Months before the 2019 election, a pro-peace group; members of the National Working Group on Peace Building and Conflict Resolution, shared their views about Nigeria’s democracy, security crisis and consequences of hate speech in this interview with Evelyn Okakwu.
The interview was conducted with the following members of the group: Nguyan Feese, Martin Luther Agwai, Jibrin Ibrahim, and Chris Kwaja. Excerpts:
PT: Tell us about the concerns that resulted in the creation of your group?
NWG: The issue is that northern Nigeria has a number of key challenges; one of which is the level of poverty which is very high. The other is the spread of violence because of the conflict in this region. The third is the challenge of governance which is much more in this part of the country and it is within that context that we thought it would be good to have a working group that looks at some of these issues.
Part of what motivated us in the first place is the fact that you tend to have regional groups that emerge to sow seeds of division; to explain why they should have another logic outside the national space, as we understand it. And we thought we should do the opposite. To focus on those things that unite us. Why don’t we address the issues that provoke dissatisfaction with the country as it is? Solve these problems and on that basis begin to build a country that is peaceful.
The working group was established primarily to help support governors in northern Nigeria in addressing some of the key drivers of conflict. In 2016, when the idea was muted and the group was formed, Northern Nigeria was the focus. That does not mean that any of these issues don’t exist in other parts of the country. But within that period, northern Nigeria was battling with huge problems: the Boko Haram issue; the farmer/pastoralists conflicts, kidnapping and banditry. Zamfara, Benue Adamawa among others.
PT: 2016, which is when your group was formed, witnessed a lot of issues that tested the unity of Nigeria. Have you checked the possible causes of these conflicts?
NWG: We as a group have realised that sometimes people feel that the only way they can be heard is when they express themselves in a violent manner and we have also found that sometimes, it is as a result of prolonged agitation.
When people keep agitating for something and nothing happens, then one day you will see that they will become violent.
The major thing we have observed that results in these challenges is that people believe they are not involved in the decision making process. A lot of things are happening and they are not involved; they do not know what is happening.
PT: But with the many challenges and conflicts in the country, would you not say that Nigerian leaders have failed, especially given the fact that your group is made up of some people who have played notable roles in the leadership of the country?
NWG: Well leadership as a word is quite a big topic. We have tried to emphasis the fact that leadership does not only involve the people at the top, say may be the president, governor or their likes. Leadership reaches the lowest levels of the society.
Virtually, what we have today is the accusing fingers pointed at someone for doing something wrong. “The governor has done this or that, this person has marginalised us; we have been excluded,” among other things. But how do we change the narrative to say, what can we, at our level do to help bring unity. To help bring prosperity.
I will place two assumptions on the table that we are working with: the first is that it takes governance to resolve conflict in the context of what we are dealing with. Secondly, is that the logic of our work is also built on the notion that the calibre of people we are working with can help in amplifying the voices of Nigerians.
With the calibre of people we have in the working group, we can bridge the gap between the leaders and the led.
PT: Have you engaged Nigerians in interactions? What has been your experience?
NWG: This group has met with northern governors. We have had extensive discussions with them. We constantly try to participate in most of the regional things (meetings) that are happening. We will continue to do that until we are heard.
But I think the issue is fundamental, because from the beginning; if you look at the establishment, we have governance only through membership of parties and elective positions. And in these parties there is limited participation. If you check the processes that results in the election of these members, there is a constraint on the part of the elected people on the basis of the way that they have been elected. So we think that as a country; we are not really set up for governance yet. We are more set up to; shall I say-“organise the parties”.
The party agenda is over and above that of governance. When you talk to people, you hear slogans like ‘it’s politics’. So I am not really sure where politics ends and governance starts. Because you are elected into a party, so that you will govern. For example, with the development that is going on now, with these politicians going from one place to the other; because they are looking for a place that will suit them. Not necessarily where they will render a service. We constantly feel like nobody is listening to us, because the people for example don’t get to fill much. Although you will hear a lot of activities going on.
Institutions are not yet feeling the weight of the leadership, the way we would like them to feel it. So for us, one of the things we would like to tell our leaders is: “how do we get to the point of good governance; where each one of us will feel our voices heard? We have spoken to young people and asked them why some of them are not joining politics and you hear them saying it’s because they believe that the godfathers will still nominate and nobody will listen to them. So they believe it’s a waste of time.
So when you already have a predisposed setting of who gets what, the whole issue of governance doesn’t really matter. The only thing that matters is; “how do we run our party?”
PT: What has been the efforts from your group to encourage political participation of Nigerians for a better country?
NWG: The group has engaged the governors at different levels. We have engaged the federal government and civil society groups here in Abuja. One other tool we have also used is the writing of memos on specific issues that borders on conflict, governance and how many of these issues can be resolved.
And one example I will give you is in the context of the farmers/herders crisis. We recognise the fact that it is not only a Nigerian problem. It is a transnational problem both in terms of how it is happening and its consequences.
And the working group had a memo that was submitted to the federal government. The chief of staff got it, the minister of interior got it. We sent a copy to ECOWAS. On the basis of that, the minister of interior invited us to participate at the regional meeting that was convened on the farmer herder conflict that was conveyed at the western region which Nigeria is part of.
