A dozen governors from northern Nigeria say their region’s crises—warfare, poverty and millions of uprooted people—can be ended only with initiatives for education, reconciliation among rival groups, and the political inclusion of minorities and women. As Nigeria works to repair and build relations between police and communities, several governors said, the country’s federally run police system should be complemented with state or local police forces. The elected state governors, who wield important power in Nigeria’s political system, spoke at the U.S. Institute of Peace after three days of discussions with scholars and U.S. officials in Washington D.C., including Secretary of State John Kerry.

Nigerian governors sitting around table

Northern Nigeria’s crises, including the Boko Haram insurgency, have forced more than 2 million people from farms and villages. The resulting turmoil has destabilized other countries in the Lake Chad Basin and now threatens to trigger a famine. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari last week announced a Presidential Committee for the Northeast to coordinate the rebuilding of regions shattered by the Boko Haram insurgency. The panel includes federal government officials, the six northeastern state governors and civil society leaders active in the area, said USIP Senior Program Officer Oge Onubogu. “This creates more opportunity for coordinated efforts to address the crises in the region,” she said.

“The present crop of leaders in northern Nigeria … are all passionate about education, because that is the greatest game changer.” – Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima

Nigeria’s elected state governors, who wield significant power in the country’s political system, are critical policymakers for dealing with the country’s challenges, says USIP Senior Advisor Johnnie Carson, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs. USIP organized the governors’ meetings in Washington to promote a more coordinated response—between Nigeria and the United States, among governments and civil society groups, and among local, state and federal authorities. The Institute has worked for more than a decade with Nigerian civic, religious and government leaders to prevent or halt violent local conflicts and to address the problems that cause them.

Also participating in the governors symposium were four prominent Nigerian civil society leaders from academia and non-government organizations who are members of a new working group established by USIP to ensure implementation of ideas emerging from the discussions. The aim is to underscore cooperative efforts between civic groups in Nigeria and the state chiefs to turn strategies into concrete change.

On Oct. 20, northern Nigerian governors spoke at USIP in an online forum, taking questions via Twitter and Facebook from Nigerians and others. Highlights from the forum included these:

On Americans’ biggest misunderstandings about the Boko Haram insurgency. “There is this misconception that it has very serious linkages with the global terrorist network,” Kashim Shettima, governor of Borno state. “It’s largely locally based and driven by local grievances,” he said. Shettima called for “greater attention to addressing the underlying causes of this insurgency in northern Nigeria, because the whole of the north is a keg of gunpowder waiting to explode. Poverty is endemic in the north. We have been become a byword for backwardness… Yes, we are a medium-income nation, but the south is relatively much more prosperous than the north,” with better infrastructure and educational levels, he said.

On northern Nigeria’s imperative to improve education, notably for girls. “The present crop of leaders in northern Nigeria … are all passionate about education because that is the greatest game changer,” said Shettima. In particular to reduce the radicalization of northern youth, “there is agreement [among the governors] that education comes first,” said Hafiz Abubakar, the deputy governor of Kano, Nigeria’s most populous state. Abubakar, a former biochemistry professor and administrator at Kano’s Bayero University, said this will require a greater investment in school buildings, teachers and curriculum.

To improve the condition of women and others in society, “the place to start is by efforts that we are making to educate the girl-child,” said Governor Abubakar Mohammed of Bauchi state. “By educating the girl-child, many other things will fall into place: improved health care, [women’s] improved participation in economic activities” and other improvements.

On “community policing” for northern Nigeria. When a listener noted widespread public mistrust toward police forces in northern Nigeria, Governor Abdulfatah Ahmed of Kwara state said a vital step is “enhancing the interface between the public and the people and the security agencies.” Across northern Nigeria, police have deployed not only against the Boko Haram insurgency but in disparate local conflicts—some between religious or ethnic groups, others over land use. Ahmed said police reforms can improve a sense of social inclusion among all communities. “There’s a lot more promotion of community policing now,” a change that should encourage “peaceful coexistence among the people.”

Governors urge a move to more local-level police forces. Governors were emphatic that Nigeria—which now operates only a national-level police system controlled by the federal government—also needs more local layers of police, such as those that operate in many other countries. “Today we have close to 180 to 200 million Nigerians,” said Ahmed, a population too large to serve with a single police system at the federal level. “In the 1960s, we had different layers of policing, and it worked efficiently,” he said. That system that was “wiped out” following army coups in 1966 that ushered in Nigeria’s first era of military rule.

Federal police officers often are assigned from distant states, said Plateau state Governor Simon LaLong. Often, such an officer “doesn’t know the environment, doesn’t know the terrain,” and is more likely to use force in response to a security problem than a local officer. Lalong and Sokoto state Governor Aminu Waziri Tambuwal echoed the call for state-level police.

Nigeria already tolerates—and depends on—informal policing by community groups, vigilantes and others. Those could be upgraded into formal, local or state-run police forces, Ahmed said. Nigerian and international human rights groups repeatedly have reported on abuses both by such informal groups and by Nigerian army and police units—and Nigerian scholars and policy researchers have argued that abuses could worsen if local policing led to poor oversight of new forces. They have underscored the need for screening and training of any new forces.

On promoting reconciliation among communities in conflict. Several governors stressed that states must lead in promoting ethnic and religious harmony. Shettima governs Borno, Nigeria’s northeastern-most state and by many measures the one hardest hit by the Boko Haram insurgency. “Boko Haram doesn’t discriminate between a Muslim and a Christian; Boko Haram doesn’t discriminate between a Fulani, a Kanuri” or other ethnicities, Shettima said. In rebuilding communities destroyed amid the rebellion, “we are paying special attention to our [minority] Christian brethren,” he said. “Last week, we released 100 million naira ($320,000) for the reconstruction of churches” in two local government areas.

Violence has erupted in several Nigerian states around a Shia Muslim movement, particularly since an army attack in the city of Zaria that killed more than 300 people in December. In response to a Nigerian questioner, Lalong defended a controversial decision by his government earlier this year to ban public processions by Shia Muslims. He said they posed a risk of triggering violence in Plateau, which in the past has seen some of Nigeria’s deadliest Muslim-Christian violence.

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