Lessons From Nigeria for Peace Building in the United States

No divides are unbridgeable—but you have to know where to start.

A protester gestures while holding placard that says “Never Give Up” as another holds up a scarf with the colors of the Nigerian national flag during a demonstration to protest against police brutality in Magboro, Nigeria, on Oct. 20, 2020.
A protester gestures while holding placard that says “Never Give Up” as another holds up a scarf with the colors of the Nigerian national flag during a demonstration to protest against police brutality in Magboro, Nigeria, on Oct. 20, 2020. Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

I grew up in the Nigerian city of Jos, which is a complex place in an already complex country. Nigeria has around 200 million people spread across 250 ethnic groups and speaking over 500 languages. Generally, Christians are the majority in the south, while Muslims are the majority in the north. Jos sits in the middle of this split, in a farming region known as the Middle Belt.

In the past two decades, the city has seen waves of religious violence: hundreds killed in 2001, 2008, and 2010. Each time, communities on both sides mourned their dead and rebuilt their towns, but the scars never truly healed.

The situation isn’t unique to Jos, of course. Around the world, many people live in societies split by politics, race, religion, or something else. In the United States, tense election cycles have exposed divisions that seem too wide to bridge. Indeed, it may well seem impossible for anyone—from politicians to activists—to make progress when polarization is so intense. But it is possible, and Jos’s experience shows how.

I am the youth coordinator of the Jos Stakeholders Centre for Peace, a network of 39 organizations seeking to build a stronger city—not only to prevent violence but also to reduce poverty, promote justice, and improve health care. Peace rests on all doing work on all of these overlapping issues, and the approach we follow is called the Common Ground Approach, developed by the Search for Common Ground, the largest organization specifically dedicated to peace building.

Tested across 40 years and five continents on some of the world’s toughest violent conflicts, the Common Ground Approach starts with something that many people take for granted: locally led analysis. Before any action, there must be understanding, and the only way to understand is to speak with people living with the core issues every day. This is easier said than done.

For example, crime is a major topic of debate in Jos. When a young person commits a crime, all youth get stigmatized as aggressive, angry predators. The sole solution seems to be strong policing. However, actually talking to young people reveals something else: an epidemic of loneliness, anxiety, and fear. Jos Stakeholders started the Psychosocial Working Group to address these issues; only local analysis could have led to this point.

Further, when COVID-19 arrived in Jos, the government faced steep challenges in mounting a response. After decades of violence, communities simply did not trust many politicians. And health officials could not reach the thousands of people living in Jos’s informal communities without better cooperation and data.

But nongovernmental organizations, especially those whose workers live in the communities they serve, have more built-in trust. People like those workers could go from neighborhood to neighborhood, asking residents how they felt about the disease and public health response. They could use those insights to communicate about COVID-19 in a way that overcame fears. That life-saving information could be spread in particular to the communities—often marginalized and suspicious of the government—most vulnerable to the disease.

The second step is to use the information gathered in the first step to identify the core grievances underlying the conflict. That seems obvious, but real grievances are rarely the same as spoken demand.

In October 2020, the #EndSARS movement erupted in Nigeria after an online video showed an officer of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) shooting a young man. Millions of Nigerians took to the streets, and the hashtag seemed to capture their exact demand: an end to SARS. But it was a mistake to stop at the hashtag; actual needs ran deeper.

In Nigeria, roughly 60 percent of the population is under the age of 24. Young people in Jos report feeling left out, sensing that the government passes over them when making decisions. They have a lot to say but rarely get the chance to say it. Meanwhile, according to government statistics, as of late 2019, 40 percent of Nigerians live in poverty. Over 10 percent may be undernourished, not getting the bare minimum of food for physical health. Those problems contributed to #EndSARS, too; the marches were about confronting the political, economic, and social injustice that led to this point.

The third step of the Common Ground Approach is to address real grievances by building across divides. In my city, religious violence has left a legacy of pain, anger, and distrust. Elections in Jos can set off those tensions; devastating violence in 2001 and 2008 came right after political turnovers. With every election, residents held their breath, fearing another destructive outbreak. Common ground seemed impossible to find with tensions so high.

Yet there are shared interests. No matter which candidate they support, Jos’s residents want to live in a peaceful neighborhood where they can walk freely, visit the market, and even cast a vote without the risk of danger. They want their children to feel safe. Finding common ground is hard but transformational. One morning, you are avoiding an unfriendly neighborhood, terrified that your clothes will give away your religion and make you a target of violence. The next, you are sitting outside at a table with your perceived enemy because both of you care about addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jos Stakeholders has forged alliances between Christians and Muslims to secure the core interests of both. For example, we have created an interfaith election group to monitor signs of political violence before a vote. Whenever violence menaces, the group can meet to spot troubling trends and return to their communities with peaceful messages.

Such relationships have a subtle but lasting effect: They open lines of communication, which make Jos more resilient when crises arise. This kind of collaboration is not weak-willed or halfway. It is radical, getting to the roots of violence, and it works. Like anything else worth having, peace does not come easy, as societies don’t heal easily or overnight. That is why consistency is key: Mediation must take place when times are calm, not just when violence erupts.

The beauty of this approach to community reconciliation is that core principles—local analysis, root causes, and collaboration—can work in many places. In the United States, the storming of the Capitol left many believing that the country is broken beyond repair and inevitably sliding toward a phase of increased violence. Yet even though conflict and differences are inevitable, violence is not. By understanding the core grievances and building a solution together, trust can be built.

If I’ve learned anything from my vantage point in Jos, it is that the key to a better future is creating it together—not just with the people in your corner, but with your enemies as well. Collaboration will ensure survival.

Jacob Choji Pwakim is the youth coordinator of the Jos Stakeholders Centre for Peace, a collaborative network focused on violence prevention in Jos, Nigeria, and a peace builder with Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest dedicated peace-building organization. He has a decade of experience in peace building, movement building, and human rights protection in Nigeria.