A common thread underlying many of Nigeria’s most pressing problems is a failure of governance—a disconnect between officials and citizens in Africa’s biggest democracy. Whether the issue is the rise of Boko Haram, corruption or persistent intercommunal violence, the failure of government to understand or meet the needs of diverse groups of Nigerians is often the cause of volatile breakdowns. Given that Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa and boasts its biggest economy, what happens in the West African nation has implications for the entire continent.

Nigeria Working Group members deliberating
Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuve

To help address Nigeria’s struggles with governance, the U.S. Institute of Peace has supported a bottom-up, top-down strategy to connect leaders of civil society with key government officials. Bridging the gap relies on grassroots leaders to organize dialogues in their communities to resolve conflicts before they become violent. We know that this works: More than a decade ago, the Institute supported Muslim and Christian leaders who mediated an end to fighting between their communities in Plateau and Kaduna states. That peace still holds today.

At the same time, USIP’s approach recognizes that only governments can formulate broader policies aimed at stemming violence—and that they will do it best after listening to citizens. USIP engages opinion leaders to build consensus on policies that can solve critical problems and supports Nigerians in reaching grassroots solutions. Such low-cost dialogues can help reduce violence and its root causes, strengthen the country’s recovery from Boko Haram, and prevent the emergence of other extremist groups.

Nigeria’s conflicts have displaced more than two million people across the Lake Chad Basin. Although Boko Haram extremists have been pushed back to small pockets in Nigeria, the insurgents continue to cause violence in Nigeria and those who have spilled into Niger, Chad, and Cameroon remain part of the web of violent extremist groups operating across the Sahel region. The stakes could hardly be higher.

Focus on States

In designing its Nigeria program in early 2016, the Institute decided to focus on the state level, where leaders are closer to the country’s diverse communities. Nigeria’s state governors and civic leaders have had limited contact with the United States, but they are powerful in Nigeria’s federal system and vital to solving the country’s problems. Working at the state level was also consistent with the suggestion of civic leaders and USIP’s international partners that we highlight more clearly the context for the rise of Boko Haram and other persistent forms of violence in Nigeria.

Top-Down Approach

We heard from federal and state officials and civil society leaders that Nigeria’s state governments needed new institutional approaches to address the underlying causes of violent conflict. For example, when a dozen governors came to Washington in October 2016, they wanted to learn more about the Plateau Peacebuilding Agency, a new institution established by the Plateau state government with the mission of preventing and resolving violent conflict. Governors wanted to know what was working and what was not and whether this was a model that could be replicated in other states.

USIP is now sharing our own experience as an independent, federal institute with the Plateau Peacebuilding Agency and state peacebuilding organizations in two other states. We are also providing training through our online Global Campus to strengthen the staff members knowledge on peacebuilding. And we are working with the state peacebuilding organizations to help assess their programs and then sharing recommendations with the governors. This is the top-down strand of the work.

Working at the state level is something that USIP is uniquely placed to do. The state governments appreciate that USIP is a federal institute and works in close coordination with the U.S. embassy, the U.S. Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development. They also appreciate that USIP’s approach complements the U.S. Department of State’s primary role to engage with the federal government, and to respond to conflict and promote long-term stability.

Bottom-Up

In developing our program, we conducted a citizen survey and carried out small group discussions to hear about how communities resolve conflicts. We heard consistently that civic leaders—faith-based leaders or traditional chiefs—are the first line of defense. They are the people who are trusted and called upon to mediate a dispute, negotiate an outcome and ensure that everyone’s needs are understood and best met.

USIP knew from its past work that there are tremendously talented, committed and influential Nigerians who are already focused on and advancing this work. We wanted to figure out how to harness that existing work and amplify individuals’ efforts.

USIP recently launched a Nigerian Network of Facilitators. The plan draws on USIP’s experience in Iraq and North Africa to support civic leaders to use a dialogue-based approach to resolve conflicts. We anticipate that they will focus their efforts on conflicts that arise around elections—both upcoming local government elections and going into the 2019 general elections.

USIP is also rebuilding trust between communities and police through its Justice and Security Dialogues program. Two years ago, the program convened local officials, police, and community leaders in six locales across several states for dialogues to resolve justice and security problems. The city of Jos, for example, had suffered violent clashes between Muslim and Christian communities, as well as gang activity, and angry residents expelled police from a neighborhood, burning down the police station. An 18-month dialogue process yielded agreements that led the community to restore the police presence and start rebuilding the station together.

Connecting the Top-to-Bottom Approaches

Finally, we heard that state governments needed stronger relationships with communities—to understand the priorities, needs and opportunities—and to know how to complement the work of civic leaders to prevent violence. In late 2016, USIP convened 11 eminent civic leaders to provide advice to state governors from the country’s north on ways to end violence in their region. Since then, the leaders have formed the Nigeria Working Group on Peacebuilding and Governance. This is the anchor of our work.

The Working Group has harnessed its collective experience, knowledge and relationships to advance ideas for the Nigerian governments to address violence arising from communal conflicts, particularly disputes between farming and herding communities over land and water—a deadlier phenomenon than Boko Haram. The group, composed of scholars, influential religious figures, a retired army chief and peacekeeping commander, and diplomats, was invited to brief the governors in 2017. It has been asked to develop recommendations on how to establish state peacebuilding organizations across Nigeria while it facilitated consultations with communities for the Plateau Peacebuilding Agency.

The Working Group has become the link that connects the top-down and bottom-up approach. It is supported by USIP and driven by Nigerians. This is what makes it a success and gives it the credibility to make change that will be lasting.

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