Nigeria: Equal Access Counsels Buhari On How To Tackle Armed Opposition Groups

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Apparently worried by the seeming failure of the security approach of the Muhammadu Buhari administration in dealing with the worsening insurgency in Nigeria, Equal Access International (EAI), a global civic group is currently pressing Abuja to consider a fresh approach in tackling the armed opposition groups (AOGs).

EAI which boasts of a broadcast reach of 252 million people is committed to fostering human development and authentic empowerment through universal human principles – listening, empathy, respect, dignity, learning, innovation, and storytelling,

In its report on NigeriaBuilding Peace & Transforming Extremism, the group is urging the Federal Government to create interventions that address citizens’ needs while also reorienting the plural armed opposition groups away from violence and towards inclusive, peaceful pathways.

These pathways, according to the report can take many forms: • Training in life skills with an emphasis on critical thinking, media literacy, empathy, conflict resolution, and effective communication; • Technical training in social innovation and entrepreneurship; 36

• Offline and online civic engagement platforms for young people of different backgrounds to build agency and influence decision making, policy, and programming on issues affecting their lives, including injustice, impunity, corruption, and inequality;

• Youth-led media programming to amplify youth voices and promote positive alternative narratives; • Arts and recreational facilities, including youth centers and after-school programs;

• Mentorship programs that support healthy bonding and provide positive role models;

• Martial arts and sports programmes that tap into youth’s need for physical activity and control; These areas of intervention address young people’s needs to have a sense of purpose and feel able to effect change in the society around them and requires support to self-mobilize for action, to connect to influencers and decision-makers, and to be part of those who make decisions in the community. Youth development and empowerment programmes are often successful at building skills, agency, and vision, but fall short of creating long-term meaningful opportunities for young people to engage civically. The result is often more disillusionment and frustration, which extremist groups target and leverage. As a result, these programs must embed a positive youth development approach that leverages the assets and agencies of young people with an enabling environment to help youth access opportunities and resources to overcome social exclusion and marginalization and create pathways toward self-actualization.

• Across the humanitarian to development spectrum, many actors – including NGOs, CSOs, government agencies, and multilateral – can effect change in the material circumstances of vulnerable communities through assistance with improving livelihoods and access to goods and services including in ways that offer opportunities for and build pride in education, skills, and work. All respondents spoke about their present realities and ways in which bias and favoritism on the basis of ethnic and religious identities or connections to those with power in the community as well as corruption and diversion of aid created difficulties in accessing adequate food, water, shelter, healthcare, education, and other items and services. Addressing these needs is a pre-requisite for any proposed empowerment and youth development work.

• As our report highlights, the majority of our respondents (16 out of 22) were under the age of 18 when they became associated with AOGs. As such, it is critical that interventions be designed to target underage youth as well as young adults, with a particular emphasis on understanding group bonding and group identity fusion. While mental health resources are scarce in northeast Nigeria, there are resources available and a small amount of funding could support the training of social workers, teachers, and others in how to identify and address early signs of aggression, isolation, and loneliness and their correlation with poorer mental and physical health outcomes and decreased psychological resilience in the face of stress. The people interviewed for this report were clearly traumatized. Unfortunately, given the stigmatization associated with AOGs, many have to misrepresent themselves as being abducted.

• Lasting positive change for disenfranchised individuals and communities requires work in three interlocking levels—individual change, institutional change, and policy change. PYD offers a powerful framework for beginning with personal change and activating young people to engage more broadly.

• While it is a core strategy of recruitment efforts by extremist groups, empowerment practitioners often overlook the merits of a group-based strategy to strengthening empowerment, belonging, identity, and agency among vulnerable youth.

