Nigeria Strong Enough to Withstand Election Fractures

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Nigeria Strong Enough to Withstand Election Fractures

Peace and stability is the necessary precondition for all social good initiatives. The Chief Executive Officer of Peace Direct (a global humanitarian organisation), Dylan Matthews, spoke from the United Kingdom with Bayo Akinloye about the violent farmers-herders conflict, sectarian crisis and the need to promote peace in Nigeria ahead of the 2019 general elections. Excerpts:

Let’s start by asking, why is Peace Direct interested in Nigeria?

In Nigeria, there has been growing tension between ethnic and religious groups. 20,000 people have died and more than two million have fled their homes, because of the violence and abductions of Boko Haram and conflict between ethnic groups in the north of the country.
Meanwhile northern Nigeria’s ‘youth bulge’, the 19 per cent of the country’s population aged between 15 and 24 years, face extremely limited opportunities for education and employment, with the region having some of the lowest school attendance rates in the world.

Evidence shows us that young people with severely restricted economic opportunities are particularly susceptible to recruitment by armed groups, which is why we work with Peace Initiative Network (PIN) to help build non-violent alternatives for preventing and resolving conflict.
We see incredible potential in this huge segment of the population for building sustainable peace in Nigeria. In the words of the coordinator of PIN, Michael Sodipo, ‘We don’t see young people as the leaders of tomorrow. We see them as the leaders of today.’

Latest Amnesty report on Nigeria indicates that some 4,000 people were killed between 2016 and 2018 in the violence between farmers and herders in Nigeria. What solutions do you suggest for this seemingly intractable conflict?

First is to invest in local early warning and early response mechanisms. We know from experience that with sufficient local ‘eyes and ears’ on the ground, the early risk factors for violence can be spotted quickly and therefore potential flashpoints can be averted. We have seen this work with remarkable effect in South Kordofan in Sudan, where we support a network of peace committees that are trained in early warning and rapid mediation, and the results have been astounding.
There is no reason that such an approach couldn’t work in Plateau State (and other troubled areas in Nigeria). Linked to this, hate speech needs to be monitored and countered, particularly through platforms such as Facebook and radio (stations). Policymakers need to ensure that their statements do not fan the flames of division and that efforts are made to promote message of co-existence and tolerance over a sustained period.

Second is not to seek a military solution to crisis. Military solutions almost always undermine the long-term prospects for peace by antagonising local communities and alienating people who are caught in the crossfires of the violence.
Third, international and national donors need to establish rapid funding mechanisms to enable quick turnaround grants to local organisations, based on the early warning described above. Right now, donors are not set up to provide flexible rapid funding, because most grant programmes are highly bureaucratic and are simply unable to respond dynamically to emerging risks.

A more enlightened approach to grant-making during times of heightened tensions can be a game changer. Finally, indigenous conflict resolution mechanisms are massively under-utilised despite evidence that they can be remarkably effective. Civil society represents the biggest source of untapped peace-building potential globally and the violence in Plateau could be averted if much more investment was made to sustain community focused efforts.

Some have thought that the various violent conflicts in the country are recipe for national disintegration and have the potential for a civil war especially, with a presidential election just around the corner next year in February. How do you see all these factors playing out? How can the country turn the corner without a major violent conflict?

While we are concerned about the risk of increased violence in the run-up to the elections, we caution against predictions of national disintegration or civil war, as we believe that these are unfounded, highly unlikely and not a helpful narrative at times of increased tension. The Nigerian electorate has no appetite for war and division and we believe that Nigerian society is strong enough to withstand the fractures that might emerge closer to the elections.
We believe in hope over fear and we know that local peace-builders across the country, as well as the communities they serve are determined to build a peaceful society for all. This is where the investment should be made, at the grassroots. That’s the narrative that we need to promote right now.

Are you worried that the various violent conflicts in Nigeria can perhaps result in the biggest humanitarian crisis if not well handled?
We are greatly concerned by the presence of Boko Haram in the North East, where the conflict in Nigeria is concentrated, and their leverage of the youth population for armed recruitment. Ongoing violence provoked partially by Boko Haram and also by ethnic and religious tensions has caused widespread displacement, with over two million people to flee their homes since 2009. Meanwhile, we are seeing significant spreading of hate speech and fake news as the upcoming elections approach.

However, our work with partners in Nigeria has demonstrated that the country has a dynamic civil society, able to curb the rise of violence if provided with space and resources to do so. Existing initiatives by faith-based, women-led and youth-led organisations are already active all over the country but fail to grow their impact due to lack of resources, lack of visibility and limited access to policy-makers. All national and international stakeholders should put their efforts towards building a stronger civil society in order to give communities the tools they need to prevent and respond to conflict.

What exactly is Peace Direct doing in Nigeria and in which parts of the country?
At present we are collaborating with the Peace Initiative Network (PIN) to tackle the roots of violent conflict and poverty through local action in Northern Nigeria, with the programme currently active in Kano and Plateau States.
The idea of our collaboration is not only to work with them on programmes, but also to strengthen the capacity of local civil society. This is achieved by helping to develop opportunities for more collaboration and learning between local organisations, and through advocacy on national and international levels to help them voice their needs and recommendations to other stakeholders.

