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Peace-building lessons from the heart of Nigeria

December 30, 2023
topic:Peace and Reconciliation
tags:#Nigeria, #conflict resolution, #peacebuilding
by:Uchenna Igwe
Violence between Muslim Fulani herders and predominantly Christian farming communities has become commonplace in Plateau and other states across Nigeria’s North-Central region.

It was a quiet night in Jebbu Miango, a farming community in Plateau state dubbed 'Nigeria's home of peace.' Families sat outside, chatting in the comfort of the cool breeze.

Rebecca Bitrus and her family had just finished dinner and were about to retire for the night when cracks of gunfire erupted and screams of horror filled the air.

Hundreds of residents like Bitrus fled their homes that night in late July 2021, as armed herders attacked their communities.

"It started with two, three gunshots, then many more came after," she recalled. Her husband, Bulus Bitrus, hurried her and their seven children safely into a bush, but got unlucky as he was caught by the attackers, who shot him on the spot.

Scores of buildings, farmlands, including an orphanage that provided for over 150 kids, were razed in the carnage which residents say lasted a week. Fortunately, the custodians of the orphanage had evacuated the kids before the herders struck.

Over 70 people were reportedly killed during the attack and many more injured, but local residents claim the true death toll was higher. Survivors like Bitrus, who was six months pregnant at the time, were forced to seek refuge with friends and relatives in the neighbouring Kwall, Barkin Ladi comunities, and even as far north as to Jos, the region's capital.

Violence between Muslim Fulani herders and predominantly Christian farming communities has become commonplace in Plateau and other states across Nigeria’s North-Central region since the early 2000s.

Raging insurgency, drought and other effects of climate change in the North have forced herders to migrate southwards in search of water and pasture. This has often led to encroachment on farmlands and the destruction of crops by cattle, which often lead to into violent clashes between farmers and herders.

Such clashes have so far claimed at least 8,000 lives and displaced of over 300,000 people in the region, according to figures from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED) and Global Rights. The pro-herder group Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN) claimed that Fulani herders, including women and children, account for about 1,000 of those fatalities and saw roughly two million of their cattle stolen.

For months, the Jebbu Miango farming community remained abandoned, its residents dispersed throughout the state. Many lived in a state of refuge, barely getting by on assistance from relatives and friends.

After their home was destroyed in the inferno, 47-year-old Audu Tureh found himself separated from his wife and eight children. While he stayed temporarily at his brother's home in Jos, the rest of his family, led by his eldest son Moses, sought refuge in Kwall, his wife's community, located approximately 21 kilometres from Jebbu Miango.

"It was a very difficult period for us," Tureh told FairPlanet. "I was not at peace where I was living like a single man again. I kept worrying about my family. I could not wait to get back home to them."

For Bitrus, taking care of the children alone without her husband proved to be challenging. "We really suffered during that period. My children could not go to school anymore. It was even difficult for us to feed," she said, clutching her son Joseph, who was born during their displacement.

Rebuilding Jebbu Miango

In November 2021, some members of the community began to return to Jebbu Miango. Among them was Kangyang Gana, a missionary and social worker whose family had survived the attacks by whiskers. Her husband, Gana, hid behind a brick wall and narrowly escaped the Fulani herdsmen's bullets. The family later fled to Jos.

Witnessing the extent of devastation in their community upon their return, the Ganas and their team of volunteers joined forces to establish the Claire Aid Foundation. This initiative is dedicated to rebuilding some of the destroyed houses and assisting affected families in resettling. They also distributed relief materials and food items to the families.

Before their displacement, Mrs. Gana ran Jebbu Miango Reads, a project that organised literacy classes for children in the community, many of whom could barely read or write.

"When this [attack] happened, our reading programme was just growing. In fact it was the week that we finished roofing," she told FairPlanet. "We found that most of the children's houses were either burnt or vandalised, and, of course, they moved out."

"We felt that we couldn't just fold our arms, and that we should help the families," she added. "So we decided to use social media to solicit for relief materials, clothes, and thankfully people donated. Some organisations also supported us and we were able to distribute food items and other relief materials."

Crowdfunding on social media, they raised about USD 7,000 with which they rebuilt some of the affected houses. Rebecca Bitrus’ house was one of those.

"We heard her story and how she lost her husband. It was devastating what had happened to her. We knew we had to help," Nenkinan Deshi, who coordinates the rebuilding project, told FairPlanet. 

