In the shadow of Boko Haram's kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls, bombings on 20 and 24 May have thrown Jos – a city in the middle belt of Nigeria – into the spotlight. As local reactions form, it is essential that young people are included in responses to support peace. Without the integration, involvement and commitment of youth, many of whom face exclusion and are vulnerable to violence, lasting peace is unlikely.
Although the attacks did not discriminate between Muslim and Christian, or Fulani and Berom (the main ethnic groups in Jos), there are growing fears of increased sectarian tensions and youth gang violence. These fears are not unfounded – over the past decade, Jos has experienced an enduring cycle of violence stemming from disputes over land, resources and political power, that has exploited sectarian and ethnic differences. Since 2001, when major riots first erupted in Jos, at least 4,000 (and possibly as many as 7,000) people have been killed in the city.
Jos' young people are often seen as the main aggressors when conflict escalates. The association of political, religious and ethnic conflict with criminal violence, drugs and gang culture, has seen many point to high youth unemployment as a key cause of violence.
In Jos, and more widely, young people often sit at the margins of their communities and are targeted by security forces. They face exclusion from participation in political, social and economic spheres and from the formulation of policies to resolve conflict. High levels of drug and alcohol abuse exacerbate young people's exclusion and increase their vulnerability to be drawn into violence.
Benjamin Luther, an ex-youth gang member explains his reasons for joining: "I felt nobody cared about me, and felt neglected. I was lost and felt there was no hope for the future. I've been involved in religious violence to defend my community and clashes between youth gangs."
It is essential that any effort to support peace in Jos, and elsewhere, engages young people and promotes their reintegration into communities.
Over the past year, Conciliation Resources, a UK-based INGO, and the Centre for Peace Advancement in Nigeria (CEPAN) have been working with Youth Platforms for Peace, a project funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, to transform young people from perceived aggressors to facilitators of peace.
The project is led by youth ambassadors, who map gang centres in their communities, as well as recruit youth participants for the Youth Platforms for Peace.
Through this process, the youth ambassadors gain a greater understanding of the root causes of conflict in their community, and an appreciation of what is needed to build peace. Alfa Momoh, one of the Youth Ambassadors explains, "In my interactions, most young people say they are in gangs for a cover or safety… Young people need to be educated on how to resolve and manage conflict themselves so they can be accepted by the community."
The platforms seek to rebuild damaged relationships between youth and other members of the community. Discussions are hosted with women's groups and elders, who feel most threatened by youth gangs.
The key strength of the Youth Platforms for Peace is that at-risk youth feel accepted and heard. Peter Miri, who took part in the programme says: "I used to be a drug dealer and a political thug. But they made me realise that I could have a future so I joined. That decision saved my life. I'm beginning to gain respect from people in my community. Working with the project changed my mindset and gave me the choice to be part of peace rather than violence".
These locally-led projects empower communities to take the lead on their own security, giving a real sense of ownership. This is in contrast to short-term military-based measures, which neglect the rights and needs of excluded young people.
James Fom Samanja, a youth ambassador, believes that a shift away from top-down legislation is necessary. "I think it's high time for peacebuilding work to be community based. Resolutions and suggestions for peace policies should emanate from people living with the pains of the crisis," he says.
Early signs of the Youth Platforms' impact could be seen in the aftermath of the recent bomb attacks in Jos, when Muslim and Christian youth came together to support the Red Cross, the police and others in assisting the victims and evacuating the debris. This kind of community cohesion will be instrumental in preventing reprisal attacks.
Looking forward, conflict in Jos will be deeply affected by how the Nigerian government and international community decide to respond to Boko Haram.
Experience of the Lord's Resistance Army suggests that short-term military responses can be ineffective against such groups. Community-led peacebuilding efforts supported by wider governance reforms are vital in order to achieve lasting peace.
This article was originally published in The Guardian on 30 May 2014.
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