If U.S. and international policymakers hope to see Africa stabilize amid the world’s crises of violence, record human displacement and the COVID pandemic, Nigeria must be center stage. This demographic giant, home to one in five sub-Saharan Africans, now faces a perfect storm of violent conflicts that pose an existential challenge. Yet Nigeria also offers its own solutions for stabilization — including a low-cost innovation worthy of international support: peacebuilding agencies operated by governments in three of the country’s 36 states. This timely model offers localized approaches to the roots of violence and is relevant to nations worldwide.
Nigeria’s rapidly spreading conflicts pose some of the country’s most difficult challenges since its 1967-70 civil war. Factions of the Islamic State and Boko Haram have renewed insurgency in the northeast. Farming and herding communities fight over access to land across the Middle Belt and into the south—a pattern that often ignites the nation’s Muslim-Christian tensions. Threats to national unity also come from criminal bands and cattle rustlers across the northwest, a growing Biafran independence movement in the southeast, simmering militancy in the Niger Delta, and kidnappings nationwide. Nigeria’s military is overstretched, deployed in nearly all states of the federation. The federally controlled police force is undersized, outgunned, and ill-trained. Both institutions are hobbled by massive corruption and their pattern of human right abuses.
Nigeria’s Innovation: State-Level Peace Agencies
Three Nigerian states have taken an innovative approach to augment efforts by the overwhelmed federal government. Since 2016, governors in Plateau, Kaduna and Adamawa states established peace agencies and commissions to address communal conflicts and the roots of insurgency. These peacebuilding bodies help local governments set up community-level responses to public grievances and conflicts. These include peace committees, peace education, and local systems to monitor threats and to provide early responses to prevent violence. The peacebuilding agencies also help communities with the development of mechanisms for mediation and restorative justice.
Most of Nigeria’s major security challenges have deeply local roots, and these three agencies have rapidly improved their state and local governments’ abilities to manage conflicts at their sources. While Nigeria’s experiment in state-level peacebuilding institutions is still evolving, it has shown enough promise to deserve support — and the attention of other multi-ethnic, multi-communal federations that must manage risks of violent conflict — from India and Pakistan to Malaysia or Brazil. U.S. states like Maryland or Massachusetts also have similar agencies that could share experiences with their Nigerian counterparts.
The Plateau Peace Building Agency and the Kaduna Peace Commission have paid special attention to farmer-herder disputes in their states, working with local and international civic organizations to conduct community dialogues and to train local activists in peacemaking skills. Given that some of these disputes cross the states’ shared border, the two agencies have worked together on several of these processes. The agencies have established peace committees in local governments and provide training and assistance to build local authorities’ capacity to manage conflicts at their roots.
Adamawa’s peace agency worked with traditional rulers across the state, many of whom hold extensive influence in their communities, to create an early warning and response system against violent conflicts. This network helped prevent violence during the 2019 elections. The Plateau and Kaduna agencies also worked to prevent election violence and are developing early response networks.
As state institutions, perhaps the most important asset these peace agencies wield is convening power, organizing events and processes that can attract stakeholders in local conflicts, as well as civil society leaders who bring needed skills in peacebuilding and development. All three agencies have organized monthly meetings that have improved coordination among local and international non-government organizations, religious leaders and other civil society networks. These groups have in turn proven to be indispensable partners for the state agencies. Civil society partners played central roles in building the state agencies’ capacities and are key allies in local interventions.
Proximity to Government: A Double-Edged Sword
As units of their state governments, the peacebuilding agencies hold the important advantage of access to state governors, who are powerful, elected officials in Nigeria and dominant figures in their states. Governors’ control of state and local finances lets them direct substantial resources to peace efforts, as well as offer influence with federal institutions, including the police and military. Gubernatorial engagement all but ensures the participation in peace negotiations of most, if not all, stakeholders from local conflicts. The centrality of governors in the political and economic lives of their states also guarantees them a bully pulpit from which they can reframe issues and shape public opinion.
This access is, however, a double-edged sword. The vast resources and powers of governorships make them the most hotly contested offices in Nigeria’s states, all but ensuring conflicts around gubernatorial elections that often inflame ethnic and religious divisions. Consequently, many governors are seen by their opponents as interested players in local conflicts. This makes impartiality a key challenge for any state peace agency when some parties presume that, as a government unit, it is sympathetic to the governor. An agency’s proximity to power also can be a problem for continuity if a new governor decides to close or starve it as a predecessor’s initiative. Adamawa’s peace agency, created in 2018, faced exactly that challenge when a new governor came to office in 2019 and suspended its activities pending review. Fortunately, the agency has been redesigned as a larger commission by the legislature and now awaits only the signature of the governor on the enabling legislation to resume work.
Financing also remains a chronic problem for the state peace agencies. The Kaduna and Plateau agencies receive from their states little of the funding — other than salaries and basic supplies — required to conduct peace interventions. They rely on scarce international aid to fund many initiatives. Tight budgets have undermined the agencies’ ability to hire conflict resolution professionals to their staffs, leaving them to depend instead on civil servants seconded from other agencies with no background in the field.
Despite these limitations, the three state agencies have scored important successes. They have shown that government units can act as impartial peace brokers in local conflict and can help mobilize civil society networks and local governments in support. They offer a timely model that other Nigerian states — as well as other subnational governments across Africa and elsewhere — should emulate. Several Nigerian states are now considering the idea.
U.S. and international donors could assist these efforts and encourage Nigeria’s federal government to commit its considerable resources to expand the capacity of state peace agencies nationwide. For example, added resources could help these agencies hire more expert staff and build local mediation and restorative justice systems that could reduce tensions in neighborhoods nationwide. Such efforts, as part of a comprehensive peace strategy for the nation, could do much to help Nigeria weather its current security crisis, prevent further escalation, and address the drivers of the nation’s major conflicts in the longer term.
Professor Darren Kew is executive director of the Center for Peace, Democracy, and Development at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He is the author of a USIP Special Report, Nigeria’s State Peacebuilding Institutions: Early Success and Continuing Challenges.