By Nantim M Joseph
The recent controversial death of militant leader Terwase Akwaza, popularly known as Gana, in Benue State has highlighted, once again, the precarious security situation in North Central Nigeria and many other parts of the country. According to some reports, Akwaza who was both feared and revered in the state was allegedly executed in an operation by the military, an allegation which is yet to be refuted. Whatever the facts may be, the incident is likely to leave negative ripples behind, long after the headlines have disappeared.
Like other similar events, the ordinary people in Benue and neighboring communities whose lives have been upended over the past five years by bloody conflicts between herders and farmers will bear the brunt of any escalation of instability and violence as a consequence of the death of Akwaza. For them, the news does not end with the news bulletin. It continues. That is the harsh reality of their lives. Stripped to its essence, Akwaza’s demise is a metaphor for the other disruptive incidents which have often escalated into crises that left a trail of death, loss and displacement: intercommunal violence, bloody battles between herdsmen and farming communities, cult wars and similar conflicts.
It is also the reality of the grim context in which Mercy Corps, an international development and humanitarian aid organization operates in. Mercy Corps has been operating quietly but impactfully in Nigeria’s North Central, North East, North West and other challenging environments of the country since 2012. The focus of the organization is to help affected communities recover from crisis and rebuild while addressing root causes of conflict, insecurity and inequality. It is a rigorous strategy anchored on some core pillars: (a) Meeting urgent needs (b) Addressing root causes of conflict (c) Supporting entrepreneurship and market development (d) Empowering youth and (e) Strengthening accountability and governance.
Within the period (2012 – date), the organization and its partners have worked hard in marginalized communities and other highly challenging environments to deliver “urgent, lifesaving assistance and build the resilience of communities”. Last year (2019) alone, Mercy Corps was able to reach and impact the lives of almost a million people in such communities across the country. The organization which was originally founded in 1979 to assist victims of genocide perpetrated by the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia has earned a reputation for the passion and professionalism with which it serves people impacted by humanitarian crisis in over 40 countries.
Two weeks ago, the recently appointed Mercy Corps Country Director Ndubisi Anyanwu, accompanied by other top officials went on an inspection visit to Benue to assess the status of the organization’s humanitarian projects in the state as well as engage with political and community leaders who play a critical role in conflict resolution, peace making and the implementation of post conflict initiatives to build and strengthen the socio-economic muscles of affected communities.
A month before the Benue trip, Anyanwu and his team had paid a similar assessment visit to Maiduguri in the North East, the epicenter of Boko Haram activities which has also witnessed extreme violence and its horrendous consequences. The situation in the North East is exacerbated by poverty rates which are higher than in other parts of the country – over 75% of the population lives below the poverty line compared to 50% for the rest of the country. The insurgency according to the United Nations Refugee agency (UNHCR) has displaced nearly 2.4m people in the Lake Chad Basin.
Top on the agenda for the Benue visit was to get an update on one of Mercy Corps’s key initiatives in the zone: the Community Initiatives to Promote Peace (CIPP) project. This five-year programme is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by Mercy Corps in partnership with four local partners; the Pastoral Resolve (PARE), Interfaith Mediation Center (IMC), Savanna Center for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development (SCDDD) and Africa Radio and Drama Association (ARDA).
Before CIPP, Mercy Corps implemented the Engaging Communities for Peace in Nigeria (ECPN), which focused on reducing and preventing violence between farmers and pastoralists in Benue and Nasarawa states by peacefully resolving farmer-pastoralist conflicts. Implementation sites of the programme in Benue State include Torkula Community, Anyiin Community, Zongo/Daudu Community, Sabon Gida, Agan Community, Agatu, Mbaku and Adaka. In pursuit of this objective, Mercy Corps and its partners brought the herders and farmers together for several de-escalation, peace building and capacity building exercises including interest based negotiation (IBN) and mediation training for farmers and pastoralists and implementation of peace dividend/quick impact projects. More important, ECPN, the predecessor of CIPP achieved significant and measurable results within its target communities including:
- Resolution of 1, 932 disputes by participants trained in dispute resolution in the affected Benue and Nasarawa communities
- Engagement of 1,440 local women who played substantive roles in the peace-building processes in Benue and Nasarawa States
- Improvement in social cohesion across conflict group lines within conflict-prone communities within the state by by 29% in Benue and Nasarawa States, as reported by respondents surveyed
- Engagement of 14,827 participants in peace events, trainings and other activities designed to build mass support for peace and reconciliation
- Execution of six peace dividend/quick impact projects in Zongo, Anyiin, Torkula, Sabon Gida, Agan and Mbaku which includes the construction of water projects, rehabilitation of primary health care centers and renovation of public facilities such as toilets and market stalls have been executed.
It was not all rosy, of course. There were setbacks within the period. For instance, some interventions in the two states were delayed as a result of heightened insecurity between the end of 2017 and the first half of 2018 which led to loss of lives, destruction of property and mass displacement.
Still, it is a story of overall success achieved in difficult circumstances. During the visit to Benue state, Mercy Corps Country Director and CIPP team held extensive discussions with key players in the state’s political and civil society ecosystem. The interactive session with the recently elected 23 Local Government Chairmen with key Commissioners and other top officials in attendance was particularly fruitful. It highlighted specific conflict concerns and dynamics such as cross border conflicts between Ukum LGA and Taraba State; cross border conflicts between Kwande LGA and Cross River State, influx of IDPS into Kwande LGA, recent incidents of farmer-herder clashes, cross border conflicts with Nassarawa State in Gwer West LGA and cases of violent extremism/youth cultism in Gboko LGA. The meeting also underscored the value of Mercy Corps interventions in the state as a timely panacea in the circumstances.
A key outcome of the session was a resolution to strengthen the capacity of Local Government Chairmen in mitigating conflict, conducting community sensitization/policy dialogues on the Benue Anti-Grazing Law and providing training on Interest Based Negotiation, Mediation, Conflict Sensitivity and Do No Harm Training. Also to be prioritized are the strengthening of Conflict Early Warning Early Response (CEWER) systems and establishment of platforms for peace building with women and youth groups.
Top government officials, traditional leaders, community representatives and other key stakeholders engaged during the visit were very pleased with the level of success achieved in the implementation of Mercy Corps projects in the state.
A major highlight of the visit was a meeting at the Government House with the state’s Deputy Governor, Engineer Benson Abounu, who represented Governor Samuel Ortom. In response to the briefing by the Mercy Corps team on the status of current and planned initiatives, Deputy Governor Abounu while expressing his delight with the visit, confirmed his knowledge of the track record of Mercy Corps in Benue state and assured the team of the support of the state government. In his words: “I am impressed with Mercy Corps approach to resolving conflict, it is unique”.
Front line traditional leader, His Majesty, the Tor Tiv, Professor Ortese Iorzua James Ayatse spoke in like manner when Anyanwu led the Mercy Corps Team on a courtesy visit to his palace. The Country Director thanked the traditional leader for his support for Mercy Corps work and emphasized the central role of traditional leaders in peace building and conflict management.
The Tor Tiv who is also the chairman of the state Council of traditional leaders stated: “I feel like this project was designed just for us in Benue. It captures all the issues we are facing from farmer herder conflict, capacity building, youth issues, women inclusion and the role of traditional leaders in addressing conflict. Be assured of my support anytime anywhere”.
*Joseph is a policy analyst and commentator.