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Non-Violence in Communal War in Central Nigeria

By James Courtright, Staff Writer for RightsViews

On January 30th Dr. Jana Krause came to speak with students and faculty at Columbia’s School for International and Public Affairs about her new book, “Resilient Communities: Non-Violence and Civilian Agency in Communal War.” Her work centers on communal conflict – non-state armed conflict between identity groups – in Plateau state in Nigeria and Maluku province in Indonesia. In both places the violence tended to be simplistically referred to as Christian against Muslim, but upon further investigation she found it was deeply rooted in local political and economic dynamics and narratives. After explaining how communal violence was organized, she then delved into neighborhoods in Nigeria and Indonesia where violence did not occur, analyzing how the choices of civilians and their collective efforts to prevent fighting saved the lives of hundreds of people.

Conflict in Jos

When she first visited Jos, Nigeria in 2010, Dr. Krause had to pass through multiple checkpoints along the road from the capital Abuja before entering a city where half-destroyed houses lined the streets and every major traffic junction was accompanied by a heavy military presence. As she started comparing her interviews with journalistic accounts, data sets, and human rights reports she realized that conflict in the city of Jos and rural Plateau State claimed more than 7,000 lives between 2001 and 2010. This violence, she concluded, was not sporadic clashes – it was war.

Dr. Jana Krause. Photo from her website.

Dr. Krause builds on the work of political scientist Stathis Kalyvas, whose work has advanced the idea that what civilians do in conflict matters. Unlike the journalistic shorthand of “neighbors killing neighbors,” she explained, violence is usually perpetrated by militias formed in surrounding neighborhoods. These militias would mobilize after hearing rumors that their perceived enemies were arming themselves, and then travel to where they believed clashes were occurring or where they had planned to attack. When they arrived in other communities, some residents there would collaborate with militias to identify “the enemy” based on their identity or hyper local grievances. Thus, communal violence results from rumor, threat assessment, mobilization and information sharing, grievances linked to previous violence, and local conflicts.

After delving into these dynamics, she began asking if residents knew an area that was vulnerable and religiously and socio-economically mixed, but where violence did not occur. She was pointed to Dadin Kowa, a community that sits in the southern suburbs of Jos. As she spent more time with residents of Dadin Kowa, she came to better understand how they managed to maintain an uneasy and tense peace while thousands of people were being killed or forced to flee their homes in surrounding neighborhoods.

How to avoid or forestall violence?

While many community leaders across Jos strove to avoid violence during this painful decade, Dadin Kowa’s leaders were arguably the most successful. One of the main reasons for this, Dr. Krause argued, was that both Christian and Muslim community leaders and everyday residents painstakingly created a broader identity as ‘being a resident of Dadin Kowa’, overcoming the fractious Berom Christian and Muslim Jasawa political agendas. From early on there was a tacit agreement, and later a more formal one, between religious leaders that they would preach to their respective congregations to avoid violence. People were still politically polarized, but when it came to violence, leaders constantly stressed a deeper fealty to their shared humanity and their neighborhood of Dadin Kowa.

Women’s groups also played a key role. At one point, tensions at the market became so serious that women began to travel out of the neighborhood to buy their vegetables and staples from their own religious group, dividing the community further. As tension at the market became a serious hindrance in their lives, women across the religious divide began meeting and sharing their stories, fears, and aspirations. As Dr. Krause writes in her book these meetings “fostered determination that their neighborhood would not be devastated by clashes.”

However, creating a unifying identity was not enough in and of itself. Dr Krause pointed out how civilians consolidated social control of the neighborhood. Women’s groups and other informants would pass information about suspicious activities or rumors to community leaders, who at times used open threats and even violence against people in the community to maintain order.

Young men in the community were told that under no circumstances were they allowed to go and fight with groups outside the community, and at the first sign of trouble they should return home. A clear communications network was built by community leaders so whenever trouble appeared on the horizon leaders on both sides of the religious divide could call and coordinate their actions to calm tensions. Mixed youth patrol groups were even created to guard the neighborhood and coordinate with the military and police.

In addition to dense networks built within Dadin Kowa, to deter attacks leaders in the community engaged in extensive negotiations and coordination with leaders in neighboring communities as well as the police and military. They even paid thinly veiled bribes to facilitate good relations and regular police patrols. For example, some of the women’s groups cooked lunch for the soldiers in order to maintain good relations. Both Christian and Muslim community leaders from Dadin Kowa went to mosques and churches in neighboring suburbs of Jos and publicly presented their agreement not to fight in Dadin Kowa.

In at least one case violence was averted by the actions of a single individual. In January 2010 when two external Christian militias threatened Dadin Kowa a community leader identified as Timothy in Dr. Krause’s book went out and single handedly negotiated with the militias, telling them that they would not be allowed into the neighborhood and no one would collaborate with them. He slowed their advance until they could hear the gunshots of the military nearby, and the militia turned around without harming anyone in Dadin Kowa. Timothy had lived through the Nigerian civil war in the 1960s and understood the dynamics of how violence happened and how and when to intervene.

In some cases, peace was only maintained with the credible threat of violence. One of Dr.  Krause’s interviewees, a Christian resident of a nearby neighborhood identified as Abraham, revealed that not only was the agreement not to fight in Dadin Kowa well known outside the neighborhood, it was also understood that the agreement would be enforced with violence. “If the boys from outside want to overcome them, then the Dadin Kowa boys will fight them,” Dr. Krause quotes Abraham saying in her book. “If you go there to fight, they will kill you. That’s the agreement.”

However, Dr. Krause stressed that Dadin Kowa was not an oasis of harmony during these episodes of violence. The community was tense as people fleeing violence sought refuge and leaders struggled to exert control over rebellious youth. Tensions within women’s groups over rumors and unfair burdens of labor also created problems. In some cases, as in the January 2010 episode mentioned previously, people in Dadin Kowa agreed it was the fateful intervention of a single person which averted catastrophe.

What can Dadin Kowa teach the world?

After her presentation Dr. Krause was asked about the implications of her work for practitioners. She responded by saying that we need to complicate the “islands of peace” idea that non-violence is isolated from outside forces. Instead, she pointed out, Dadin Kowa was deeply enmeshed in the conflict environment and political dynamics. The leaders of Dadin Kowa who were most effective at averting violence were those who understood exactly how the violence was organized because they had seen it before. Before foreign organizations rush in to “sensitize” people about conflict dynamics, she continued, it is important to recognize that foreigners arriving and starting programs has its own political and economic implications for the community and its neighbors.

While her findings from Nigeria and Indonesia shared some basic similarities, Dr. Krause stressed that knowledge of local contexts should be foremost in the minds of outsiders seeking to work on these issues. She concluded her talk by pointing out that in both Dadin Kowa and Indonesia non-violence is less connected to pacifist attitudes but a desire to survive and partly results from direct threats of violence and coercion against those most likely to engage in killings. Acknowledging this uncomfortable reality is essential in designing local and international peace building efforts.