INTERVIEW: How Nigeria can resolve its internal conflicts – President, U.S. Institute of Peace

General Editor, Premium Times, Festus Owete, Lois Ugbede, Reporter with Nancy Lindborg, Oge Onubogu and Chris Kwaja
General Editor, Premium Times, Festus Owete, Lois Ugbede, Reporter with Nancy Lindborg, Oge Onubogu and Chris Kwaja

Nancy Lindborg, president of the United States Institute of Peace visited the corporate headquarters of PREMIUM TIMES in Abuja while on a working tour of Nigeria. During the visit, Ms. Lindborg and members of her entourage – Chris Kwaja and Oge Onubogu – fielded questions from Bisi Abidoye, Festus Owete and Lois Ugbede on her mission in Nigeria, the various conflicts confronting the country and how they can be resolved. Excerpts:

PT: How long have you been in Nigeria?

Lindborg: I arrived in Nigeria Sunday and I leave Sunday. So, I will be here for a week.

PT: What exactly have you come to do in Nigeria?

Lindborg: Nigeria has been a priority country for the US Institute of Peace. We have worked here for a decade and a half and it has been a priority country for a number of years for the obvious reasons. Nigeria is a very important country, it’s an ally of the United States. It has enormous potentials but it continues to have roaring conflicts that will impede its ability to be the power house that it can be and the world needs it to be. USIP was founded by the US congress 35 years ago in the early 80s as a non-partisan, independent federal institute. So, we are not a part of any administration; we work directly with the Congress and with the mission of working with partners around the world to apply the best research and training and policy practice for preventing and resolving violent conflicts. We have worked with partners here in Nigeria for a very long time on interface mediation approaches, looking at various ways to conduct dialogues and we are currently working on research to help inform the best ways to prevent electoral violence. We support the northern governors’ symposium and senior civil society working group. So the purpose of my trip is to see how that is going.

PT: We have been having some bits of violence almost in all parts of our country, particularly the Middle Belt region where herdsmen have been killing indigenes of some communities. We also had those killings in the North West like Zamfara State and some other places. Earlier in the year we also had some crisis in Rivers State. I thought you came because of some of these challenges.

Lindborg: I was here two years ago and there were different conflicts then and we started our work, working with the pastors and imams as they are known, in Kaduna and Plateau States because of communal clashes that were occurring then. The conclusion of course is that there are chronic conflicts that affect Nigeria that require looking at – what are the ways to enable communities to better solve their own problems? But there are also some structural policy issues that continue to contribute to conflicts. That informs how we work and how we support different partners. We have just been to Plateau State and Adamawa State. It’s been a great opportunity to meet with affected communities, to meet some of the partners, to see what the states are doing because obviously states have critical roles to play. We’re fully focused on how to engage with the states which have a lot of responsibilities, resources and powers to help address, to prevent and resolve these conflicts.

PT: You’ve been here for days now. Talking about issues of violence, what are your findings or what have you discovered so far that are strange and you really want the world to know?

Lindborg: It’s not strange but I do think that I will want the world to know. I think it is very encouraging to understand the how resilient and how resourceful Nigeria is at the community level. We have had a chance to meet with communities both in Plateau and Adamawa States who are both affected by the Boko Haram violence as well as the herders-farmers violence. And in talking to them, with a little bit of help, they are seeking to solve their problems. There are a lot of traditional methods of reaching across. I heard from an Imam yesterday how the community came together somewhere to fight off Boko Haram; the Imams, the pastors, organised their community to retake their town after it was attacked by Boko Haram. We have also heard of the traditional way of resolving the herder-farmer conflicts where they would meet, discuss, (and) resolve these issues. But what we also see is that there are new problems with the introduction of criminality, addition of small arms so that it’s harder for some of those community mechanisms to work. And there are sometimes deeper structural issues that require the states to solve the problems – resource scarcity that is exacerbating the herder famer conflicts, demographic pressures etc.

PT: You talked about structural problems. What basically are these structural problems?

Lindborg: Structural problem means there is need for solutions at a more governmental level. For example, we have supported the senior civil society working group of very eminent thoughtful people here in Nigeria. They came up with a paper of recommendations that they brought to the ECOWAS Conference on Trans-humans that just concluded today and talked about things for the need for state support for ranches, for corridors for the herders, those kinds of solutions that are beyond the community level. And really one of the key structural issue is the security services. It is what we are hearing, that there is lack of confidence in both the justice system and in the police or the military because of instances where justice isn’t served or where the military have committed human rights violations. So, the communities don’t trust the security services and when you don’t have citizen security, you have a lack of trust in the government. More importantly, when you don’t have a functioning justice system, people often take justice into their own hands in ways that may not be completely fair.

