Can peacebuilders end the war with Boko Haram?

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Can peacebuilders end the war with Boko Haram?

After ten years of war, the Boko Haram rebel group is still not defeated. It's time for different, nonviolent, ideas, says Hazel Healy.


A student looks out from a classroom destroyed by Boko Haram in Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria.


Sadly Kareem Omar was shopping at the Monday market in Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria. A Boko Haram gunman shot at a soldier and ran into the crowd. Army troops took Kareem and some others and told them to find the boy or die. The young man in front of Kareem looked rough and shook with fear as he answered the soldiers’ questions. The boy had no gun, but they killed him anyway. ‘Then, if someone was shot, nobody worried,’ Kareem remembers. ‘They killed thousands of people like that.’

In 2011, the army took action against the rebel Islamist militant group Boko Haram in Maiduguri, the provincial capital of Borno state. The army’s action was so bad that the local elders asked the President to take away the troops. If this is what the army is going to do, they said, please take them away. They are killing more people than Boko Haram. We can take better action ourselves.

It’s often the same story across Africa and the world: military actions against violent extremism often make things worse. In the nine years since Boko Haram rebelled against the state, over 30,000 people have died, 2.4 million are displaced, and 5 million need food aid. Everyone now knows the name Boko Haram because of its terrible brutality – against women in particular. But using violent force against Boko Haram has only made things worse.

How it all began

The bad behaviour of governments is often why conflicts begin and continue. Northeast Nigeria is no different. When Boko Haram first started in Maiduguri in 2003, the group was against the government but mainly peaceful. The leader was a radical Salafist cleric, Mohamed Yusuf. ‘We thought they were serious, religious people,’ remembers one Maiduguri resident. ‘They said they would bring social amenities, and they lent money for young people to start a business and to get married.’

That all changed in 2009 when the police and military took strong action against the group. About 800 of its members were killed, including Yusuf, who died in police custody. No-one knows for sure if Yusuf’s plan was to use violence, but government action pushed a religious movement into jihad. Yusuf’s more radical deputy was Abubeker Shekau and he started attacks across many northern states. Boko Haram wanted revenge and its brutality has increased ever since. They changed from attacking police stations and army barracks, to attacking schools, markets, and refugee camps. The Nigerian military action was very strong. They thought citizens were suspects or sympathizers. ‘They were abusive and intolerant,’ remembers one man. ‘Soldiers could treat you badly, they crashed into cars, and made holes in people’s car tyres.’ The Nigerian army did not know the local languages. They were often badly equipped and could not identify Boko Haram members. People think they have killed three times more civilians than Boko Haram during the greatest violence in 2010-12.

The army finally moved rebels from Maiduguri in 2013, after youths started vigilante groups to protect themselves. The city centre is now safe, soldiers patrol on gun-trucks. But vigilante groups are now committing abuses of their own.

And, as the Nigerian military successfully takes back territory, the problem has moved to other places. Boko Haram has moved across the border into Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, and it now has six groups. The leader Shekau is now working with Islamic State. In a terrible example of history repeating itself, there was a recent film of Cameroonian soldiers executing female Boko Haram suspects and their children.

The state thought it could use military force to stop Boko Haram. As it is so often with rebel groups, the groups were stronger than the government thought. Maurice Onyango is a Kenyan aid worker and he says: ‘the government did not talk to these people when they had the chance and that was a mistake.’


Free at last? People greet the Nigerian military in Monguno town after they removed Boko Haram in 2015.


Rebuilding relationships

There are ways to stop death and destruction without using violent force. In Bama, a town 70 kilometres southeast of Maiduguri, communities are doing it differently. They are building peace.

Bama was a busy commercial centre but was destroyed after six months as ‘caliphate’ in 2015. It’s now half rebuilt with a very big camp for 21,000 displaced people.

Inside the gates, government nurses push a group of women and children with long sticks – they are just some of the thousands arriving each day, brought by the military or ‘rescued’. It is very difficult to move in and out of the camp. It’s very stressful; a suicide attack was stopped a few days after our visit, and five died at a mosque in town in April 2018.

