Lessons From Nigeria For Peace Building In The United States

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I grew up in the Nigerian city of Jos, which is a complex place in an already complex country. Nigeria has around 200 million people spread across 250 ethnic groups and speaking over 500 languages. Generally, Christians are the majority in the south, while Muslims are the majority in the north. Jos sits in the middle of this split, in a farming region known as the Middle Belt. In the past two decades, the city has seen waves of religious violence: hundreds killed in 2001, 2008, and 2010. Each time, communities on both sides mourned their dead and rebuilt their towns, but the scars never truly healed. The situation isn’t unique to Jos, of course. Around the world, many people live in societies split by politics, race, religion, or something else. In the United States, tense election cycles have exposed divisions that seem too wide to bridge. Indeed, it may well seem impossible for anyone—from politicians to activists—to make progress when polarization is so intense. But it is possible, and Jos’s experience shows how. I am the youth coordinator of the Jos Stakeholders Centre for Peace, a network of 39 organizations seeking to build a stronger city—not only to prevent violence but also to reduce poverty, promote justice, and improve health care. Peace rests on all doing work on all of these overlapping issues, and the approach we follow is called the Common Ground Approach, developed by the Search for Common Ground, the largest organization specifically dedicated to peace building. Tested across 40 years and five continents on some of the world’s toughest violent conflicts, the Common Ground Approach starts with something that many people take for granted: locally led analysis. Before any action, there must be understanding, and the only way to understand is to speak with people living with the core issues every day. This is easier said than done For example, crime is a major topic of debate in Jos. When a young person commits a crime, all youth get stigmatized as aggressive, angry predators. The sole solution seems to be strong policing. However, actually talking to young people reveals something else: an epidemic of loneliness, anxiety, and fear. Jos Stakeholders started the Psychosocial Working Group to address these issues; only local analysis could have led to this point. Further, when COVID-19 arrived in Jos, the government faced steep challenges in mounting a response. After decades of violence, communities simply did not trust many politicians. And health officials could not reach the thousands of people living in Jos’s informal communities without better cooperation and data. But nongovernmental organizations, especially those whose workers live in the communities they serve, have more built-in trust. People like those workers could go from neighborhood to neighborhood, asking residents how they felt about the disease and public health response. They could use those insights to communicate about COVID-19 in a way that overcame fears. That life-saving information could be spread in particular to the communities—often marginalized and suspicious of the government—most vulnerable to the disease. The second step is to use the information gathered in the first step to identify the core grievances underlying the conflict. That seems obvious, but real grievances are rarely the same as spoken demand. In October 2020, the #EndSARS movement erupted in Nigeria after an online video showed an officer of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) shooting a young man. Millions of Nigerians took to the streets, and the hashtag seemed to capture their exact demand: an end to SARS. But it was a mistake to stop at the hashtag; actual needs ran deeper.

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