Winning the peace in North-East Nigeria

We are talking about two distinct issues, though they are directly related: First, strategies for peace building in northern Nigeria, and, second, the delivery of humanitarian relief to respond to a famine, which may be the largest we have ever seen.

The first—peace building—must be long term in development and implementation, but if successful, the consequences can be profound. By reducing the appeal of violent extremism, peace building strategies can help inoculate a society at the grass roots against movements like Boko Haram. And, Boko Haram is, among other things, a grass-roots movement.

And it is Boko Haram’s wanton destructiveness, and the response to it by the security services, that has led to the current famine in Northern Nigeria. We cannot measure with accuracy the number of victims involved. In August, UN Assistant Secretary-General Toby Lanzer warned that the UN has yet to have any meaningful contact with some two million people in the region, “and we can’t assess their situation. We can only estimate that it’s awful.” With Nigeria in a recession and without speedy outside help, “we will see, I think, a famine unlike any we have ever seen anywhere.” And those two million not yet observed are in addition to the estimated 2,150,000 Internally Displaced Person’s (IDP) that have received some official notice.

An estimated one million refugees from Boko Haram are crowded into Maiduguri. As elsewhere, only a small percentage are living in camps; most have been taken in by kith and kin or are on the street. In the much smaller town of Bama, there are twenty-four thousand. According to Doctors Without Borders, fifteen thousand are children. About thirty per day are dying mostly from diarrhea and malnutrition. In the section of the camp called “Camp Nursing,” of the children screened, two-thirds were emaciated while 39 percent had a severe form of malnutrition.

Altogether, we really don’t know how many IDP’s or potential famine victims we are talking about. A conservative Chatham House estimate is that fifteen thousand have died as a result of fighting between Boko Haram and the security services, and the World Food Programme estimates that there are 2,400,000 internally displaced, and 4,500,000 face food insecurity. Other observers argue that these figures are much too low. Nevertheless, Chatham House is a useful benchmark.

With respect to strategies for peace-building, has the American University of Nigeria Adamawa Peace Initiative (API) worked? It might be argued that it is too soon to claim success, but I find it compelling that no participant in the initiative has left to join a violent extremist movement. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence the initiative has significantly lowered the temperature in Yola.

Why has it enjoyed apparent success, at least up to now? Let’s start with the framework. The API is built on close ties with community leaders. They play a crucial role in identifying the youth most at risk. Crucial is its interfaith approach. Many of us here may not understand how rare it has been in Nigeria’s northeast to have a bishop and an imam on the same panel as we do tonight. With respect to API, Muslim and Christian clergy and community leaders have been involved since the beginning. And every activity includes women.

Of great importance, and reflecting its local focus, the initiative provides what its recipients want—not necessarily what the outside experts think would be good for them.

Hence, young males want sports. So there is peace through sports. Teams made up of Christians and Muslims play other teams made up of Christians and Muslims—not Christians vs. Muslims.

Women want to be able to earn a living. So there is ‘Waste to Wealth’ and ‘Creating with Threads,’ turning plastic bags into products that can be sold, using left-over scraps of cloth to make items such as place mats that can also be sold.

There is a thirst for literacy, so there are reading programs, targeted at young women and males enrolled in Islamic schools, among other vulnerable groups.

There is a thirst for IT training. So, it is provided, as circumstances permit. And so forth.

The API has a number of stakeholders. But, I submit the American University of Nigeria has played a crucial role. The vision of its founder, former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, was that of an American University with a focus on science and technical skills. He recalled the benefit he himself had received from such teaching by Peace Corps volunteers in the early years of Nigeria’s independence. Indeed, when you go through the gates, you are in an American institution. There are books on the shelves, IT is everywhere, and dorms are not over-crowded.

AUN’s vocation is to be a development university–to take the knowledge, skills, and solutions from the university to the larger community. So, the university, American in standards and curriculum notwithstanding, never has been an ivory tower, cut off from its environment.

As part of this vocation, all students must work in a community development project. Initially there was some student and faculty resistance—Adamawa and Yola are desperately poor, and there is that old adage about bailing out the ocean. But, apparently between 2011 and 2013, student opinion turned strongly in favor. Thanks, at least in part, to strong university leadership.

So, the university was well placed to coordinate and lead the establishment of the API in conjunction with local leaders. The university assumed a similar role with respect to food distribution to the wave after wave of internally displaced who descended on Yola and Adamawa—eventually, more than 300,000. As elsewhere, only a small percentage went into camps. By 2014, the population of Yola, normally 400,000, had doubled. Even though many IDP’s have tried to return home, there remain at least 150,000 in Yola, still being fed.

As with strategies to counter violent extremism, humanitarian relief was an interfaith effort, and it was dependent on close ties with local leadership. The funding was raised locally – in a very poor part of Nigeria that has, in effect, been part of a war zone. There were also a few, small contributions from aid agencies. And the American University of Nigeria played a crucial coordinating role. Some 300,000 were fed, mostly vulnerable women and children. But the funding, has now run out, and it is hard to see where more can come from locally. Without outside assistance, it is hard for me to see how the feeding can continue. But without it, more children will starve. The famine in northeast Nigeria is more than any country can face on its own. To me, the inescapable conclusion is that the international community needs to become much more involved.


Campbel posted this piece on cfr.org.