Nigerian leaders struggling to reduce violence in the country’s myriad conflicts should take some lessons—from their own response to the coronavirus. While Nigeria’s COVID-19 ordeal is still unfolding, its eventual casualties unknown, the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) and several governors have modeled the ways to reduce catastrophic outbreaks. The simple existence of a national prevention center with sustained resources has proven critical. Key officials have applied vital principles, acting at the first sign of danger and keeping the public widely informed. These are precisely the ways to confront Nigeria’s other national plague—of violence.

A soldier stands guard in northeastern Nigeria early in the Boko Haram insurgency. Nigeria’s responses to violent conflict have focused on military and police operations, with less focus on prevention efforts. (Samuel James/The New York Times)
A soldier stands guard in northeastern Nigeria early in the Boko Haram insurgency. Nigeria’s responses to violent conflict have focused on military and police operations, with less focus on prevention efforts. (Samuel James/The New York Times)

The NCDC and government officials responded immediately and transparently when an NCDC laboratory confirmed the first coronavirus infection on February 27. The health minister, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, announced the news the next day. He described the case—an Italian man who worked in Lagos and had returned from a visit to Milan days earlier—and the actions the government was taking. The notice instructed Nigerians on precautionary measures and warned them not to spread misinformation.

One day later, the NCDC issued a FAQ sheet and a public health advisory, and formed a National Rapid Response Team to help state authorities with contact tracing and intensified monitoring of travelers entering Nigeria. The center continues to offer frequent updates and well-organized information on its website. It dispels rumors quickly via news media and social media such as Twitter and WhatsApp. A key to NCDC’s successes is that Nigeria created and sustains it as an institution with a focused mission, a long-term vision for protecting public health, and the resources to build nationwide networks that it has used in other campaigns, for example against Ebola in 2014 and more recently with lassa fever.

At the same time, key state governors—including those of Plateau, Kaduna and Lagos State—have issued helpful statements. Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos, the state with the largest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, has informed citizens of developments and explained certain decisions. Other governors will have to exhibit the same level of leadership as the crisis unfolds, especially as cases are identified in parts of the country’s north where the socio-economic indices are lower and health infrastructure is not as developed as in Lagos. Both the NCDC and several governors have enlisted community leaders to help inform their publics and quash misinformation.

Confront Violence Like a Disease

Consider the contrast: When the militant group Boko Haram killed at least 50 Nigerian soldiers on March 23—an unusually deadly attack amid the decade of violence that has devastated most of the country’s northeast—officials made little effort to explain to the public what was happening or why, and what was being done about it. The Defense Ministry and Army issued only vague statements to news media. Political leaders provided little guidance or reassurance.

Attacks by Boko Haram killed more than 17,000 people between 2009 and 2017. Land-use battles between farmers and cattle herders killed some 2,000 people in 2018 alone. Nigeria’s leaders could reduce these losses by applying lessons from the early response to the coronavirus.

  • Build a prevention system for violence. The NCDC models what is needed: an organization staffed by professionals with the resources and independence to be effective. Nigeria has made only a partial effort to create a violence-prevention system. A federal Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution—and state-level peacebuilding agencies in Kaduna and Plateau are run by professionals, yet such initiatives will succeed only to the extent that they have adequate funding and can operate without political interference. Peacebuilding institutions cannot be effective if political leaders treat them as an arm of the government in office. And they must be free to work for the long term. Peace, like public health, is built slowly through steady campaigns to build communities’—and nations’—resilience to threats.
  • Respond quickly when outbreaks occur. When tensions rise or violence erupts, institutions and political leaders should act with the immediate focus that many have applied to the coronavirus: proactive, constructive, sustained and apolitical responses. Too often, Nigeria’s state or national government leaders ignore early warnings.
  • Build responses with communities and the public. Official responses to violence too seldom include coordinated outreach at the roots of conflict to peacefully mediate disputes. They more commonly rely on a top-down application of police or military force. Even worse, political leaders often take sides or make bombastic statements. Alongside the NCDC’s public information campaign against COVID-19, the center has worked from the base of society, enlisting community leaders to help distribute accurate information, counter misinformation and mobilize responses. Misinformation and its deliberate cousin, disinformation, are prime factors in the spread of violent conflict as well as disease. So engaging communities against them should become standard in Nigeria’s efforts to build greater stability.

To be sure, Nigeria’s elite may be more responsive to something like the coronavirus pandemic because it puts them more personally at risk—even if only through restrictions that limit their ability to travel to and from Europe or the United States. Nigeria’s deadliest violent conflicts occur far from the elite power centers such as Abuja or Lagos. But like any epidemic, violence ultimately threatens everyone in any society. Nigerians who have seen some effective, early responses to COVID in the country should prepare to apply the underlying principles to Nigeria’s plague of violence, too.  

Related Publications

Nigeria’s Vote Signals Risks: How Its Partners Can Support Democracy

Nigeria’s Vote Signals Risks: How Its Partners Can Support Democracy

Thursday, March 9, 2023

By: James Rupert

Nigeria’s disputed election 12 days ago is raising protest at home and concern abroad over its implications for the strength of democracy in that country and across Africa. Yesterday’s new wrinkle was the postponement of this week’s planned election for Nigerian state governors. Nigeria’s electoral commission is working to fix problems in a vote management system that failed to transparently process and report a result on February 25. An erosion of democracy’s credibility in Africa’s most populous nation would be catastrophic.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Democracy & GovernanceElectoral Violence

Ambassador Makila James on Nigeria’s Elections

Ambassador Makila James on Nigeria’s Elections

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

By: Ambassador Makila James

While Nigeria’s elections energized youth voters and avoided widespread violence, President-elect Bola Ahmed Tinubu won only a plurality of votes. As concerns over the results’ legitimacy mount, “a weak mandate means [Tinubu] is going to have to work very smartly to build coalitions,” says USIP’s Makila James.

Type: Podcast

The Latest @ USIP: What’s at Stake in Nigeria’s Elections? (Part 2)

The Latest @ USIP: What’s at Stake in Nigeria’s Elections? (Part 2)

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

By: Ibrahim Gambari

Nigeria’s national elections later this month will have major implications not only for Nigeria, but for West Africa and the continent more broadly. Ibrahim Gambari, chief of staff to the term-limited President Muhammadu Buhari, says the outgoing president has made organizing a peaceful, free and fair election process a cornerstone of the legacy he hopes to hand to his successor — and that he hopes civil society, political leaders and international partners like the United States can rally behind Nigerians as they exercise their right to vote.

Type: Blog

Democracy & Governance

View All Publications