Powerful new report on Boko Haram insurgency shows importance of listening to communities
New research from Conciliation Resources reveals that the majority of people living in the states most affected by the Boko Haram insurgency in northeastern Nigeria, support the idea of talking to elements of the armed group to negotiate a lasting end to the conflict.
Conciliation Resources, and The Kukah Centre, based in Nigeria, interviewed over 1,000 people living in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states. People were asked about their views on the current response to Boko Haram and what they thought was needed for peace. 
The communities living in these states have been the most severely affected by Boko Haram violence and have lived through ten years of attacks, military counter-offensives and an ongoing humanitarian response. Despite this, they have rarely been asked for their perspectives on the conflict or how to end it.
The interviews covered a cross-section of society, including market traders, internally displaced people, vigilante groups, women and men, young people and local police, government officials and security providers. One respondent said:

People have been giving us rice, oil and mats for the last four years and what has changed? Nothing. This is not the solution to the violence. We have always known that, but no one has listened.

Since the beginning of the insurgency, at least 25,000 civilians have died, 2.1 million have been displaced, and 5.1 million are facing acute food insecurity. Father Atta Barkindo is Director of the Kukah Centre, and one of the lead researchers:

These people are tired. They are tired of the conflict, tired of the military offensive, and tired of receiving aid. For the first time since the insurgency began, we asked local people – those who are living with the consequences – what they thought and felt. It’s essential that their voices and opinions are heard and listened to if there is to be any hope for long-term peace in this region.

Limited engagement with the local population to date means that their concerns, fears and needs are often overlooked in the design and implementation of response strategies – whether it be on issues of negotiation, reintegration, rehabilitation or humanitarian interventions. Local frustration with existing responses limits their effectiveness and the prospect for a durable peace. 

Time to talk?

The research found that 60% of people interviewed – and particularly those who faced a daily threat of violence – felt that engaging in negotiations with Boko Haram should be part of a holistic approach to resolving the conflict. One senior military official in Yobe State said:

We have done as much as we realistically can now. The only way to bring an end to this conflict once and for all is to now engage the remnants of Boko Haram in dialogue.

Talking to Boko Haram is a controversial issue in communities that have experienced devastating atrocities. Even those that favoured dialogue stressed that their support was for dialogue designed to bring about a lasting end to conflict as part of a broader peace strategy. One-off negotiations on issues such as prisoner release should serve only as a way of building confidence between parties, to help that process. People also lack information about Boko Haram factions and dynamics and thus the opportunities for dialogue.   

You should do whatever is necessary for peace. But negotiating with them for prisoners, and giving them money and weapons in return for their release, just emboldens them to do it again.

Those interviewed also gave their opinion on another highly divisive issue – the reintegration of former Boko Haram members back into communities. Father Atta explains:

Eventually former members of Boko Haram will have to be reintegrated into society. It’s the key to any kind of sustainable peace. But for now, it’s a painful prospect for many.

40% of those interviewed said they would never accept someone associated with Boko Haram back into their community. But reintegration and rehabilitation programmes are already taking place. Local people feel these are being imposed on them with little consideration of their fears and perspectives. 
Janet Adama Mohammed is West Africa Programme Director at Conciliation Resources:

If these local people are not included in decisions on when and how to reintegrate Boko Haram members back into the community, it could threaten to derail the whole process. The pain and suffering experienced by communities has left deep-rooted scars.

Current reintegration efforts tend to focus on preparing individuals associated with Boko Haram for return, ignoring the fact that communities also need support to deal with trauma and the legacies of violence, as well as space to explore future coexistence and reconciliation.

For reintegration to be a success it’s vital that local communities are consulted on who is returning and when, and how the process will take place. Lasting peace is possible in Nigeria, as long as local people are listened to and included.

Read more about the perspectives of local people in northeast Nigeria in Conciliation Resources’ new report, Through our eyes: people's perspectives on building peace in northeast Nigeria