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Words not weapons: Peace mediation in Nigeria Nigeria

25.11.2016 - Article

The Federal Foreign Office is supporting peaceful reconciliation between hostile ethnic groups. A member of the Embassy staff is present when enemies come to the table together for the first time.

Bloody conflicts have been ongoing between various ethnic groups in central Nigeria for decades. It’s all about land, co-determination rights and religion. The Federal Foreign Office is supporting non-governmental organisations (NGOs) hoping to mediate a peaceful reconciliation between the groups. A member of the German Embassy staff is present when the enemy groups come to the table together for the first time.

The representatives of the different communities air their grievances in the plenary
The representatives of the different communities air their grievances in the plenary

It’s hot and sticky in Shendam town hall: the temperature is almost 40°C. The roads are covered in dust and full of potholes. Representatives of fifteen different ethnic groups have travelled by motorbike or bus or walked for hours to gather here. Each of them has been given an important mandate: to represent their community in the mediation talks in which the groups want to settle their conflicts. The mediation session has been organised by the NGO Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue with support from the German Embassy in Abuja.

Christian farmers versus Muslim cattle herders

A representative of the German Embassy is present at the mediation talks
A representative of the German Embassy is present at the mediation talks

Shendam lies in the south of Plateau, a state in central Nigeria. Bloody conflicts have been waged between various ethnic groups in this region for decades. The confrontation between Muslim cattle herders and Christian farmers has been going on for a particularly long time. Because of the worsening drought and the threat of the Boko Haram terrorist group, the herders, traditionally nomads from northern Nigeria, are moving further and further south, where their livestock often destroys the local farmers’ crops. The confrontation over the land, the source of both groups’ livelihood, often ends in brutal clashes.

The vicious circle of violence and revenge attacks has hardened the lines. “They’re trying to take away our land and Islamicise us,” say the farmers. “We nomads aren’t recognised as citizens anywhere and have no rights,” counter the herders. Deep mistrust separates the two groups. But there is also conflict between the various farming communities. The oldest group claims to be the only one that is really “local”. As “incomers”, other communities feel marginalised, because they have no political rights.

Federal Foreign Office supports mediation

Negotiations during the peace mediation
Negotiations during the peace mediation© AA

To make reconciliation possible, the Federal Foreign Office is supporting the mediation run by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. As part of a structured process, all the communities are coming together in the regional capitals to voice their standpoints and demands. With the NGO acting as a mediator, the participants themselves are to arrive at compromise solutions that can be accepted by their own communities.

The atmosphere is tense: a displaced chair is enough to get two community representatives into a heated argument. Most of the community representatives are very personally involved in the disputes, some of which have been going on for decades. Many have lost relatives in the fighting. It took weeks of persuasion for the NGO to convince the communities even to get together around the table.

Emotional negotiations

In the course of the lengthy, often emotional, talks, solutions suddenly seem within reach. “We’re tired of fighting. We’ve lost so many people. We need to agree peace at last.” These arguments can be heard on all sides. Finally the negotiations bear fruit: one community withdraws its claim to a particular settlement and recognises another as its historical first occupant. Elsewhere, the representatives of a herding community and a local farming community shake hands and pledge to work together from now on to find solutions.

The negotiations are helped along by two participants who reconciled in a previous round of mediation. Given their dramatic background, this seemed virtually impossible: one had been forced to look on as his brothers and sisters were murdered before his very eyes. Today the two work closely together and are proof that, even if sometimes it seems an impossibility, conflicts can be overcome.

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