It takes courage to leave the safety of Maiduguri. But Agnes Bashir, who is a powerful speaker and retired civil servant, and Amina Kyari are not afraid. They work for two NGO partners trained by peacebuilding charity International Alert to help women who are blamed after they are abducted by Boko Haram. ‘We don’t like it when families are against the abducted girls,’ says Amina. ‘We tell them it’s not the girls’ fault.’ Thousands have been taken from the countryside in Borno state. But there was no big protest like after the kidnap of 276 girls from Chibok. Then the campaign Bring Back Our Girls brought the kidnap to international attention. The children are used as slave labour or strapped with bombs. Boys are forced to fight, girls forced into ‘marriages’ with fighters or gang-raped.

Husseina Buba, aged 15, was abducted from her village when she was 9. She arrived at the camp eight months ago, pregnant with her son Alagi. She holds the five-month-old baby as she tells us how she and other girls planned their escape. Her mother welcomed her – after six years she had given up hope. But the rest of the camp did not accept her. She was always last in line for food and water. People whispered and stared and stayed away from her. They were afraid that Boko Haram radicalized her.

She gave birth once before, at night, alone, in the bush. The child died after three days. Alagi was born in a crowd of women. ‘I hate the act,’ she says. ‘But my son is a blessing from God.’

Her baby gave her hope, but neighbours said Alagi was bad and would be a Boko Haram fighter like his father, and kept their children away. She has seen how this attitude kills, as young girls throw their babies in latrines or women kill their babies.

But attitudes have changed, thanks to the activities of the NGOs. ‘Now people show me love,’ she says.


The younger sisters of Ramatu Hassan (centre) welcome her and her daughter after her escape from Boko Haram. It is difficult for some people. Abdulai Yuse is a farmer from Gwoza. He says that he couldn’t trust Fatima, the third of his eight children, after she was rescued by the military and returned pregnant aged 18.

He sits playing with his sweet granddaughter (‘a happy child’), now three, as he tells us how the family-support sessions changed his idea that his daughter brought shame on the family. Fatima says. ‘It’s getting better.’ At one time, he was saying such bad things about her daughter that she nearly sold her to traffickers.

Women deal with their abductions in different ways. Some have amazing stories. One mother poured water on her daughter’s suicide vest, which she saw rebels do in the camp. Another mother took her two sons out of a Boko Haram prison dressed as girls. She married a fighter to get back her two-year-old son, who was taken to force her to join the group. She gave birth to another son in the process. Other women have still in shock like a woman from Chad. She is living with her husband again for the past year but she is still too much in shock to speak. Another girl is unsure about her ‘Boko Haram husband’. It was his job to put the vests around the waists of suicide bombers and make videos for Shekau. But he was kind to her, she says.

Amina says that community workers use the meetings to take the chance to talk about women’s rights. Girls make friends, are stronger, and protect other women at risk. The war has also changed gender relations, as widows are forced to do things alone. ‘Men say “Wow! Look at these strong women”,’ says Agnes. ‘I understood then that there can be a positive side to conflict.’


Abdulai Yuse at first did not accept his pregnant daughter but now he loves and accepts his new grandchild.


Helping community relations

In the Bama camp for displaced people, peacebuilders are working to help community relations. There is not a lot of trust. There is not always enough food and people are from all different places and ethnicities – Kanuri, Hausa, Shuwa Arabs – and they are put together. Community meetings begin with a Muslim prayer and end with a Christian one. They show that ‘we are all in this together’. A traditional leader says, ‘It’s made us stronger.’

Now people let their children play together. Religious counselling is also used to help people recover and forget thoughts of revenge. Everyone in this room has lost someone. Perhaps they saw parents killed and children abducted. Faith can bring comfort and hope and understanding of others. Omar Banqui’s grandchild is still missing and he says that at night he could only think about Boko Haram’s crimes. ‘The meetings have helped me sleep,’ he says.

The people here say they are ready to accept Boko Haram fighters if they say they are sorry and the government thinks they are safe. ‘Even Shekau himself!’ says Omar. ‘We just want to go home,’ he says. They say the message of forgiveness will reach Boko Haram members and help them to surrender. The group reminds me: ‘They were once part of us.’ Agnes agrees: ‘Our sons brought this conflict. It is the indigenous people themselves who can bring peace. Nobody else.’

Maiduguri courts have a three-year waiting list and so legal justice is not easy to find. But when it comes to the complicated, personal question of forgiveness for these big crimes, local people already have homemade plans and ideas’, says Idayat Hassan, head of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD).