• Ensure interventions aimed at people associated with AOGs are designed so as to also reach those with ideological affinity with groups rather than just those who were abducted or otherwise forcibly recruited. It is important to work with and support all those who were associated with AOGs across 37 the forced to voluntary spectrum. This should be as holistic and humane as possible, including interventions that support basic needs, health, and education, as well as economic self-empowerment, psychosocial support, and civic participation. At present, young people who were ideologically engaged in the groups can be left out as focus can be on ‘innocent’ abductees and/ or feel forced to frame themselves as being abducted or forcibly recruited in order to avail of services and sympathy and not face retribution. Being sidelined or having to misrepresent your attitudes and experiences is profoundly disempowering in and of itself.

• While some are perceived as political or corruption, engagement and dialogue with religious leaders will help address the impact and consequences of religious fundamentalist ideologies. A clear example of this is the dissonance some respondents experienced between teachings, for example, that Allah requires one to kill in jihad and their own feelings about these actions. Given the widespread unhappiness with the group’s violence, religious leaders could help reveal the anti-Islamic nature of intimate partner violence and violence against Muslims.

• Create forums and safe spaces to help such individuals think through and analyze their experiences in a collective forum and create social networks of mutual support. Many respondents had no outlet for talking and thinking through their experiences and felt isolated and alone, particularly as many in the community were aware of their association with AOGs and stigmatized them as a result. These programs can strengthen social networks so young people, particularly those otherwise excluded, feel the connection, support, and solidarity, thereby leading to enhanced resilience and self-esteem. Social networks also offer the opportunity for finding role models, for example as in the case of the young man who helps to support and mentor those who have newly left JAS to mitigate they’re having to go through the same difficulties that experienced.

• Similarly, address relations with others in the community affected by violence and find ways for different groups to talk about the conflict and violence and their role in and attitudes to this in order to build social cohesion. At present, many respondents described broken relationships between themselves and their community. They described being isolated and feeling a lack of care and belonging, contrasting this state of affairs with what they had experienced while in the Daula. These dynamics are understandable given what many people have experienced as a result of violent conflict. However, addressing these toxic relations between ‘radicalized’ young women and men and others in the community in a way that is respectful of past experience and trauma is important for social cohesion and for ensuring these young people feel they have a stake in their community and society. Please note that this area of intervention needs to be implemented with care and conflict sensitivity to ensure conflict dynamics are not addressed rather than exacerbated.

• Design interventions to reach out to young people of all genders as separate constituencies with agency and capacities to effect change and whose interests are not represented well by existing mechanisms of community leadership. While it is important to support young people to have voice and agency in mainstream decision-making forums, given the reality of these spaces being dominated by older men and the difficulty to transform social norms and hierarchies around gender and age, it is also key to ensure young women and men, including those who are ‘radicalized’, are supported to associate themselves. Genuine intergenerational dialogue that is sensitive to hierarchies of gender, age, and power and institutionalized as part of a long-term process that enables the voices of young women and men to be heard on a regular basis is required to address youth exclusion.

• Given the negative perception of security forces and graphic accounts of abuse by many respondents, more efforts are made to professionalize the military treatment of victims and defectors. Respectful security forces are critical to de-legitimizing a long-standing narrative of military heavy-handedness and have the potential to increase overall security, intelligence gathering, and force protection.

According to the EAI, the conflict in North-East Nigeria has evolved in complexity and intensity since 2009, now extending beyond the country’s borders into the Lake Chad Basin. While many associated with AOGs have done so against their will, these groups have demonstrated the ability to mobilize support and offer a sense of belonging, purpose, and community.

Part of the report goes thus: As the violent conflict in northern Nigeria enters its tenth year, there is a need for a new strategy that examines the assets and agencies of vulnerable youth, prioritizes positive youth development approaches to transforming radicalization, and creates humanizing pathways for radicalized youth to reintegrate into society.

As the leadership of AOGs has fragmented along ideological lines, there is a unique opportunity to strengthen direct engagement with those who have left or wish to leave these groups. There is also space for strategic communications to challenge the group’s violent and fundamentalist narratives, more deeply explore core motivating factors, and channel community assets and visions for inclusive pro-social outcomes.