PT: Apart from supporting the senior civil society group, are there other areas of intervention USIP is going to make with a view to reducing the level of violence in our country?

Onubogu: USIP’s work in Nigeria is really focused on three areas – strengthening inclusion, strengthening community security and helping to enrich the narrative about Nigeria. Under our work where we strengthen inclusion we do the work with state governors as Nancy has mentioned in trying to bridge the gap between policy makers and at the state level, in bringing together the working group for peace building and governance which is this senior eminent people of senior civil society members. The key thing here is not being a voice to replace the voice of the people but being able to create a structure that can amplify the concerns from the community level and ensure that those who make policies and are supposed to make the policies actually address the true needs of citizens. Apart from that underneath that whole notion of trying to strengthen the inclusive decision making process, we have this preventing election violence research. As the country moves towards the elections in 2019 it is important to understand the opportunities that exist for building peace and any potential risk and how to address them. And that is why USIP has taken this approach to try to come out with information that is timely. We do not seek to do this on our own. We work in partnership with civil society organisations here in the country and with government officials as well trying to ensure there us sustainability in the activities that we carry out. Underneath the notion of strengthening security as have been mentioned, security is a really important factor in Nigeria today. We work with community actors and domestic security actors specifically the police at the community level and bringing these communities together to identify the issues that cause violent conflicts in their communities and coming up with ways to solve these problems on their own, not having us dictate what the solutions are but having them come up with solutions. If you are familiar with Jos, this is an area that has seen its own fair share of violent conflicts over time. The third thing, in response to your question, is that this trip has been a wonderful opportunity to gather information that will enrich the narrative about violent conflicts in Nigeria and inform those who are working towards addressing the issues about the importance of engagement at the community level, the community resilience that were able to observe and witness, the coming together of communities and the importance of having state government play an important role in addressing the needs of citizens.

Lindborg: Let me give you an example because I had a great opportunity to see this in action. When we were in this community just outside the city of Jos, where a couple of years ago there was so much distrust between the youth and the police and anger that they burned down the police station. We began working with members of the community, local government leaders, the police, the youth, women groups and traditional leaders, to have a dialogue where they were able to sit and hear about what were their concerns, their challenges, and it created a different sense of trust between all these various actors. So, when we went on Tuesday, we had this wonderful meeting first with the traditional leaders, with police officers, women and youth and then we all moved to the site of the burned down police station which they collectively have now chartered a plan for how to rebuild. So they will take the responsibility, the youth, the traditional leaders who had not previously worked together and they are doing this on their own. It’s their initiative. The police officers are equally engaged. We met later with the police commissioner. Given the platform and some facilitation on how to have some dialogue they have taken this forward. They have come up with a solution and created a pathway further that will give more security to the community. That has created a whole new different way of thinking about each other.

PT: Is there anything you are putting in place to ensure the actors take these things seriously?

Lindborg: One of the things that we have been able to see and to work on is – how do you connect the citizens’ voice to the local government and how do you help the state hear them and deliver on democracy. We had an excellent meeting with both the Kaduna Peace Building Commission and the Plateau State Peace Building Agency. These are entities that have been set up by the governors. In Plateau state it is legislated. So they are now in law. They are both slightly different structures but they are commissioned to address some of the drivers of the conflicts that have erupted over the years in those two states. We met with the governors as well and heard his vision in Plateau State and a number of commissioners and they, I believe, understand the importance of taking seriously what is driving the conflicts. As long as you are in conflict you will be hindered in moving forward. So it’s actually in their interest. We also had a meeting with the deputy governor and a number of commissioners in Adamawa State. We were looking at what is the right structure to set up in their state to accomplish the same mechanism of hearing and responding to community voices and be able to understand the co drivers of conflict and mobilise answers for that. So we have a philosophy that we have to work from the top down to the bottom and bottom up and that is from the community up to the state down. Then there is the national down and actually there is also the regional because some of these problems are fundamentally regional, especially talking about some of the herder issues, the trans-humans as we discussed, the flow of small arms. So you have to connect the sub. You can’t only have dialogue at the community level but that is an important part. That is an important part that often gets overlooked. Then you need to connect it with the action and policy and the action of these other levels.

PT: Would you be visiting other states like Benue, Kogi that are also affected by this violence?

Lindborg: Well, we were in Plateau state. Last time I was here we were in Kaduna and we have partnership and activities in both states.

PT: How do you choose the areas you go to?