He was a traditional leader in neighbouring Adewama state and he was able to help in his community by negotiating the payment of money to the family of an innocent man killed by a soldier. Sulhu under Islamic law could be another way to peace.

Peacebuilding says that if you bring development, build state institutions, or take military action to stop the opposition, then peace will come. ‘But the real finding is that it’s the other way round,’ says Alexander Ramsbotham, director of online publication Accord. ‘You need to get the relationships, get agreements between people before the rest can come.’

Funmi Olonisakin is peace and conflict professor at King’s College London. She thinks it is time to turn the peace-building on its head. ‘We need to reverse the order, and look organically,’ she says. ‘Africans need to use their own ideas. We must allow local people to make peace in their own time, to find their own ideas.’

The international community – especially the US and Britain, which are both very involved in Nigeria today – have preferred military action to local people’s action for peace. Both countries want stability in Nigeria, the world’s 12th largest oil producer, and they make big contributions to humanitarian aid. But there are other issues. The international community thinks Nigeria is an ally in the ‘war on terror’, which needs military support – and with arms sales.

Real allies?

At a meeting in May 2018 with Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari, President Trump confirmed the sale of nearly $593 million of weapons, including 12 light attack ‘Super Tucano’ aircraft, guided rockets. and other equipment. The sale under the Obama administration was delayed because of human rights concerns. ‘Not good reasons,’ said Trump. ‘Terrorism…’ he said, ‘it’s a real danger, and we’re going stop it’ – before asking Buhari to reduce barriers to trade. I met a soldier at the airport in the capital Abuja. He told me that British forces ‘are all over Africa now’ – like the US Special Forces across the world in secret operations to fight ‘radical Islam’.

The British are here to train Nigerian military. This is part of the Ministry of Defence programme that uses up to 70 per cent of $13.8 million from the UK’s Conflict Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). Britain has many such ‘training’ programmes.

The programme includes making sure the Nigerian army follow human rights, which local people welcome. But an independent review has criticized the CSSF for thinking that ‘skills gaps’ are the reason for the problem, and not politics or conflicting objectives.

In Maiduguri, the Nigerian army’s worst actions have stopped. Locals say that the army has learned it ‘cannot win this alone’ and the government has a plan for the northeast to help development.

But the most important plans are clear. $1 billion is for the army, whose ideas are still: ‘We will finish you!’ as one aid worker said. And there are still reports of illegal detention in very bad conditions and illegal executions. There are fears that 850,000 civilians are in great danger as the army tries to ‘starve out’ the remaining rebels.

Military assistance supports the idea that you can win by weakening the opposition – you just need to get better at it. It also risks supporting an ally who may not be interested in serious reform.

Samuel Malik is a local journalist. He says, ‘Even if they succeed tomorrow, another group will come. They have to look at why these people are taking these actions.’


'Super Tucano' military airplanes are not likely to bring peace to Nigeria


Attacking the roots

To have lasting peace in Nigeria, it is necessary to think about why Nigerians liked the ideas of Boko Haram. Young recruits say that in the early days they liked the opportunity to ‘have a better government and be recognized’. A project in Bulumkutu Kasawa, downtown Maiduguri, is offering other ways to get respect and check government actions.

‘In the 2019 election, we will not accept youth violence,’ Idris Umar, a leader from the Youth Peace Platform (YPP) tells a room full of community leaders. ‘They are used as tools... Politicians don’t use their own children, only those from poor communities.’ The people in the room agree. Elders complain about the ‘youth from the main road’, who could plant bombs or attack supporters of rival political parties for small money.

Idris has already lost two brothers in riots after the elections in Nigeria. He doesn’t want to lose any more. He’s one of 120 youth leaders trained in techniques of conflict resolution and advocacy by the civil society Borno Coalition for Democracy and Progress (BOCODEP), with peacebuilding charity Conciliation Resources. YPPs have started social projects to get government to look at problems in poor neighbourhoods. One important project is fighting addiction to cough syrup with codeine and the painkiller Tramadol – often because of trauma. They are working with government drug counsellors.

Elders welcomed the project. ‘One of the leaders said, “If you came to give my people food or clothes to wear, I would tell you that we have had enough of that”,’ says BOCODEP head Abubakar Mu’azu. ‘“Since you are here to talk about peace, you are welcome. If we had peace, we could take care of ourselves.”’


