Doing Peacebuilding Differently: The Nonviolent Communication Approach with Youth Groups in Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria

SINCE 2001, September 7th precisely and barely 4 days before the tragic 9/11 episode, the city of Jos, the capital of Plateau State, has unfortunately had routine presence in the global news. The reoccurrence of the crisis in January 2010 changed the colour of attacks and sophistication employed by all the groups involved in the subsequent crises. The patterns of violent engagement have remained shocking.

The situation has longed moved from the use of stones, sticks and burning down of structures, Churches and Mosques to bombing and shooting with highly sophisticated weapons. We have had situations where some communities have been nearly annihilated due to night attacks. Yet, the most recent incident on September 12th 2011 was, to many residents in Jos, the height of animist extremism in the city. To say our streets are weaponized is to say the least. I thought I had seen the last of man’s inhumanity to man in Rwanda. Little did I know that I was only being prepared to have absorptive capacity to deal with the unforeseen shock in my country Nigeria.

The routine manner of the conflicts in Jos has attracted many local and international groups. The Nigerian government on its part thinks that the deployment of thousands of police and soldiers to the city will reduce the violence, hate and killings. Sadly, with every intervention, only little progress is achieved. It would appear the lack of a coherent and an empathetic approach to the crises by these groups is just the missing link. Specifically, the language of engagement by most groups including civil society activists has been faulty. The language we hear in public places or read on the Internet or the pages of Newspapers or other social networks about the violence in Jos has not been helpful. What Nigerians and the international community are yet to learn is that our actions have imprisoned us in Jos. The entire city is militarised to the extent that soldiers are now regular faces at Christian and Muslim prayer sessions, the markets and at weddings. People are renting soldiers to enable them go to places considered to be volatile.

Similarly, most groups including government have been elitist in their approach to the violence. Rather than engage more directly with the foot soldiers in the communities, many groups including government would instead go to hotels and hold high level meetings, speaking high sounding English words and eating meat pies without concrete transformational change in the nature of the violence or the attitude of the people. Innocent vulnerable women and children continue to die in large numbers as communities no longer trust the police or the army.

The purpose of this short piece is to share that hope is not completely lost as some groups are trying to change the conception and perception of people relating to peace building process in Jos. Youth, Adolescence Reflection and Action Centre (YARAC) is a youth focused group working with young people on a variety of issues i.e. active citizenship engagement and social cohesion; Family Life and HIV/AIDS Education, and Popular Education using a variety of participatory tools such as development theatre, community organizing, Soccer 4 Democracy and other dialogical processes. In the last eight years, YARAC has engaged with young people on democratic values and principles and peacebuilding initiatives. The experience YARAC is about to share is derived largely from the lessons of the Inter-Change initiatives.

One of the core lessons YARAC has learnt from the Inter-Change Initiative is the language of Nonviolent Communication as a key to peace initiatives. It is pedagogical because it gives opportunities to a mixed group to speak, listen and hear each other. This is what we are missing in all the interventions in the peacebuilding processes in Jos. People are listening without hearing and hearing without listening and so the hatred, ethnic and religious intolerance continue to thrive. Our activities in the communities have confirmed this fact. And yet, these vulnerable communities that do not have access to the high level meetings or conferences on peacebuilding desire to dialogue to change the concept and perception of things. They are missing one another. A Muslim man wept as he shared that “my children can’t spell English names such as Ephraim or Michael anymore because they no longer hear such names because they are not going to the same school with Christian kids”.

To illustrate this perspective, we bring the experience of collaborative work between YARAC and Dadin-Kowa Youth Community Development and Peace Initiative. Sometime in April, a Canadian Newspaper “The Globe and Mail” reported on the activities of the youth of this community. Dadin-Kowa Community is mixed population (Christians and Muslims). It is one of the few communities still standing in the Jos and Bukuru Metropolis in terms of cultural and religious mix. We focus on the youth because we statistically know that they have been visibly involved and more affected by the persistent violence. Consequently, they are the group that has become more agitated and we need them to bring down the visible walls of hatred that have redefined the geographies of Jos.

Recently, YARAC got a World Bank Small Grant (Civil Society Fund) project. Our task, though simple but very difficult, is to engage with these foot soldiers (young people) so as to learn to speak about the violent situation in Jos in a very different language. This task was made difficult because one of the Christian Youth Leaders amongst the Dadin-Kowa Youth team (Darlington Chime) became a victim of mob attacks on Bauchi Road in Jos. He was stabbed severely. Darlington is alive and back to his group. The strength of this work is built around this youth group because of the solidarity and support his Muslim counterpart gave him during his experience. Their actions informed us that another Jos is possible. We asked Darlington his thoughts after he recovered and he says “I have no doubt in my mind that the young people that attacked me are victims of the lack of good governance we all are agitating for. I was going to school, but they were idle. What do we expect from such a group? I have forgiven them and I appreciate the Muslim Woman that came to my rescue”. This statement silenced his group members particularly the Muslim members that wanted to go on a revenge mission. Danjuma Adam (Muslim), visibly bitter, says: “if only these characters know what Darlington is to us, they wouldn’t have done what they did”.

It was on the strength of these conversations that we began the training program on Nonviolent Communication as a catalysed process of seeking clarification, healing and empowerment. We are combining this with Development Theatre and Soccer 4 Democracy. After the first training process, the Dadin-Kowa Youth commenced their engagement with other youth groups in different communities. So far, the outcomes of the conversations look promising. But this has to continue and be sustained.  More activities must take place to break the barriers. It will take a while, but it is already evident that the process is making the difference. Darlington is using his experience and language of forgiveness to drive the new concept and perception of peacebuilding forward. Moving from one community to another is our InterChange way of breaking barriers. The logic is that if youth have a shared understanding and are speaking the same language, the nature of the violence in Jos will reduce. This is ongoing work. Peace cannot be achieved at hotel conference halls but with the people sharing and empathizing with and in their contexts. 

Note: The group photograph is of the group that received the first training. During the training, community elders attended to add impetus to the activity. Darlington is third from left with a yellow shirt.

Story by Tor Iorapuu, PhD, Executive Director, YARAC JOS