Rethinking Models of African Peacebuilding: Lessons from Nigeria

Rethinking Models of African Peacebuilding: Lessons from Nigeria



African societies have a rich history of endogenous conflict management—that is, of resolving conflict from within—and of using peacebuilding models that are rooted in well-grounded experiences, traditions, customs, and values and defined by the principle of community harmony and relations.1 In some sense, the vestiges of these histories are still relevant in resolving present-day conflicts. In South Africa, for example, the Ubuntu philosophy2 is the driving force behind local reconciliation, and the situation is much the same in Nigeria. 

Across Nigeria, there are different endogenous peacebuilding mechanisms that have evolved from precolonial times to date. These mechanisms, which are deeply rooted in the anthropology of Nigeria’s various cultures and societies, have utilized either the general socialization processes of adjudication, or the invocation of transcendental powers or spirits as the case may be. In fact, the cultural context for conflict management and peacebuilding is rooted in the interconnectedness of people.

Among the Hausas of Northern Nigeria, the use of sulhu (“dialogue”) is an important component of community harmony. It is handled by the elders, who act as mediators because of the wisdom and experience that is attached to their age. They are seen, regarded, and respected by all as the custodians of peace harmony within the community. The notion that abin da babba ya gani a kwanche, yaro baya gani ok ya hau kan itace (“Whatever an old person sees lying down cannot be seen by a young person even if he or she climbs a tree”) points to the centrality of the age and wisdom that are often brought to bear in managing or resolving conflicts.

In the Igbo society, the ezemuo, or “representative of the spirit,” serves as a liaison between the people and the gods of the land, known as “Nmuoi.” The ezemuo invokes the spirit of the gods to decide who is wrong and who is right; their decision is final and must be carried out by all. In the event that such a decision is violated, the gods will invoke a curse against the individual, family, group, or community concerned. In a typical Igbo society, most family and community related disputes are resolved through mediation and reconciliation rather than through litigation, largely due to the potency of the endogenous method that places high premium on relationship building.

Among communities in central Nigeria, joking relationships have historically been used as confidence–building measures with regard to relations among ethnic groups—including Buji and Anaguta, Amo and Bache, Eggon and Mada, Tiv and Fulani, and Kanuri and Fulani, among others. Members of the community are expected to behave in a particular manner within the social order, so as to build community trust and harmony.

However, the utility of joking relationships among ethnic groups in Nigeria is an issue that has been under studied. What is more, the advent of modernization has created a huge shift in the discourse on conflict management and peacebuilding in Nigeria, so that most individuals and communities have jettisoned these endogenous methods. They now rely on modern courts, where litigation takes precedence.

While the modern methods have their merits, as the case of Nigeria shows the endogenous ways of managing local conflict and building peace are organically linked to the history, tradition, and culture of the African people. A revival of these endogenous conflict management mechanisms would therefore represent a significant step in building community trust and harmony. Indeed, a situation in which modern and endogenous methods complement, rather than displace or supplant each other, should be encouraged.

  1. The author wishes to acknowledge the input of Caroline Embu, Patricia Shongotola, Chinwe Ibanga Dr. Aishatu Armiya’u, and Bukky Fatoki, all of whom enriched this piece with their incisive feedback.
  2. The notion of Ubuntu in South Africa is one that represents an expression of collective personhood, group support, cooperation and solidarity. See Mbigi, L. and Maree, J. Ubuntu: The Spirit of African Transformation Management. Randburg, South Africa: Knowledge Resources Ltd, 1995.
About the Author

Chris Kwaja is lecturer and researcher at the Centre for Conflict Management and Peace Studies, University of Jos, Jos, Nigeria. He is also visiting research fellow with the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Abuja, Nigeria.

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