Maryam Paul Hammajam and Idris Umar, members of the Youth Peace Platform in Maiduguri.


The YPPs tell many powerful stories about young people stopping hurting others, and themselves.

One female, who was a Boko Haram member as a suicide bomber, has now become a leader in Yobe province. A young man, Abbas Ali, was addicted to cough syrup and led a violent gang armed with machetes that committed robberies and rape. He has stopped drugs and is painting school buildings and persuading friends and family to ‘get on the right path’.

He has persuaded his step-sister Zara al Haji. Her father was killed and her mother was in prison for nearly three years. Her mother was a food-seller accused of cooking for Boko Haram. And so Zara found herself alone. She could not support herself and her two young children. She took drugs to ‘to get peace’ and did sex work to pay for the drugs.

Now Abbas has brought her into the YPP, Zara has stopped drugs, and found she is good at public speaking and is working to help sex workers to go back to their families. ‘If there is a problem, people come looking for me,’ she says. Her mother is now out of prison, and likes her daughter’s new confidence. When they are back in their communities, young people are less vulnerable to the next armed group that might come to recruit them. ‘If Boko Haram came today, we would not let them in,’ says Abbas.

Playing the long game

For peacebuilding to work, there must be changes at different levels of society at the same time. In Abuja, the centre of government, people are working to stop the bad politics and working on a programme to get Nigeria to look after the needs of all of its citizens, not just of a few.

‘If people know their vote is their power, and you can check that your representative is doing the right things… then we will see change,’ says Temitope Fashola. He is head of the governance programme at Christian Aid, and he supports some of the groups formed by the people.

They have a lot to do. Nigeria has big problems. This year it moved ahead of South Africa to become the continent’s largest economy by GDP. And it was the country with the highest numbers living in extreme poverty - 89 million, about half its people. There is corruption everywhere in the system, and it has one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in the world at six per cent. Justice is slow. There are big disagreements in ethnic and religious ideas, a result of British colonialism.

But people are strong. ‘It took us nine years to pass the Freedom of Information act,’ says Mu’azu. ‘But now things are much more open. Now they put budgets on websites, and people can check them.’

‘I think there’s progress,’ says Temitope, as he chooses his words carefully. He reminds me that military rule only ended in 1999. ‘Nigerians have very high ideas and hopes, and that’s why if you speak to most people, they will say nothing is working.’

He talks about some important successes – especially, two former state governors now in prison. There’s a justice reform bill in all states. ‘I’m positive. Nigeria can work and it will work,’ he says.

Isa Sanusi at Amnesty says Bring Back Our Girls was a new beginning for successful nonviolent action. The campaign brought home about 100 Chibok girls and still holds daily vigils for the 112 that are still held by Boko Haram. Some people think the campaign ended the previous administration of Goodluck Jonathan.


The Bring Back Our Girls Campaign was a new beginning for successful, nonviolent action in Nigeria.


Isa admires a group of displaced women (‘the Knifar movement’) who, in ‘an unexpected act of courage’, are campaigning for the return of their husbands and sons, detained without charge as Boko Haram suspects. And they are speaking against sexual exploitation by soldiers. They are forcing the military to explain themselves.

It’s very hard but very important work – there are signs of stress in all of the country. Nigeria is more or less at war. The military is operating in nearly all 36 states. There is militancy in the south in the oil-rich Niger Delta. There’s a secessionist movement in Biafra in the southeast. And in the Middle Belt region there are more and more clashes over resources between Fulani herders and farmers, which have a dangerous religious feeling. There are bandits everywhere.

Yes, agrees Temitope, they are worried about the rise in violent conflict in Nigeria. But they are not giving up now. Mu’azu, a professor of mass communication in his day job, is planning a project on Hate Speech. He wants to build a larger moral community who will say ‘stop’ and ask for different standards. ‘People who believe in living together peacefully and in tolerance must have the courage to speak,’ he says. ‘Silence is not a possibility.’

Hope and courage are at the heart of peacebuilding work in Nigeria.

It’s clear that lasting peace must come from ordinary people’s wisdom and experience, and working to give them justice for what they have suffered. Conflict in the style of Boko Haram is increasing in the world. And so we really need to think again about our ideas on nonviolence and prevention, and move away from the easy and terrible violent and military actions.

Some names have been changed to protect identities.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)