Nigeria has been in the spotlight recently, in case you hadn’t noticed.
From Boko Haram’s abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls from Chibok (the majority of whom are from the Church of the Brethren denomination), to bombings in cities such as Kano, Abuja, and Jos, Nigeria has dominated news headlines and even spawned a twitter campaign. For the moment, the world is transfixed.
Though the media frenzy is new, the issues confronting the country certainly aren’t. Atrocities committed by the shadowy extremist group, outbreaks of ethno-religious violence, crumbling infrastructure, political corruption, high unemployment rates, and so on, have been ongoing sources of insecurity for Nigeria’s people.
Given the recent escalation of violence, it makes sense for the world to sit up, take notice, and be concerned. Yet just beyond the glare of the media spotlight, Nigerians are working hard to mitigate the violence and bring sustainable peace to their communities in innovative ways, every day.
Why aren’t these stories newsworthy?
Although recently Jos has been the site of two horrific bombings, it is also the place where pioneering peacebuilding efforts are bearing fruit. Having traveled there with a group of colleagues four weeks ago to learn more about the violence prevention work MCC supports, I got to see this first-hand.
Long considered the melting pot of Nigeria’s many ethnic groups, Jos—the capital of Plateau State and location of MCC’s office—has been prone to deadly religious and ethnic conflicts (in 2001, 2004, 2008, and 2010). Rooted in complex tensions around access to economic resources and political power, these crises have polarized Jos in a multiplicity of ways, affecting where people live (often now in strictly Muslim or strictly Christian areas) and what prejudices take root.
Enter the Emergency Preparedness and Response Team (EPRT), one of MCC’s largest partners. Birthed in 2005, EPRT is an inter-faith, grassroots network engaged in emergency response and peacebuilding across the state. No small task! Guided by advisory and management committees, EPRT’s work is carried out by 15-member volunteer teams—each consisting of Muslims and Christians, women and men—that are set up in all 17 Local Government Areas (LGAs) of Plateau State.
Thanks to EPRT, there is a spiderweb of 270 skilled peacebuilders—often visible by their bright blue shirts and red hats!—stretched across the entire Plateau. Trained in emergency response, conflict prevention, mediation, and civic education, these volunteers proactively detect and diffuse early warning signs of tension, violence, or natural disaster.
When troubles are brewing, local networks kick into high gear as members communicate with one another to uncover the reality of a given situation (sometimes buried beneath layers of rumour and hearsay). Members continually send “intel” up to the central EPRT Coordinator (the tireless Boniface Anthony!), who gathers information via texts or phone calls (literally at all times of day and night) to help build a picture of the conflict situation and help assess potential responses. In this work, EPRT collaborates with traditional and religious leaders, youth networks, local government authorities, police, and the military.
Often EPRT members themselves are best positioned to intervene, jumping into highly-charged situations to help mediate conflicts between neighbours, dispel rumours (which can spread like wildfire!), and pour water on potential flames.
Our team was lucky enough to meet many local EPRT volunteers in places like Riyom and Barkin Ladi. Their stories gave us a glimpse into the realities of their work.
As people like Hauwa Yusuf and Sixtus Chong told us, when they see a decrease in people going to the central market, or an increase in the number of groups huddling together on street corners, they know conflict might be afoot. But it can be difficult to monitor situations and respond to these warning signals, as sometimes the “simple” act of getting around is, well, not so simple, due to security challenges.
Their stories reminded us that the work of early warning is tough slugging. As many EPRT members lamented, “you can’t have early warning without early response.” Local team members have to do a lot of ongoing advocacy work (i.e. relationship-building!) in order to rally the right first-responders in any given crisis.
To describe EPRT as a fascinating violence-prevention system—based on sophisticated information gathering, data analysis, skills training, policies, and procedures—is true. And yet it doesn’t do justice to the work. This complex “system” is, at its core, an interfaith network of people like Hauwa and Sixtus who are committed to fostering peace. This work requires not only technical training, but personal wisdom, solid judgment, and the ability to build relationships of trust in environments where trust is fragile at best.
Over the years, EPRT members have become vital actors for preventing crises and contributing to a culture of peace.
When elections in 2011 were widely anticipated to spiral into violence, EPRT members monitored polling stations across the state, successfully encouraging people to vote with confidence. When the bombs went off last week in Jos, EPRT members were there, responding to the emergency and closely monitoring potential signs of retaliatory violence.
Stories underscoring Nigeria’s struggles are important. But so are the stories of peace. Perhaps we should all challenge our media to put the spotlight on peace.
By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office Senior Policy Analyst