After that, many of the recommendations that were pushed by the group were accepted in that regional meeting. And we got a call from ECOWAS that the heads of states have approved the recommendations of that summit and that they want to partner with the working group towards the implementation.
For us that is a milestone we have achieved. We have also supported or have been supporting state governments in their efforts towards institutionalising mechanisms for conflict management. We played active roles in supporting the Plateau State government peace building agency both in terms of its design, its take off, the strategic plan it had that was launched, among other things.
The same with the Kaduna peace commission; they are our critical partners. We have also been in talks with the Adamawa State. They have established theirs and appointed a director-general. For us it is important. It departs from this conventional approach of always being reactive; deploying security without really looking at the underlying causes of the conflict.
You just set up commissions of enquiry. In Adamawa State for example, they have more than 20 of that. In all the states you have mentioned in northern Nigeria that have had one form of conflict or the other; they have more than 10 commissions, or sub-committees and the likes that have been established to look at these things. And our focus is to use the senior working group to work with these groups to ensure that they are able to respond proactively to the problems.
PT: Is your group also considering ways to help manage possible conflicts in this election season?
Yes, the last effort is the election violence risk assessment; which was conducted in various states across the country. Ekiti, Rivers, Adamawa, Plateau, Kano, Kaduna, Abuja among others. The whole idea was to run away from this attitude of saying; “Ekiti is red- there will be violence. Lagos is green, there will be peace”.
We look more broadly at what the issues are. What is going to happen in 2019 in the context of key happenings in the state? Is it intra, or inter party conflicts? Or is it absence of internal party democracy. Is it about the youth restiveness in the state? Is it about the inability of leaders to address some of the core issues around governance based on the promises they made? How will that play out in 2019? What might be the likelihood of violence? What might be the mitigating factors of violence if at all it occurs? Those are the things we have been able to do.
PT: What is the content of the recommendations you said you sent to the government?
NWG: I think the first issue we raised with regards to the farmers herders crisis is the importance of understanding what is truly happening. Unfortunately there has been so many conspiracy theories and allegations that have completely diverted from the logic of why that conflict is occurring which in a sense is much more straight-forward.
It has to do with climate change, rising population, the expansion of farming in the country, all of which were leading to restrictions in terms of water and pasture for pastoralists. So if you put the problem within that context, you can then begin to look at what are the possible solutions.
And one of the key issues we raised in terms of the way forward is to first improve objective reporting of what is going on. There have been a lot of fake news that has spread regarding the matter which has instigated more conflict.
The second specific recommendation is to look for alternatives, where you will continue grazing and reduce contacts between farmers and herders. There we took up the issue of the over 400 grazing reserves that have already been demarcated in this country: the grazing and forest reserves. And there are very little farming communities in those reserves.
If therefore you orientate the farmers towards those parts where there are limited farmers, then you reduce the possibility of conflict. There are grazing reserves that have not been used because the water structure and infrastructure there have not been developed. So while a lot of them have dams, the infrastructure to access the water has not been created. And using that infrastructure to create more pasture has not happened. So we think an investment like that will be beneficial to both communities.
There are specific issues too, about the grazing roots which have been gazetted for over a hundred years. Many of them have also been found. When you block all routes for cattle to pass; then you are creating a propensity for conflicts to increase because the destruction of crops is bound to increase. So these are some of the recommendations we made.
The final recommendation is recognising the conflict as a regional dynamics; not just a national dynamic. And of course taking up the issue of the ECOWAS protocol that already exists on pastoralism, by educating both the herders and the farming communities on the conditions for the operations of those ECOWAS protocols on grazing.
PT: What are those instances that could result in conflicting situations that you foresee in 2019?
What we have witnessed in terms of trends and patterns, in 2015, the focus in the context of how political parties operated was basically where you had PDP vs APC. But in 2019, we are witnessing more of intra parties squabbles and you would see the defections that have occurred as part of those problems. That alone has implications, for the way and manner politicians even run their campaigns, for instance and how the party relates with its members within.
There are instances where some political party members join other parties and on getting there; they would want to be leaders, whereas those that were there before them would not agree, but would say; “join the queue”. This too has its potentials of creating tension within the party. But our research did not only focus on the problem but also looked at mitigation strategies.
For example, in the run-up to 2015 in Plateau for instance, the JNI had the issue of Ishaa’t committee, this is a committee on ethics. You cannot go to preach on Friday or any other day without submitting your sermon papers to that committee; they vet. If there is any content that is capable of creating tension or has what is called hate speech, they edit those things and then monitor it. If you are found guilty then they would sanction you, from stopping you from preaching or giving you some days off not to mount any podium and this really worked for them (JNI). And in the research, our focus is how can other states model this kind of approach.
For CAN, they also had the same approach, but it’s not structured as that of the JNI. When we went to other states, we did not find that but they had their own form of risk mitigation. For instance, in Anambra State, the role of the Church is very important. Traditional institutions are quite active. But part of the challenge we have, when you look at the wider conflicts in Nigeria today, is that that breakdown of traditional authorities where even government is not really working with the traditional institutions.
Lastly, within several states, the focus now is more towards local government elections, and that where you find most of the conflicts occurring. Elections are conducted by the states and when they conduct elections, the party in power must win, and the stakes for violence are higher. The unfortunate situation for us is when people reject the election, or when you experience apathy, because people don’t trust the process.