Kwaja:  You can define the Middle Belt in two ways. There is the cultural Middle Belt and there is the geographical Middle Belt. If you use the geographical Middle Belt, Adamawa and Plateau States fit within that categorisation because of the stretch. In terms of the similarities based on that geography it’s as if you are in one state, both in terms of the makeup of the topography, in terms of makeup of the people, in terms of the nature of the economy that is agrarian. They rely on agriculture for survival. Now if you look at the nature and pattern of killings and conflict, violence attached, they are all the same. The difference is Benue, Kogi in name but in terms of the location and pattern, it’s the same. Which means if you want to respond to that issue, you need a response that understands this trend and dynamics because we have not been able to do that we focus on one state. It’s easy for criminals to move to the other states. The question is: Why are Adamawa and Benue States important? You need to look at the map, the way River Niger and Benue are structured, the fertile nature of that whole axis creates condition for herders to move and when they move, that is a place that gives you water all year round. There is nothing like there is no water in June, there is no water dry season. They have water from January to December because of the Benue River. So whoever stays along that area will not leave and because of that you will see the shrinking of the Lake Chad is also impacting on the livelihood within Borno state. Borno and Taraba share border with Adamawa State. So whoever is moving around the Benue valley, must surely touch Benue.

For us in USIP we think there is a whole lot of opportunity for us. The first point is locating individuals we think their voices will be very important, not just because they are elders but because of the positions they have occupied and they still occupy in Nigeria and when they speak, it carries weight. For instance, the Sultan and the Archbishop Onaiyekan. They were the first two individuals that started the Nigerian Inter-Religious Council. Now the senior working group is an opportunity for us to reinforce that voice by first expanding that platform, getting other individuals like General Martin Luther Agwai who is also on board, Professor Ibrahim Gambari who has been permanently involved in resolving conflicts over this kind of issues. As we do that the first point is how do we strengthen state capacity to respond to these issues? We discovered that trust is one fundamental issue and that is one point they both raised. If you look at the trust issue – first, how do we reestablish trust between the communities, the farmer and the herder? And the two of them don’t even trust the state. They are fighting but they also have one enemy – the state. They all look on the state for justice. So, the point for us is we are also working with the senior working group to ensure that the issue of justice as a precondition for addressing impunity is something that government takes very serious.

We have been doing a lot when it comes to writing and you have been publishing some of our works. Even the last one we did, the memo we sent to the president on the farmers/herder clashes. The very first day you published it, that night General Dambazzau (Interior Minister) responded that he got it. The next day, the governor of Kaduna State presented it before the National Economic Council. On the basis of that the senior working group was invited to participate in the ministerial conference on trans-humans in the context of the farmer herder conflict that ended yesterday, which was organised by ECOWAS and the ministry of inferior. For us that was important. Just today we were with ECOWAS and they said some of the recommendations from the memo were captured and inserted in the final document that ECOWAS is releasing very soon as an outcome of the conference. For us that is a major success in terms of how we are able to amplify these issues. We are not just amplifying the voices of people, we are also amplifying the issues in terms of how deep they are and why governments need to respond to them.

PT: With your work and advocacy so far do we expect these issues to end soon? Is the end of these crises in sight?

Kwaja: The point you need to ask is – when they put these initiatives, do they look at the issue of sustainability of the initiatives because most of the initiatives have been reactive and ad-hoc and short term. Now when you have that kind of approach, nothing will work. For example, you say there is conflict in Benue, you bring in Operation Cat Race. What has been happening with all the DSS reports we have been having over insecurity? And none of these conflicts happens spontaneously. There are early warning signs, none of them happens spontaneously. Which means there is something wrong with the early warning system. That is also part of the discussion within the context of the senior working group, informing some of the responses and advice we are providing the advice we are providing.

Onubogu: Going back to the Plateau State Peace Building Agency and Kaduna State Peace Building Commission earlier mentioned, I think these are two areas that are trying to address that. They are still in the early stage and I think working with them through the work of the senior working group and other technical assistance that could be given would help with cultivating that understanding about being proactive when it comes to responding to conflict rather than being reactive. And I think that is what we have seen over time in Nigeria – a reaction to violent conflict rather than looking at ways to address the root causes or the drivers of the crises.

PT: How do you address the political factor that seems to be complicating the conflicts?

Onubogu: Well, by the nature of our job as we have explained earlier, USIP is a nonpartisan organisation. So when we come into an environment and we view the nature of the conflict, we identify partners that are we can work with irrespective of whatever their political backgrounds are or the political views are. But partners that can come together to dialogue and find solutions to different issues. So we stay out of the politics, we don’t involve ourselves with the politics.

