Peacebuilding and social cohesion in humanitarian response in Nigeria

[Individual articles from the Fall 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

MCC Nigeria and its partners, the Emergency Preparedness and Response Teams (EPRT) and the Ekklesiya Yan’uwa A Nijeriya (EYN, or the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria), have found that integrating conflict sensitivity into humanitarian assistance initiatives is critical for the success of these projects and for promoting social cohesion within societies torn apart by violent conflict. Conducting a careful conflict analysis during the project design phase and then building on local capacities for peace during project implementation help the project avoid exacerbating tensions within the pluralistic Nigerian context in which intercommunal relationships have deteriorated and in which suspicion between groups allows mutual mistrust and even hatred and enmity to flourish, leading to violence.

In the last two decades, violent conflicts in and around Jos, Nigeria (where MCC Nigeria’s office is located), have increased, resulting in devastating losses of life and destruction of property. These conflicts primarily stem from battles for control of and access to resources, even as different identities (such as religious and ethnic identities) are mobilized to enflame these conflicts. Nearly two decades ago, MCC worked with Nigerian leaders in the Jos area to establish an organization, EPRT, committed to nonviolent conflict prevention. A network of Nigerian Muslim and Christian leaders in and around Jos, EPRT undertakes proactive action to mitigate conflicts amongst peoples of differing faiths and ethnic groups. EPRT also carries out humanitarian assistance in Jos’s religiously and ethnically mixed context. In carrying out these emergency humanitarian initiatives, EPRT has achieved success by incorporating numerous conflict sensitivity practices into its humanitarian initiatives, such as: interfaith and inter-agency collaboration, which creates a conducive environment for program delivery and which minimizes suspicion across religious lines; inclusion of women as part of emergency response teams, thus helping to ensure that women in affected communities speak into project design and that the needs of women and children are thus considered at all stages of the project cycle; and using community-based volunteers who represent different faiths. These strategies have decisively contributed to the success of EPRT’s work. 

In developing interventions in complex crisis situations, humanitarian actors must consider dividers (actions we want to stop or attitudes we want to change) and connectors (actions and attitudes we want to encourage). Humanitarian interventions in a conflictual context become part of that context, making it essential for humanitarian organizations to commit to a Do No Harm approach in their distribution of relief aid. In planning its humanitarian interventions, EPRT first analyzes dividers that drive intercommunal conflict and potential connectors that can help mitigate such conflict and then integrates that analysis in the design of its humanitarian responses so that they do not heighten interreligious or intergroup tension but rather create room for peaceful coexistence.

Humanitarian actors may have worthy goals and seek to meet basic human needs, but if they do not incorporate conflict sensitivity into project planning and implementation, serious harms can materialize for project participants.

EPRT collaborates with 11 Nigerian organizations, with a balance of Christian and Muslim organizations and of organizations led by women and men. This diverse network of program partnerships strengthens EPRT’s efforts to reduce violent emergencies in Nigeria’s Plateau State where Jos is located. EPRT’s activities include the establishment of peace clubs in schools, leading Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops, conducting needs assessments and environmental impact assessments, distributing humanitarian relief and maintaining an early warning system that mobilizes Nigerian religious leaders and peacebuilders to proactively respond early on in preventing intercommunal tensions from turning violent.

A recent relief distribution carried out by EPRT with MCC support in four informal camps for displaced Nigerians as well as in the surrounding host communities of Rawuru, Kworos, Barkin-Ladi and Kassa used participatory approaches during the design process, so that beneficiaries were involved in all aspects of the response. Beneficiaries actively joined in identifying family and community strengths and capacities, prioritizing household and community needs, securing logistical and planning support, implementing project activities (with implementation carried out by gender-balanced, interfaith teams) and monitoring the distribution of relief items. EPRT invests time and efforts to secure the support of various religious and community leaders, given the fact that these critical stakeholders have tremendous social power and capital that can be used to help or hinder humanitarian responses. By involving beneficiaries and local leaders in project design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, EPRT enhances local ownership and acceptance of the project. This local ownership also means that EPRT receives timely and candid feedback from beneficiaries and local leaders about the strengths and weaknesses of its humanitarian responses. EPRT’s humanitarian interventions not only meet the needs of displaced persons and vulnerable members of host communities, but also seek to strengthen interreligious tolerance and build common ground by creating shared safe spaces for relationship-building across ethno-religious lines. Although the violent crises that had erupted in the Jos area were perceived by Nigerian Christians as being driven by Muslims, EPRT based its relief distributions on need, not on religion, creed or social status, recognizing that impartial aid distributions have the potential to build social cohesion in a context in which some actors seek to create and widen divisions along religious lines.

An experience of an attempted relief distribution in Gurku camp by a Muslim organization offers a second example of the importance of a conflict sensitivity approach in planning the distribution of relief items in an interfaith context. This Muslim group had planned to distribute relief assistance only to Muslims during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan within a formal camp setting that included Muslims and Christians. Given that the households in the camp were from different faith groups, the Muslim camp officials refused the relief items, insisting that until all IDPs in the camp benefited regardless of religious affiliation, the distribution could not take place. Camp leaders had participated in workshops organized by EYN on the Healing and Rebuilding our Communities (HROC) approach from Rwanda, which had emphasized the importance of considering conflict drivers and connectors when developing humanitarian responses and thus prepared community leaders to ask critical questions about humanitarian initiatives like this one proposed by a Muslim organization that would have had negative consequences in fracturing social cohesion.

Humanitarian actors may have worthy goals and seek to meet basic human needs, but if they do not incorporate conflict sensitivity into project planning and implementation, serious harms can materialize for project participants. Care must be taken to ensure that cultural norms and religious doctrines do not disrupt the distribution of humanitarian assistance and that the project does not create more conflict by ignoring cultural norms.

Issa Chung, a local Emergency Preparedness and Response Team (EPRT) member in the Bukuru community of Jos, Nigeria, presents at a meeting in March 2018. Local EPRT teams, a collaboration between MCC and JDPC (Justice Development and Peace CARITAS) seek to build and promote sustainable peace, resulting in the reduction of election violence, community conflict and emergencies/crises in Plateau State creating a culture of harmony and acceptance among secondary school age children throughout Plateau State. (MCC Photo/ Allan Reesor-McDowell)

For decades, MCC in Nigeria has worked alongside partners like EPRT and EYN to meet basic human needs, address injustices and rebuild communities that were previously segregated along religious lines. Through these efforts, MCC and its partners have discovered that integrating conflict sensitivity and peacebuilding into the heart of every project, promoting social cohesion across differences and building interreligious capacities for peace are essential for the success of humanitarian interventions.

Hyeladzira Balami is administrative and finance assistant for MCC Nigeria.

The Do No Harm Project. The “Do No Harm” Framework for Analyzing the Impact of Assistance on Conflict: A Handbook. Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, 2004. Available at