Nigeria: Building peace in the midst of humanitarian crisis

In northeast Nigeria, which is facing an urgent and severe humanitarian crisis, making the case for building long-term peace can be challenging.

Take one young man, who attended International Alert’s workshops aiming to build more trust between people living in a displacement camp in Maiduguri, and eventually became a workshop leader himself.

After the camp was closed and everybody was forced to leave, he told us he was determined to continue the sessions in his own village, seeing the need for more social cohesion in a time of conflict. But the village he returned to had little food. Soon, he became emaciated. And tragically, his five-year-old son died of malnutrition. He was, quite rightly, distracted by the need to keep his remaining children alive.

In this way, working on peacebuilding in northeast Nigeria can be problematic. Insecurity and safety concerns have made it hard to access distant communities, while economic deprivation, brought about by years of violence, coupled with a lack of local political leadership, have made it extremely difficult to meet the most basic of human needs.

According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, human beings have a hierarchy of needs where ‘physiological’ needs, such as food, warmth as well as safety (e.g. security), take precedence over ‘self-fulfilment’ needs such as belonging and self-esteem.

So, with the conflict in Nigeria raging on, how can we contemplate working on social cohesion in the country? How can we begin rebuilding broken communities? For example, reintegrating women and girls formerly held captive by the insurgency group Boko Haram – women and girls who are now facing not only deep-seated trauma, but rejection by their own families and neighbours.

Boko Haram violence has led to the displacement of 2.7 million people in the Lake Chad Basin (Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria) – an area that has been long-suffering from underdevelopment.

For Nigeria, an estimated 2 million displaced people (mainly in the northeastern states) are in need of immediate life-saving humanitarian assistance. Estimates indicate that severe acute malnutrition and mortality rates in these newly accessible areas have reached critical emergency levels. While displacement camps are scattered around the region, the vast majority of the displaced live with host communities and remain burdened by limited access to basic services, high staple food prices, the disruption of trade and lack of assistance.

If we acknowledge Maslow’s theory, people will not be able to move to addressing the next level of need until the current level is met. In northeast Nigeria, the basic level of food, water, warmth and shelter is absent. Without this, we cannot work on the ‘self-fulfilment’ level needed to address social cohesion and reintegration needs (i.e. belonging and esteem). If we take the case of the project beneficiary mentioned above, improving trust in villages would have been difficult given the food requirements of the community.

But given that conflict and violence perpetuate humanitarian crisis, there has never been a clearer case for peacebuilding to be integrated into humanitarian and development initiatives. For northeast Nigeria, peacebuilding and social cohesion work requires humanitarian support, to allow individuals and groups to perceive their needs as being met and to be ready to address the needs of women and girls to feel they belong.

Therefore, reintegrating women and girls will continue to be difficult if the basic human needs of communities within and outside Maiduguri are not met by the Nigerian authorities and the international community. This is not to say they have not tried, but the challenges complicate the achievement of this goal. So, without the physiological and safety needs being met, it is unlikely that we will progress in developing sustainable social cohesion in northeast Nigeria.

Emergency responses in northeast Nigeria should link humanitarian efforts in the short to medium term, and development plans in the long term. These can be tied in with peacebuilding work, which can support both phases of response and allow communities to ‘flatten’ the hierarchy of needs. The search for livelihoods, safety, belonging, empathy and self-actualisation can therefore occur at once.

This is especially important given the complexity of the conflict – one that spills over neighbouring borders of Cameroon, Chad and Niger, making it extremely difficult to ‘wait’ for one level of needs to be met before others can be addressed.

This can become more entrenched by including peacebuilding into the new 2017 Sahel Humanitarian Response Plan for Nigeria (as well as Cameroon, Chad and Niger) and United Nations Development Assistance Frameworks, which will include humanitarian aspects.

In northeast Nigeria, the delivery of essential life-saving services such as food and nutrition assistance, shelter and non-food items, water, sanitation and hygiene, and access to health requires integrated approaches, to ensure survivors of Boko Haram violence can begin to rebuild their lives.

Photo: A community dialogue workshop run by International Alert and Herwa in northeast Nigeria. © Fati Abubakar/International Alert

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