The group repaired Bitrus’ house, replacing the ceiling and roofing sheets, and shortly thereafter it was ready for the family to move into.

"We had no money to repair the house, and did not have anywhere else to go," Bitrus said in an emotional voice, pausing to wipe away tears. "I don't know where I would have started from to do this on my own."

With support and donations from well-meaning individuals and groups, Mrs. Gana and her team have helped rebuild over 26 houses, resettling and reuniting over 60 previously displaced families.

Today, across Jebbu Miango, many houses are adorned with new roofing sheets, with a significant number provided through Mrs. Gana's Jebbu Rebuilds project.

"When I heard some people were returning, I had to come back home and see how we could rebuild our house," Moses Tureh, 28, said. "Fortunately for us, this team assisted us restore our home." Soon after, his father Audu and the rest of the family returned home.

But despite the successes recorded, Mrs. Gana said that efforts to rebuild and resettle the community are far from complete, as resources, especially finances, are limited. 

"Even till now, many residents have not returned as many of the houses are yet to be fixed," she said. "Most of the houses we have been able to rebuild or re-roof are small houses having one, two rooms. We are not able to work on bigger houses, due to limited funding."

She added that in some cases, people need more than just the repair of their homes. "We wish that we could help people set up their houses and also help them restart life, with a business or something to keep them going."

Peacebuilding efforts

Mrs. Gana believes that there is more work to be done to find a lasting solution to the clashes and killings. She and her team have therefore been actively involved in peace-building efforts, striving to achieve enduring peace in the communities.

"The conflicts here have persisted over the years, so there is a lot to be done beyond just fixing buildings," she shared. "We need to engage people on both sides to bring peace. I think that is the most crucial aspect of the resettlement."

"We need to put things in place to be sure that these things don't happen again, else we may have to rebuild all over again."

As part of the peace-building efforts, at the end of the year, she leads her team in an outreach to Fulani herders' settlements around the communities for dialogues and the distribution of gift items.

"We have an outreach here in December called Claire Christmas, during which we go out to spread love in the communities especially with children. We visit the settlements too. Last year we gave out food and other gift items and also spent time discussing with them."

Effective, but largely constrained

Responses like Claire Aid are filling the gap and offering hope to victims of such crises, said Jesse Attah, a risk operations and intelligence chief at Beacon Consulting, an Abuja-based security and intelligence consultancy.

However, he said, the lack of direct impact on the root causes fueling the conflicts jeopardise the effectiveness of the intervention.

"Claire Aid Foundation’s approach toward offering aid and human capability building via education is critical for impacting positivity in such a security-strained environment," Attah told FairPlanet. "Yet, its effectiveness is constrained because of the lack of direct impact in solving root causes such as ethnic and religious tensions which fuel these conflicts."

He added that the over-dependence on crowdfunding also poses the risk of establishing an "inconsistent and unreliable" funding channel for such humanitarian interventions. 

He further stressed the necessity for a more robust and inclusive peace-building intervention to address the root causes of the conflict and respond to evolving needs and emergencies.

"Plateau’s active and latent threat landscape calls for a comprehensive peace-building approach encompassing both traditional and modern conflict resolution techniques by both private and public sectors," he said.

"This isn't always without inclusivity, which means carrying along all affected parties [presumed victims and perpetrators] in conflict-resolution awareness programmes to cope with underlying grievances, as a proactive step in preventing further acts of violence."

While some families have returned, an air of fear and apprehension still lingers throughout the community. Monica Sunday, 30, is uncertain when the Fulani herders would launch another attack on the community.

"They have been attacking other places. Only God knows when they will remember us again," she said.

Across the community, numerous houses remain deserted, and their inhabitants may never return, such as the orphanage that Mr. Deshi mentioned, which has relocated to Jos.

Image by Ovinuchi Ejiohuo.

Article written by:
Uchenna Igwe
Uchenna Igwe
Embed from Getty Images
Hundreds of Jebbu Miango residents, like Mrs. Bitrus, fled their homes that night in late July 2021 as armed herders attacked their communities.
Embed from Getty Images
Violence between Muslim Fulani herders and predominantly Christian farming communities has become commonplace in Plateau and other states across Nigeria’s North-Central region.
Embed from Getty Images
With support and donations from well-meaning individuals and groups, Mrs. Gana and her team have helped rebuild over 26 houses at various levels, resettling and reuniting over 60 previously displaced families.