When measured by the death toll, Nigeria seems beset by violence. By some accounts, the COVID-19 pandemic has made experiences of violence even more common — notably, Nigeria recorded a 169% increase in abductions between 2019 and 2020. While quantifying violence is relatively straightforward, defining what peace means to ordinary Nigerians has been largely overlooked, even if such definitions may be more meaningful. By exploring more nuanced understandings of peace, how these vary between and across communities, and finding which indicators of peace are most valued, peace might be better pursued. We went in search of how people in the states of Bauchi, Kaduna, Nasarawa and Plateau define peace. Here are six of our most important findings.

A civilian vigilante serves as a lookout along the last line of defense for the southeastern flank of Maiduguri, the biggest city in northeastern Nigeria, Aug. 22, 2019. (Laura Boushnak/The New York Times)
A civilian vigilante serves as a lookout along the last line of defense for the southeastern flank of Maiduguri, the biggest city in northeastern Nigeria, Aug. 22, 2019. (Laura Boushnak/The New York Times)

1. Respondents understand peace as being more than the absence of violence and insecurity.

While many respondents equate peace with the absence of direct violence and insecurity — adopting a classical definition of “negative peace” — this is by no means their only understanding of peace. For example, more than 70% of survey respondents in Kaduna state felt that peace meant having “good relations with my neighbors and/or in the community.” In Plateau state, nearly 80% of respondents agreed that peace meant the presence of “good relations between different ethnic or religious communities.” In addition to these definitions, majorities or near majorities in all four states also agreed that peace meant “harmony in the family.” Although this finding does not diminish the importance of reducing direct violence and insecurity to improve peace, it does show that many Nigerians have broader understandings of peace, beyond the mere absence of violence. To improve the state of peace throughout the country, therefore, requires a focus on more than just incidents of violence.

2. The absence of violence and insecurity is consistently more important for women than men.

There is already substantial evidence that violence in Nigeria is highly gendered. Our research finds that women value the absence of violence and insecurity as an indicator of peace more than men. In Kaduna state, for example, 75% of female respondents answered that the absence of violence and insecurity was the “most important” meaning of peace, versus only 65% of male respondents. In Plateau, 67% of female respondents gave the same answer, versus only 56% of male respondents. While the gap in Nasarawa was narrower, it was still present — 60% of female respondents felt the absence of violence and insecurity was the “most important” meaning of peace, versus 55% of male respondents.

3. The freedom to practice religion and the ability of people from different religions to socialize together are among the most important indicators of peace.

In-person interviews identified more than 50 possible indicators of peace among the study’s communities. These indicators were then ranked by survey respondents. Among these, indicators related to religious practice were among the highest ranked by respondents. When asked which are the most important indicators of peace to you, in the community in which you live, nearly nine in 10 respondents (89% in Bauchi, 87% in both Kaduna and Plateau, 85% in Nasarawa) ranked the “freedom to practice my religion and/or conduct religious activities” as a “most important” indicator of peace. As an expression of the importance of interreligious tolerance, nearly eight in 10 respondents also highly ranked the occurrence of “people of different faiths socializing together” as a “most important” indicator of peace, higher than indicators of hospitality such as “that guests feel safe to come to the place I live,” “having cordial relations with neighbors,” and more limited indicators of tolerance, such as “being comfortable having neighbors from a religion different to my own.”

4. Service delivery by the state may be less important than assuring basic personal and community economic security.

Although service delivery and an increased state presence is often touted as a way to improve levels of confidence in the state, the presence of service delivery is less important to respondents than other indicators of personal and economic security, as shown in the table below. Some more highly valued indicators relate to fundamental needs, such as having enough to eat on a regular basis. Others pertain to the day-to-day markers of whether security is present, such as being able to travel freely in the evenings or at night, or being able to go to a place of work or education without hindrance. Among the highest ranked are those that pertain directly to economic activity, such as the free operation of market trading, or the ability of farmers to go about agricultural activities without disturbance. While the presence of service delivery is still important, for these respondents, it is not as important as these other indicators.

Table 1: What is the importance of these examples in seeing whether peace is present in your community?






If farmers can farm their land without disturbance





Being able to go to work / school without any hindrance





When market trading / business carries on without interruption / there is good attendance on market day / when customers are not afraid to come





Having enough food to eat as an individual / family





Not being worried about / being able to freely travel in the evenings / at night





The presence of service delivery by the state in my community





(Respondents indicating “most important,” choice of more than one option, reweighted by gender)

5. The quality of recent experiences with the police informs perceptions of security and insecurity.

The Nigerian police is the state institution with primary responsibility for ensuring community security. However, the quality of individual interactions with police determines whether respondents are more or less likely to associate the police with insecurity in their community. Our research finds a correlation between those who have had difficulty in getting police assistance and perceptions of police presence being associated with insecurity, even if their interaction with the police was unrelated to insecurity. Of respondents indicating that they had requested assistance from the police in the past 12 months, 64% of those who rated their experience of getting police assistance as “difficult” or “very difficult” felt that the visible presence of the police meant that there was insecurity, versus only 21% of such respondents who felt security was good when the police were visible. This echoes earlier survey research that showed that victims of insecurity were less trusting of state institutions.

Meanwhile, a much smaller 42% of those who rated their experience of getting police assistance as “easy” or “very easy” answered that the visible presence of the police meant that there was insecurity in their community, versus 49% who felt the visible presence of the police meant the community was more secure. Of all the surveyed states, perceptions of the police in Nasarawa were most positive. Women were also more likely than men to affirm the statement, “If I see the police, it means there is insecurity [in my community].”

This research suggests that the assumption that a more robust and more visible presence of state institutions like the police service is questionable, at least as long as poor experiences of police professionalism and competence remain common.

6. There is strong support for vigilante groups.

In light of Nigeria’s many security challenges, numerous vigilante or community self-defense groups have sprung up around the country. While many observers have concerns about the accountability and discipline of these vigilantes, and there is limited oversight over their activities, Nigerians who participated in this research express strong support for vigilante groups. More than eight in 10 respondents in all the surveyed states agreed that “vigilantes make a positive contribution to security in Nigeria.” Fewer than one in 10 respondents agreed that “vigilantes make a negative contribution to security in Nigeria.” The poor performance of the state’s security actors has sent Nigerians, across all states and genders, to look for alternatives such as vigilantes, despite the drawbacks.

The research this article is based on is part of USIP’s ongoing work to understand how Nigerians view peace.

Yagana Bukar is a senior lecturer in the Department of Geography at the University of Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria and principal investigator of the State of Peace in Nigeria research initiative. Chris Kwaja is a senior research and strategy officer on Nigeria at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a senior lecturer at the Centre for Peace and Security Studies, Modibbo Adama University, Yola, Adamawa State, Nigeria. 

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