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.
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
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
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
Iolanda Jaquemet is a freelance journalist based in Geneva.
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