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Alternative to violence
Conflict prevention in Nigeria
by Iolanda Jaquemet

These workshop participants are learning to resolve conflict though peaceful means.

Poverty and overcrowding in Nigeria's chaotic and teeming capital, Lagos, is fertile ground for violence. One tiny spark is enough to ignite the powder-keg of pent-up frustration. Although not nearly enough, there are efforts under way to promote a non-violent way of resolving conflicts. The future of the country depends on their success.

"Our society is one of the most violent in the world. Riots in Lagos, the looting of the university, ethnic strife in the Niger delta, intercommunal clashes in Kaduna - violence here knows no limits." Iyke Chiemeka speaks quickly, as if forever in a hurry. Surulere is a district like so many others in Lagos: people have lost count of the number of power failures; telephone lines (for those who are lucky enough to have one) are out of service; unemployment is rife; and everyone is struggling to survive.

A large iron gate, which is closed at 6 p.m. every evening, bars the road that leads to Iyke's office. It is an essential security measure. In early April, press reports told of a row over a water source in a region of western Nigeria suffering from drought that had degenerated into a pitched battle between students and villagers. Twenty people were wounded.

Another path 

Convinced that "we must reduce violence by any means possible", Iyke Chiemeka believes she holds the key: a technique for resolving conflicts peacefully, first developed in 1975 in a high-security prison in the state of New York. Having been a runaway success on its home ground, the Alternative to Violence Project (AVP) has been imported into a dozen countries on four continents. It was in one of these, the United Kingdom, that Uju Agomoh, the dynamic director of a Nigerian NGO assisting prison inmates (PRAWA), first learned of the project while at a conference.

In 1998, British AVP specialists arrived in Nigeria to train the first handful of pioneers. The Nigerian branch of the AVP was born. Since then, hand in hand with PRAWA, it has been organizing more and more three-day workshops designed to "enable participants to free themselves of the burden of violence" - a burden that they carry within themselves. This applies not only to people in prison but outside, in particular the 'area boys', as they are known in Nigeria: the 'bad boys', petty racketeers and gang leaders - unemployed youths ripe for any mischief.

In 1999, Jean-Jacques Gacond, head of the ICRC's regional delegation in Nigeria, was introduced to the idea. "I was instantly captivated by the approach," he relates. "For once, instead of acting as fire-fighters, we could try to tackle the root causes of violence. Above all, I thought it was an unprecedented opportunity for the Red Cross to come in contact with a milieu from which it is normally excluded." By which he means an illicit, not to say criminal, world. After observing an AVP workshop, Jean-Jacques decided to give it a go - "a sort of trial run" - by financing seven three-day sessions between January and August 2000. For the ICRC, it is a definite first.

An unhappy birthday 

A tiny baby girl is quietly asleep on a young woman's shoulder. She was born two weeks ago in military camp No. 44 in Kaduna, where her mother and two sisters sought refuge on 21 February. That was the day when riots opposing Christians and Muslims broke out in this northern Nigerian town following a proposal to introduce sharia law in Kaduna state. The violence claimed hundreds of victims in Kaduna and subsequently in the south-east of the country, leaving this baby in camp 44 without a father. In Kaduna, whole districts have been reduced to a tangle of blocks and metal blackened by flames. The general view is that the response of the Nigerian Red Cross was exemplary. With the support of the ICRC and the Federation, the National Society provided food and other assistance to some 100,000 displaced people, and its volunteers, Christian and Muslim alike, worked side by side during the troubles. At the beginning of April, there were still about 7,000 displaced people in Kaduna. Among the poorest of the poor, they do not even have the means to repair the roofs of their hovels destroyed by the rioters.

Group dynamics 

It is Friday morning. A fresh workshop is about to start. The participants crowd into the small meeting room on the ground floor of the building in Surulere which houses PRAWA's offices. There are 20 participants, along with five National Society volunteers from the Lagos branch, and as many facilitators trained in the AVP method. Women are a distinct minority; there are three of them as opposed to 27 men.

The group dynamics do not flag over the next few days. The facilitators are extremely professional: under their guidance, small group sessions, plenary discussions and role-plays follow smoothly one after the other. With consummate skill, they put the most timid at ease and build the confidence of each contributor.

Alhaji Kazeem Mammodou, a gentle giant in a white embroidered robe, recounts his own transformation: "Before becoming a facilitator, I was incapable of saying sorry to my wife, even if I was obviously in the wrong." Tongues are loosened and people recount how they were involved in violent situations and found peaceful ways of resolving them: family quarrels, disputes over property, battered women, clashes between police and street gangs, a mini riot by women in front of a dispensary that has run out of tuberculosis vaccines, etc. It is as if the whole of Nigeria, in all its painful reality, is concentrated here in this tiny room.

Peace, a small slip of a woman who works in the prison administration, suggests an exercise: "You have three minutes to decide what you would do if caught, on foot, between two gangs of youngsters converging on you armed with knives." "I'd hitch up my trousers and pretend to be one of them and run away at the first opportunity," says an elderly man. The participants break into good-natured laughter, then clap. But pacifism has its limits.

The next hypothetical situation touches on a more sensitive issue: theft. "You arrive home one day and find an intruder leaving your room with a bar of soap in his hand. What do you do?" "I know how things are at the moment," says a round-faced young man, "but that's no excuse! I'd grab the guy and ask him what he's doing in my house. And if he won't cooperate, I'd call the police." There is general approval. 

All agree that it would be better not to shout to alert the neighbours, a move that often ends with the robber being lynched, preferably burned alive with a tyre around his neck. The rules of the game are typical of this kind of workshop: boosting self-esteem, learning to listen without interrupting, respecting others and understanding that each and every person, however humble, has a role to play in society. "It's a bit like Alcoholics Anonymous adapted to violence," smiles a sociologist. "But it works!" "The aim is not to teach people what they should do, but to make them aware of the potential within each one of us, to show them that their energy - for it is a prerequisite of violence - can be transformed into positive energy," stresses Uju Agomoh, director of PRAWA.

The group dynamics work so well and 'positive thinking' is so well entrenched that it is hard not to forget that some of the participants are anything but angelic. One of them has been sentenced to six years in prison for heroin trafficking; another one is the leader of a gang of bus racketeers. There was a man at a previous session who had killed six people in the riot that followed the death of opposition leader Moshood Abiola in 1998. All the participants have chosen to come of their own accord. The material rewards are few: the AVP pays their transport, provides a meal and gives them a T-shirt. They come rather, as one former detainee they called "Felix the blessed" says, "because I know that I can change myself, and that may help to change the world a tiny bit."

Iyke has a dream that the AVP initiative will snowball (even if the image seems incongruous in this warm climate). "We need to train at least 30 facilitators in each of the 37 Nigerian states to achieve something," she says. Jean-Jacques Gacond is reserving judgement until the end of the pilot project. But he admits to being touched when "a gang leader told me that he would like us to go to the marketplaces together to promote the ideas and work of the Red Cross among his young followers."

Iolanda Jaquemet 
Iolanda Jaquemet is a freelance journalist based in Geneva.

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