Conflict and Cooperation in Market Spaces: Learning from the Operation of Local Networks of Civic Engagement in African Market Trade

Article excerpt

This paper is concerned with conflict and the operation of local networks of civic engagement in the Nigerian market place. African markets are commonly significant meeting points-associational sites - for diverse ethnic and social groups: the economic and social exchange which takes place there in the 'everyday' is the epitome of social engagement and cooperation. But at times of tension the market place is a frequent flashpoint where conflict becomes tangible and conflagration a regular outcome. We examine the role of a range of internal and external institutions and actors in market and trader dispute regulation. Our case study analysis shows the remarkable role which is regularly played by local actors and networks of civic engagement within and in the vicinity of the Nigerian market space to diffuse tension and, where disputes emerge, to reinstate order. These components are a reflection of the value placed on traditional market trading spaces in Nigerian society: they remain essential to the livelihood and wellbeing of millions of people, rich and poor.

Key words: African markets, associational sites, civic engagement, Nigeria

Introduction

This paper is concerned with conflict and the operation of local networks of civic engagement in a very specific spatial context: the market place. African markets, rural and urban, are commonly significant meeting points - associational sites - for diverse ethnic and social groups: the economic and social exchange which takes place there in the "everyday" is the epitome of social engagement and cooperation. But at times of tension, the market place is a frequent flashpoint where conflict becomes tangible and conflagration a regular outcome.

The market place itself is, thus, the locus for the extremes of social interaction and arguably a key location in which to examine patterns of civic engagement and civic breakdown. Yet, surprisingly, despite a long history of academic studies of trader interaction in disciplines such as economic anthropology and geography, there has been remarkably little focus in academic conflict studies to date on small business and its sites of operation in conflict creation and conflict management.1 From this perspective, Varshney's (2002) approach to conflict theory development through the ex animation of cases of successful civic engagement and ethnic peace appears to offer important potential, not only for advancing our theoretical understanding of conflict but also in terms of policy formulation. His research draws attention to the critical importance of local networks of civic engagement within India's business community in particular places, for successful regulation of tensions and potential conflict between Hindus and Muslims. In this paper, we similarly draw on a number of case studies from our own field research in Nigeria to show how social networks and "small acts of human agency" (Varshney 2002:295) have been used to build trust, to diffuse tension, and to effect reconciliation. However, whereas Varshney's principal unit of analysis is the city, here we focus down spatially even further, to the market place and its environs. Our aim is to show how a micro-examination of trade, peace, and conflict at neighborhood level can inform analyses of conflict and efforts at mediation.

We commence the paper by briefly reviewing recent theoretical debates on conflict and its management and present our research methodology. We then outline the principal features of some recent conflicts in Nigeria where the market space has become a specific site of dispute. This is followed by discussion of the role of a range of internal and external institutions and actors in market and trader dispute regulation, referring to cases which illustrate the notable forces for conflict management and reconciliation in Nigerian market places.

We pay particular attention in the paper to the role of market-based social networks. Our aim is not to downplay the crucial underlying significance of deep-seated structural factors associated with resource competition in recent Nigerian conflicts. …