We believe that working closely with the community, local organisations and religious leaders is the key to building peace from the ground up. That’s why we learn from the local communities we work to consider and address the root causes of violence and the driving factors encouraging people’s participation in it. By working to counter these factors, we are better equipped to understand why violence escalates, how it can be resolved, and to engage with those who are hard to reach.

What are the components of your programmes or initiatives?
PIN’s programme focuses on how we can engage young men and women in positive activities that will make them more resilient. This involves skills training. Young trainees and women receive training from the best local tradesmen, learning skills ranging from soap making to tailoring.
Trainees attend the centre once per week for six months. As opposed to just ending all contacts after training, we support PIN to provide trainees with business starter kits made up of tools or material to help them start their own business ideas and provide for themselves and their families. PIN provides regular follow up support to ensure the young people are thriving. There are also ‘Sports clubs’: One of the best ways to build understanding between rival religions and ethnic groups is through sport.
Everyday in Kano, football teams of young men gather at makeshift football pitches to train, improve their technique and learn to work together. The focus is on learning to deal with problems in a positive way, and address anger through non-violent means.
Then, there are ‘Peace Clubs’. PIN runs peace clubs for young people aged from 10 to 25. The clubs teach leadership and teamwork skills and give young people the opportunity to discuss the violence that affects them and their country with other young people from different backgrounds.

Have there been any positive results?
The current programme is ongoing yet we can already see some positive results. In the last year, the programme has been active, 48 people increased their income as a result of the training offered by PIN. But most importantly, we learned from talking to project participants that the programmes have helped to heal divides and encourage people from different communities to recognise their shared interests over their differences, and work together.
As Kaltume, a programme participant, said, ‘I joined the project to become an agent of peace in my community and to be self-reliant. I don’t have to depend solely on my husband. I can also be able to help others in the community. I am determined to teach other women to learn sewing and earn a means of livelihood and to be the vanguard for peace in their community.’

Locals are likely to see your organisation as another means of colonisation and all that. How does Peace Direct tackle this perception challenge?
Peace Direct is driven by local partners, infrastructure, and knowledge – we don’t parachute a team in to build a project, but rather look at how we can support and link up local initiatives, and amplify their voices and expertise with national and international audiences. Putting the expertise of local people first is core to everything we do, and is paramount to creating sustainable peace.

What deliberate approach are you and your organisation taking to bring the good news out of Nigeria and other African countries?
By keeping regular contact with partners, we tell positive stories of the projects we support and the people, who benefit from them on our website, social media, and in our media coverage. We know that good news is much harder to get into the papers – and so one of our long term goals as a sector is learning how to get cut-through for stories of empowerment and peace-building, as opposed to violence and bloodshed. Luckily, the stories of our partners, such as PIN are remarkable examples of innovation and human resilience, and there is a growing appetite for coverage like this.

At the inaugural War Story Peace Story conference in New York this year, one of the Peace Direct directors in the US spoke about that initiative. Do you think it’s possible to make peace stories more attractive to news consumers and even to the often ‘bloodthirsty’ news media?
If stories of peace chime with something that feels relevant to the reader’s immediate experience, if they tell a relatable or remarkable human story, or if they have come about against the odds, the reader will be interested.
Getting the voices and concerns of local peace-builders into media – particularly in places that shape policies that affect them – is important for us. It is a crucial way for policymakers and the public to gain a more holistic understanding of conflict and sustainable ways of creating peace.

What is your thought on a paradigm shift from responding to crisis to preventing conflicts? For instance, a UN-World Bank report, Pathways for Peace, pointed out that directing resources towards four nations at high risk of conflict every year can prevent $34 billion in losses compared to spending billions of dollars on responses to violent conflict through peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.

We know that the cost of tackling conflict after the fact instead of preventing it comes at both a greater financial cost – tens of billions of dollars annually – and at the most immeasurable human cost. Saving tens of billions of dollars and millions of lives every year is possible if we shift our focus to supporting local peace-builders and other measures to sustain peace. We have the evidence that it makes greater sense however you cut it, but gaining political will to change tact remains a huge challenge – one which Peace Direct and others are making our focus.
Our work to enhance existing local peace-building capacity means supporting communities for as long as it takes to build lasting solutions to violent conflict, instead of quick-fix solutions. Through our experience, which is backed up by internal and external research, we have seen how the benefits of preventing conflict before they escalate increase over time, whereas the costs fall.
Preventing conflict before it escalates into violence and helping build more resilient and cohesive communities means more active and engaged young people – a larger, more inclusive workforce, a reduction in poverty, better coverage and quality of health services, and overall sustainable livelihoods. We’re in it for the long run to build peace, and to see the lasting impact that grassroots peace-building can have on the resilience, strength and future of a country.