In the 1970s and 1980s, at the height of Nigeria’s post-oil-discovery wealth and power, Nigerians could walk the streets of the major northern cities of Kaduna, Jos, Kano and Maiduguri without a concern, unhurried and unharmed. Today, public spaces, from churches to restaurants and cafes in these cities send very real frissons of fear down the spines of everyday people, a fear unalleviated by the decidedly ineffective security apparatus. As Wanjohi Kabukuru, a veteran Kenyan journalist writing for New African Magazine puts it, “these cities have lost their innocence.” Thanks to Boko Haram, a militant group terrorizing Nigeria’s Northeastern region, some cities seem to have lost their innocence forever. As Nigerian’s grow weary of military intervention and other violent options in countering the suffering caused by Boko Haram, local peacebuilding groups are emerging as far more efficient in this regard – tackling structural issues like poverty and illiteracy to reduce the allure of groups like Boko Haram.
Records show that since 2009, Boko Haram has been orchestrating a vicious circle of violence in the Northeast; violence that has led to the death of more than 3,000 people. The abduction of 276 female students from Chibok Government Girls Secondary School on April 14, 2014 represents the morally-lowest height, thus far, of its “achievements.” As Cameron Duodu of New African Magazine noted, the “night Chibok’s name entered world history is not one that any of the abducted girls or any of their close relatives will ever want to remember.”
And yet how can they ever forget it? The speed of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign and the sheer audacity of Boko Haram propelled the American intervention intended for the rescue of the stolen girls. Initially, the American intervention inspired a sense of hope and genuine expectation in an atmosphere already invaded by despair and desperation, particularly around Chibok. The snail’s pace of the Nigerian government forced some parents to organize their own search. One of the parents declared, “All Nigerians are civilians, Americans are the real soldiers.”
Currently, many Nigerians have a slightly less rosy perception of the American intervention. Bunmi Olusona, a social commentator based in Lagos argues that the United States and most European countries do not have impressive records in terms of intervention, especially in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo; on occasion, those interventions have ended up precipitating civil wars.
In addition, some Kaduna-based clerics argue that the American intervention in Chibok will simply pull further at an already polarized society. They are already calling the American intervention an invasion of Islamic territory by “Christian crusaders” from America.
While the American intervention continues to divide opinions, Northern Nigeria remains the poorest region of the country. Poverty and illiteracy rates, deforestation, internal migration, corruption and infrastructure problems are rising. Military intervention won’t help these issues – it will only increase them and, in turn, increase the allure of fundamentalist activities.
As such, attention must be given to local peace initiatives ongoing in the region. Worthy of mention is the Wauru-Jabbe/Kofare Peace and Development Initiative in Jimeta-Yola, Adamawa State. Started in 2005 by Rev. Sr. Agnes Hannon, an Irish nun of the Mercy Sisters congregation, this program targets men and women from all backgrounds who have lost out on Westernized education. They are taught how to read and write and trained on the use of computers, internet and other mobile services to enable them to effectively participate in Nigeria’s fast changing economy.
Following the intensity of the Boko Haram conflict, the initiative carried out a “Listening Survey” to determine the burning issues affecting the community, as described by the community. To combat the greater problems of health care and poverty, the program was reshaped as the Peace and Development Initiative to achieve peaceful co-existence and create opportunities that would accommodate those who feel excluded and may be tempted to join violent groups.
Currently, the adult literacy school has almost 500 adult students (both men and women), 15 part-time teachers and two part-time administrators. The computer literacy training offers certificates in typing, general computer knowledge, and a Computer Diploma. This program has great potential in turning around Nigerian means of livelihood, making terrorism less attractive and empowering them to participate in the ever changing Nigerian economy. Already, lives are changing!
Thus, as a matter of policy, Americans should recognize that it is important to provide non-military services that will unite local communities rather than divide them. Programs such as the Wauro-Jabbe/Kofare Peace and Development Initiative should be at the core of any intervention. Even if Nigerians are not real soldiers, they could be real peacemakers.
Fr. Atta Barkindo is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Politics and International Studies, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, a Research Fellow for Open Doors International, and a Fellow of The Citizenship Initiative, University of South Florida. Article originally published at Insight on Conflict and distributed by PeaceVoice.