Prospects for peace are increasingly defined by the ability to rehabilitate and reintegrate thousands of those formerly associated with AOGs, both as fighters and in support roles. Those seeking disengagement range across a spectrum of forced to the voluntary association, likely requiring different approaches and interventions to attend to their reintegration.

State responses continue to focus on kinetic operations, while state-led programs for the disarmament, demobilization, reintegration, and rehabilitation (DDRR) of former fighters are yet to be fully operational. Given that the Nigerian government has publicly announced ongoing ceasefire negotiations and an ultimate end to hostilities, effective DDRR is growing increasingly relevant and urgent.

This study contributes to understanding the relationship between empowerment and radicalization through interviews with young people who were ideologically aligned with AOGs in northeast Nigeria. The intent is for findings to inform and strengthen DDRR efforts by first studying young peoples’ assets, agencies, and resiliencies.

As our report highlights, the majority of our respondents (16 out of 22) were under the age of 18 when they became associated with AOGs. As such, it is critical that interventions be designed to target underage youth as well as young adults. Rooted in a positive youth development (PYD) framework, our findings aim to provide specific guidance to strengthen a shared agenda and address evidence gaps related to youth risk, resilience, and assets in northeast Nigeria.

 These findings are designed to inform a more nuanced conversation and a more humane approach to engaging youth, their families, communities, and governments so that all youth in environments affected by violent extremism can be empowered to reach their full potential.

These findings and subsequent recommendations have important implications for the fields of conflict management, transforming extremism, development, and peacebuilding and can help practitioners to develop more effective strategies to leverage and reorient the assets and impulses of radicalized individuals in a way that leads toward pro-social outcomes.

The interview-based research was designed to assess the extent to which radicalization and participation in AOGs was an empowering experience for youth and to better understand the structural motivators and individual incentives that facilitate young people’s engagement.

This should serve to inform the design of countervailing mechanisms that build assets, develop agency, and create opportunities for marginalized youth. This paper builds on the EAI report, Two Sides of the Same Coin? An Examination of the Cognitive and Psychosocial Pathways Leading to Empowerment and Radicalisation, and Forging a Path to Reorient Violent Radicalisation.

The earlier report unpacks key theories of empowerment and radicalization, uncovering and expounding on shared elements between these concepts for “the purpose of leveraging and transforming often destructive processes and behaviors associated with radicalization for positive, pro-social outcomes.”

Our research explores how many deradicalization programs center reform on the “radicalized” individual often invalidating legitimate grievances. This gap in program design often misses a critical opportunity to harness the individual’s potential for positive action and overlooks the environmental influences by which the individual exists, namely predatory communities, institutions, states, and the need to transform these institutions to truly foster sustainable peace-building.

The research suggests that processes of radicalization and empowerment are characterized by a similar motivational framework grounded in the pursuit of agency, group bonding, and tangible change. As such, de-radicalization programs face a difficult challenge of fulfilling and catering to certain immutable psychosocial needs, while also moving an individual away from a group in which they were previously an active member.

The concept of ‘re-radicalization,’ as explored in the previous report, aims to channel energy of ‘radicalized’ individuals in positive ways that benefit the whole society by recognizing, enhancing, and channeling their agency, commitment, leadership, and self-efficacy while reorienting their attitudes, behaviors, and impulses from violence to non-violent civic engagement.

 The original Two Sides of the Same Coin? the report was largely grounded is desk and field research with Western foreign fighters and jihadis from the Middle East and North Africa. To date, there has been little related research conducted in the Lake Chad Basin region.

This present report applies the first report’s theoretical analysis to the context of northeast Nigeria and shows the ways in which AOGs build a sense of belonging, meaning and purpose, persuading members that they are living in ‘an ideal society’ as they consolidate and intensify group norms.

Both reports aim to reframe our thinking of radicalization in an effort to conceptualize and implement more programming options to engage potentially radicalized and ideologically aligned individuals and opposition groups more fully and humanely.

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