Lindborg: This is the heart of why in many countries……..Part of the answer lies in ensuring that you have systems that there are free and fair elections, for example that you have citizens who are informed and engaged. These are long term processes but they are key parts of the longer term solution. So for example one of the important aspects of the Plateau State Peace Building Agency is that it is legislated so that it should survive whoever is in power in that state because it is there by law. The other thing I wanted to just say to your question is to add that peace, as we say all the time, is a process. You have to create the sustained systems and mechanisms that enable constant focus and vigilance and this is true for any country in the world that when you take your eye off that it is when grievances spill over into violence. We are very clear about the fact that there will always be conflict. Conflict can even be transformational. We have seen where big social movements that are based on disagreement and grievances have transformed countries but when you don’t have the mechanisms for managing those conflicts that is when they turn violent and tear societies apart and undercut precious development gains. So it is about having the mechanisms and systems for managing the conflict so it can be productive rather than violent.

PT: Is there anything you are doing about Boko Haram situation in the north east?

Onubogu: One of the things we have done is looking at research and seeing how that research can be applied and put into practice. One of the things that we have done through working with partners in Nigeria is that we have been able to conduct research across several states in north eastern Nigeria, and engaging with communities to understand how they were able to fight back Boko Haram and to also understand what processes they had put in place to ensure that these communities stay resilient to the factors that could disrupt them. And I think that is where the research has been very useful. We have been able to use that information, to use those who are applying different programmes, be it on the security side or on the civil society side. So, that is the extent of our work – directly engaging and looking at the Boko Haram crisis. Another area of our work is this engagement with the state governors. In October of 2016, we had a symposium at Washington DC where we had governors who represented certain states across Nigeria’s north. We also had the minister of interior represent the Federal Republic of Nigeria at the symposium and some members of the working group as well. That meeting was an opportunity for folks to really take a step back and begin to ask the hard questions – what is really driving the crisis in the north east? And sometimes that is not something that we do because as I mentioned earlier we often react to crisis. Boko Haram didn’t just appear. It took a while for Boko Haram to become what it is today. So that was an opportunity for the participants in that symposium to take a step back and really begin to understand – what are the drivers of this conflict? What are the practical ways that we could go about addressing some of them? What are some of the issues we can speak about? And I think it goes with some of the things we say at USIP that while peace is a process, peace is also practical. Sometimes these solutions are right there and we tend to ignore them or overlook them. So, coming from that symposium was where the conversations of how you really begin to institutionalise the process. Security is important, a military response is important but the military response alone cannot bring about sustainable peace. You also have to start thinking about transition, how do you transit from military to civilian? What role do the police play? What role do the justice system play? How do you reveal the justice system in an area or community that has been in a system like this? So that is where USIP research comes into play and we are currently conducting research on a lot of these things that would continue to inform the work of those who are working to directly address the issues.

PT: Are you saying that some of those decisions reached and adopted at the 2016 Symposium had have been applied?

Onubogu: At least one of them is with the Plateau State Peace Building Agency. When the governors were in Washington DC in 2016, one of the things that they resolved to do was to try and set up or strengthen the institutions at the state level to effectively respond to conflicts. One of the examples that that was raised, the Plateau State governor specifically spoke about the peace agency and the fact that it was still in its infancy and they wanted to learn how they could strengthen that agency. And the other governors who were in the room said ‘wow, okay this is something that we can also implement in our own states.’ So, shortly after the symposium, the Kaduna State Government also took steps to set up the Kaduna State Peace Building Commission. As Nancy mentioned, we were in Adamwa State and there were discussions about setting up something similar. Same with the Borno Government. I think from that symposium, they realised that state governments are just as powerful as the president and they are citizens of the states and they are the closest in contact to the people. So they have to take steps rather than always waiting for the national to deploy security to address conflicts within their states.

Lindborg: They are on the front line to be more responsive to citizens in a way that creates a state society relationship and increase the citizens’ trust.

PT: To curtail violence some people have called for the creation of state police. Do you favour the creation of state police in Nigeria? Secondly, are you collaborating the Institute of Peace and Conflict Resolution in Nigeria?

Onubogu: To answer your last question, yes we engage with Institute of Peace and Conflict Resolution in Nigeria. Professor Osita Osita (the DG) who runs the institute is a good colleague of USIP. So, we engage with them, run ideas by them as we try to implement our programmes. The things in the memo that was spoken about we also shared with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Resolution. And also we work with the Plateau State Peace Building Agency and Kaduna Peace Building Commission. There is also engagement with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Resolution here to ensure that they are collaborating, that there is coordination and that folks are not duplicating activities

Kwaja: For me, the issue might not be about state police first as a response but about how we decentralise policing. These are two different formulas. In decentralising policing, that is when you begin to look at the workability of state police or in fact you say we need to look at the present police structure with a view to ensuring that the state governments play a major role in how they operate. One of the recommendations in the 2014 National Conference was about decentralising state police in a way that allows for a particular rank within the police to be employed from within the states and governors have the power to appoint certain officers within that area and then there are limits. Maybe you say from the rank of deputy superintendent and above let the federal government handle but from this rank down let the state handle both in terms of appointment, recruitment and funding.

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