The peacebuilder I was talking with had just travelled to meet us from the far north-east of Nigeria. He was right. What has been happening in his region in recent years defies comprehension. Even in an era when we have been numbed by news and images of atrocities around the world, the scale and brutality of the violence that has been unleashed by Boko Haram and other violent groups there still has the power to shock.
The kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok mobilised the world against the cruelty and brutality of Boko Haram, but this is only one incident in a series of atrocities. Even the headline incidents – 645 unarmed prisoners executed in 2014; the bombing of the central mosque in Kano; the use of children as suicide bombers – are only of a pattern of violence that has devastated the region. There are over two million internally displaced people, a fragile local economy has been shattered, and deep divisions have opened up within communities, shattering coexistence between groups that have lived together for generations.
I met this peacebuilder and many others this month as part of a ‘Peace Exchange’ event that Peace Direct organised in Kano, the largest city in the north of Nigeria in July this year. This brought together 17 local peacebuilding organisations to collectively analyse the conflicts facing their communities, and develop joint strategies to help local groups build peace and prevent more mass atrocities in the region. Over the past three years, Peace Direct has researched, mapped and promoted local peacebuilding organisations in Nigeria for our Insight on Conflict website. This event was organised in order to find other ways to support local peacebuilding in Nigeria over the next few years.
I had the privilege of spending three days with this group of remarkable peacebuilders, all of whom have been working for peace through the recent years of conflict, and in some cases for much longer. As we talked together, they shared stories of the impact of conflict on their communities and even their families. Their communities had been devastated by acts of violence large and small, and in some cases forever changed. Once mixed cities in the north, such as Kano and Kaduna, are now increasingly divided along religious and ethnic lines.
And yet, despite the fact that we were discussing such painful and shocking topics, I came away with an increased sense of hope, both for Northern Nigeria and more profoundly for the ability of humans to survive and rebuild even in the midst of violence. The peacebuilders told remarkable stories of how they were inspired to work for peace. In many cases, it was a personal experience of conflict.
One man, a Christian, told me how he had narrowly escaped being killed by a mob in the mass violence that erupted in Kano in 2004. He was saved only by his Muslim neighbour who sheltered him. The experience motivated him to quit his job and form a peacebuilding initiative together with other people similarly affected. Another man, also from Kano, was back in the city of his birth, from where he had had to flee three years ago because he was on a list of targets for Boko Haram. He is now based in another state, but still working for interfaith understanding.
Another reason for optimism are the community perceptions coming from the ground. The participating organisations also surveyed members of their community, and more than half declared that they feel a more peaceful future for Northern Nigeria is either ‘very likely’ or ‘quite likely’.
In part, this may be due to the fact that over the past few years the Nigerian army has succeeded in pushing back Boko Haram, albeit with serious human rights violations along the way. Surveyed community members were also overwhelmingly aware of the work of local peacebuilding organisations, and they tended to view these interventions as very successful. Local groups have made a real contribution to improving the prospects for the region, bringing greater optimism for the future.
It would be wrong to talk of the impact of Boko Haram alone. The viciousness of Boko Haram’s attacks, combined with their media savvy, has meant their attacks have dominated international attention. But in Northern Nigeria there are a range of interweaving conflicts that affect the region and predate the emergence of Boko Haram.
In the week of our event, more than 80 people in Benue State were massacred in the last attacks in a bloody conflict between herders and pastoralists that claimed over 1,200 lives in 2014 alone.
Michael Olufemi Sodipo, our Local Peacebuilding Expert for Nigeria who planned and organised the event said, “If the international community needs to learn one thing to better help resolve the conflict in Nigeria, it is to better understand the situation here. It is not just ‘the Christian south against the Muslim north’. There are many causes to the conflict in Nigeria, and many divisions, but also many things that bring us together that we need to build upon.”
The International Development Committee of the UK parliament recently released a report on DFID’s programmes in Nigeria. The report emphasises the need for “DFID to prioritise livelihoods and peacebuilding in its programming in the North East”.
This recommendation matches exactly the call of the local peacebuilders we met with, both for immediate support to violence prevention initiatives, and addressing longer term root causes of violence in the region, including the poverty and lack of access to sustainable livelihoods. The report emphasises that in order to achieve these goals, DFID needs to, “fund and make use of the experiences of faith-based organisations and other civil society groups, who are in a unique position to bridge divisions within and between communities.”
While the recommendations will be welcomed by local peacebuilders, their analysis also shows that enacting them will require DFID and other donors to adapt, and include local organisations on the ground. The groups we spoke with told us of many positive engagements with international donors, but also noted the prioritisation of larger scale, international programmes, with the bulk of the funding captured by international non-governmental organisations operating out of the capital, Abuja.
A shift to a more locally-led approach, directly engaging and supporting civil society groups like those we met with, will increase the chances of reducing the devastation caused by the range of conflicts that affect Northern Nigeria.
This is the first in a series of reports Peace Direct will be producing on the views and strategies of local peacebuilders in conflict zones in order to highlight local expertise and capacities for peace.
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