archduke was assassinated with his wife.
My chance came when I received an invitation from His Eminence, Angelo Cardinal Scola to address the meeting of the Scientific Committee of Oasis. Oasis is an organisation set up by His Eminence to foster mutual understanding and dialogue between Christians and Muslims in an age of increasing encounter between different cultures and of civilizations. The meeting took place on 16th and 17th June, 2014, in Sarajevo. My paper focused on Boko Haram.
However, this write up is not an assessment of the conference. It is rather to call attention to the tragedy of war and violence but also to remind myself of how privileged I felt, standing on the street corner where this historic event had taken place. A massive billboard is pasted on both sides of the wall which announces rather proudly: The Street Corner that started the 20th Century (1914-2014) with a painting of the assassin, one 19 year-old called Gavrillo Pincipi, member of a group known as the, Young Bosnia.
Archduke Ferdinand may have taken his wife, Sophie along with him because perhaps it was the only environment he felt he could freely show off his wife who was of a lower social class and therefore did not have much recognition back home. By insisting on marrying her, he had been compelled to contract what is known as a morganatic marriage. Also known as a left-handed marriage, it is a marriage in which the groom holds bride by the left hand instead of the right. Usually contracted when the groom is from a royal lineage, a morganatic marriage means that none of the children from the marriage can become a king.
Looking back now, what can the world say it has learnt since the show of human folly which climaxed in the First World War? There are many highly controversial lessons couched in ideology and this is not the place for us to list them out. However, we can reflect on one or two especially as they concern our lives today.
For example, did the assassination of Archduke really spark off the war or were there other underlining factors that merely awaited a trigger? Secondly, even if we accept that the tragic assassination of Archduke Ferdinand offered the trigger, how did the world allow such a rather innocuous event to become the cancer that destroyed so much human lives and civilization in its wake? Why did the world not learn new lessons and how did we succumb to another war yet again?
The first lesson for us here is how leaders ought to develop a third eye and ear that can sensitise and enable them detect approaching dangers that threaten society. This means the ability to devise adequate listening devices that sensitize us to the wail and silent tears of the weak and the vulnerable before they mutate into the snarl of death and destruction. For us today in Nigeria, the questions are many. Could we have anticipated Boko Haram? Did ignorance of the environment lead those in power to dismiss and ignore the warnings of security agencies and other voices who pointed out this danger many years before we got into this mess?
Secondly, wars are often presented as means for ensuring peace by getting rid of belligerents. Yet, wars often create further feelings of injustice and merely postpone the evil day of further revenge again through further war. To return to Professor Mead, if war is a mere invention, is it conceivable that the world would create another invention to end war? By invoking the threat of mutually assured destruction, it was believed that we could use fear to induce compliance. Sadly, years later, countries that have felt victimized by the hypocrisy of the super powers have side lined the principles enshrined in the Non Proliferation Treaty which came into force in 1970. The rise of tyrants and dictators in developing nations has largely led to further belligerence and enabled many nations to sidestep the surveillance radar of the International Atomic Energy Agency (set up in 1957). The award of a Nobel Prize for Peace to the agency was a highly commendable gesture.
Thirdly, and finally, it is evident that in the end, it is the weak that pay the price of war. Today, it may be true to say that the prospects of a third world war have since dimmed. This is not due to any moral conviction by the super powers, but largely because they have secured and inoculated themselves against such a notion. The democratic nations of the West have consolidated their hold on power and have adopted the Nimby philosophy (not in my back yard), meaning that war belongs elsewhere in someone else’s back yard but not our own.
We see so many proxy wars being fought today for the consolidation the strategic self-interest of the powerful, access and control of mineral resources, oil wells or military air bases of other countries not the victim nations. Almost all wars that are now being fought, from DRC, the ISIS, Hamas to Boko Haram are all proxy wars with the citizens of these nations merely serving as victims. The question is, will the leadership of the nations of Africa still lead our people through this dark path of death and destruction or shall a day come when we can take our destiny truly into our hands and make the survival of our people the only basis for governance?
On July 17th, as I stood at the corner of the street in Sarajevo where Archduke Ferdinand had been assassinated, so many things went through my mind. First, the attempt to kill the Duke had been botched because the bomb exploded after his vehicle had passed. Somehow, as the popular folklore goes, the Archduke’s convoy, in seeking to flee miraculously ended up on the street where his assassin, Princip, one of the members of the plot to kill the Archduke just happened to be. It is akin saying that after the assassin of the late President John Kennedy (Lee Harvey Oswald?) missed his shots at the book depository, somehow, the Presidential motorcade veered into the grassy knoll to permit another conspirator to shoot him!
St James asked the world: Why all these wars among you? He answered: You want something and you cannot get it and you are prepared to kill (Js 4:1). Any invention to end war must be developed in the human heart.
Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah is a social critic and public commentator and the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.