Nigeria’s Roman Catholic cardinal urges his flock to embrace diversity. The spiritual leader of the country’s Muslims leads efforts to prevent radicalization and condemns Boko Haram. A former United Nations envoy advocates for professionalism among civil servants. A retired army chief of staff presses for the government to reach out more to alienated groups. These leaders and seven other prominent figures form a new high-level advisory group helping northern Nigeria’s powerful state governors address the social, religious and political forces that fuel extremist violence.

new high-level advisory group
Members of the senior working group.

The crises in Nigeria’s north—including the Boko Haram insurgency and a looming famine that is related to the conflict—have forced more than 2 million people from their homes and destabilized other countries in the Lake Chad Basin. Confronting these conflicts falls in significant measure to Nigeria’s elected state governors, according to USIP Senior Advisor Johnnie Carson, a former assistant secretary of state for African affairs.

The 11-member senior working group, brought together by the U.S. Institute of Peace to support a strategic approach to dealing with the sources of violent conflict in the north, is made up of some of the leading figures in Nigerian public life.

There is a limit to how much arms and guns can do in this matter.

Nigerian Cardinal John Onaiyekan

The Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III, is the highest authority in mainstream Islam in Nigeria. He and Roman Catholic Cardinal John Onaiyekan, the Archbishop of the capital, Abuja, are well-known for their Interfaith Initiative for Peace, which seeks to defuse conflict over issues ranging from elections to land use. Abubakar often says in public that terrorism has no place in Islam. Onaiyekan, in a Christmas television address last year, urged “peace and harmony” between religions and within each faith, in a country where divisions include the role of moral norms in legal codes.

“We need to agree on the place of religion in our nation,” the Cardinal said. “If we sincerely want a nation that is united and integrated, we must work seriously towards one law for every citizen.”

Other members of the senior working group include former Chief of Defense Staff and Chief of Army Staff General Martin Luther Agwai, who led the U.N. peacekeeping force in Darfur and last year headed a committee investigating violence in Kaduna state; Ibrahim Gambari, a former minister of foreign affairs and U.N. under-secretary-general who now heads the Savannah Center for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development in Abuja; Fatima Balla Abubakar, a well-known diplomat and politician; and Aisha Murtala Muhammed Oyebode, the founder and chief executive of the Murtala Muhammed Foundation, an organization that seeks to bolster business philanthropy throughout Nigeria and Africa.

Thinking Strategically

“The working group aims to expand the conversation from ‘poverty is a cause of conflict’ to thinking practically and strategically,” said Oge Onubogu, a USIP senior program officer for Africa. “For example, where do you locate a school so no one feels disadvantaged? Or does some group appear to have impunity from prosecution? These are things the group, with its deep expertise, can help governors to consider and plan for.”

H.E. Cardinal John Onaiyekan and Dr. Usman Bugaje
H.E. Cardinal John Onaiyekan and Dr. Usman Bugaje in discussion at the senior working group meeting. Dr. Bugaje is an advisor to the Sultan of Sokoto.

With a population of 180 million, Nigeria is the continent's most populous state and its biggest democracy. More than half of the country’s citizens live in northern Nigeria.

USIP has worked for more than a decade with Nigerian civic, religious and government leaders to prevent or halt violent local conflicts. The initiative with the northern governors is funded by the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, and USIP collaborates with a local partner, the Center for Democracy and Development, in Abuja. Onubogu leads USIP’s programs on Nigeria and attended the senior working group’s first meeting on February 28 in Abuja.

A dozen of the northern governors met at USIP in October. They broadly concluded that ending the war and poverty plaguing their region requires initiatives for education, reconciliation and political inclusion of minorities and women. The working group is aimed at developing plans to address those needs and keeping the governors focused on implementing them.

Amb. Fatima Balla makes a point, as Dr. Chris Kwaja looks on.
Amb. Fatima Balla makes a point, as Dr. Chris Kwaja looks on.

The full working group meets with the governors next month for the first time. In preparation, it will conduct a review of peacebuilding initiatives in northern Nigeria. It also will examine a new peacebuilding organization in Plateau state to see if it’s a model other northern states could use.

A Microcosm of Nigeria

The Plateau State Peacebuilding Agency, a publicly-funded body under the governor’s office, was set up last year to reduce conflict in a state considered a microcosm of Nigeria for its social, ethnic and religious stresses. Over two decades, more than 5,000 people have died in communal violence in Plateau state, stalling economic development and shredding community trust.

The current governor determined that past crisis-oriented attempts to end the conflicts—from interfaith dialogues to citizen input to the use of security forces—were inadequate. The agency seeks to create institutional mechanisms for long-term peacebuilding, including conflict-resolution training, coordination among civil society groups and ongoing interfaith dialogue.

The working group’s efforts to advance stability in Nigeria remain urgent despite what President Muhammadu Buhari calls the “technical defeat” of Boko Haram, said Onubogu. The Cardinal said the same in his Christmas message, lauding Buhari’s efforts against the insurgency but saying, “It is not yet all over.”

“There is a limit to how much arms and guns can do in this matter,” he said. “Religious communities and leaders must come out to play their role, which is often very efficient and very cost effective, in comparison with budgets for military action.”

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