why strategy in Northeastern Nigeria needs to shift from the state to the people

Written for and published by Ventures Africa back in early December. Since then, the government has declared mission accomplished up in the NE. Hmmm….

We have under a month left before peace and security reign in the North East of Nigeria. Or so President Muhammadu Buhari would have us believe. Since assuming office, the President has repeatedly pledged to defeat Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lida’awati wal Jihad (JAS), commonly known as Boko Haram, by December. Although this deadline is quickly approaching, and the Chief of Defence Staff recently confirmed Operation Lafiya Dole is on course to meet this target, it doesn’t appear that it’s time to start the countdown just yet.

During his inauguration announcement, Buhari started to outline his strategy for defeating JAS by stating plans to move the Command Centre to Maiduguri. He later appointed service chiefs with knowledge of the region, increased troop presence and intensified army action. While Buhari’s actions show his commitment to ending the violence and this increased focus and political will is welcome, saying the conflict may be over by the end of December seems wildly optimistic at best.

Many people view these pronouncements with profound skepticism. Timelines for military victory are notoriously difficult to predict. Setting a firm deadline and focusing strategy on military action also shows poor understanding of the nature of the conflict. We are no longer fighting wars where states fight to control territory, but rather battles where opposing forces struggle to gain people’s allegiances to their side. This means a step change in thinking is needed to bring about sustainable peace and security to the region. Fundamentally, the administration needs to make people believe it cares about them and puts their interest first. Moving military strategy from merely fighting JAS to a holistic people-centred approach is not just better for the individuals and communities, but is crucial for operational effectiveness and mission success.

Indeed, given the average insurgency of this sort typically lasts around fifteen years, it proves imperative not to make grandiose claims highly likely to fail. These statements will be seen as the PR tricks they are. Nigeria needs to learn from its own experiences as well as those of other countries if the people of the North East, and those elsewhere in the country who have experienced violence, are to stop suffering. The government must tackle the frustration at inequality, corruption and human rights abuses that drive recruitment into JAS, rather than aiming solely to kill JAS fighters.

The peoples of the North East have suffered greatly over the past few years. In 2014, Nigeria recorded the second highest number of deaths related to terrorism worldwide after Iraq, with 7,512 people killed and JAS noted as the group associated with the most fatalities globally. Although not all of these people killed lived in the North East, the region has seen some of the most intense violence in Nigerian history. An estimated 15,000 civilians have been killed in the region in total. JAS abducted at least 2,000 women and girls between the start of 2014 and April 2015. Boys too have been abducted, forced to join the group and killed in their beds, as in Buni Yadi in February 2014. Over 2.2 million people have been displaced from their homes. With increasing numbers of people fleeing violence and a lack of systematic support, there is a heightening emergency, with concerns around how people will have enough to eat. In recent weeks we have seen attacks on mosques during prayer time and a potential escalation in bomb blasts detonated by female and male suicide bombers against a background of intensifying military action.

Unfortunately, even though most people believe JAS is the one that has perpetrated the majority of harm to them and their families, they also feel the impact of security force action. There is mutual distrust between security agencies and communities. Agencies tend to assume all civilians are potential JAS members and act accordingly. Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) spoke to civilians in Adamawa, Bauchi, Borno, Gombe and Yobe. Their recent report found security forces have failed to protect vulnerable communities from violence and failed to prevent collateral damage during counter JAS operations.

Security forces have directly targeted civilians with unlawful detention, harassment, destruction of property, sexual violence, indiscriminate targeting of certain groups such as young men, torture, and excessive use of force causing injury and death. The CIVIC report is the latest in many reports to show how security forces have unlawfully killed, arrested suspects without cause and held people in detention without safeguards against murder, torture and ill-treatment. For example, more than 7,000 people, mainly men and boys, died in military detention between March 2011 and June 2015.

Although overlooked and under-reported, there are also reports that security forces are engaging in sexual harassment, exploitation, abuse and violence of women and girls. Friends in Maiduguri tell me of soldiers ‘misusing our girls’ with women and girl hawkers in particular at risk. For example, in their report, CIVIC published the account of a student who saw a military official raping a young female hawker.

In addition to these abuses, slow response also encourages mistrust between security agencies and communities. Both civilians and security officials believe security agencies are deployed only to defeat JAS, not to protect civilians. The military has either done nothing or been slow to act when communities have raised the alarm about potential attacks or asked for assistance in their aftermath.

What happened around the abductions from Chibok in April 2014 is symptomatic of this. People in other communities have also detailed potential targets, such as unprotected schools, abandoned checkpoints and unresponsive security forces when needed. Communities are suspicious this delay is due to JAS fighters’ infiltration of security forces. There are also rumours that politicians and senior military officials are financing JAS.

These dynamics risk alienating the population, meaning people are unlikely to either come to officials with security concerns or help military actions. This leads to further danger of radicalising the population. If communities feel victimised by security forces, they are likely to obstruct operations or even to support JAS.

It is important to retool military strategy to gain the trust and support of communities enduring the most of the violence. People in the North East are the primary victims and survivors of JAS attacks, Nigerian military abuses and the actions of forces of neighbouring states. People feel violence by JAS has intensified due to security forces’ aggressive campaign, which has not only failed to protect civilians but also caused significant direct and indirect harm.

The government may succeed in reclaiming all territory by the end of December. But this is not the same as ‘defeating’ JAS. The group has shown it is capable of morphing to adapt to changing dynamics. After Mohammed Yusuf was killed, the sect dispersed. The military thought that killing its leader was enough to deal with the threat. In 2013, nobody would have believed JAS would attempt to hold territory and succeed. The consensus was that there would never be suicide attacks in the country: people thought Nigerians love life too much. Sadly, developments over the years show how false these assumptions were.

Without addressing the root causes of why JAS exists and what is driving recruitment into the sect, it is likely that, come January 2016, JAS will merely mutate into something new. For example, we may see an uptick in bomb blasts and suicide attacks. Unfortunately, we seem to have become inured to bombs going off in Abuja, Adamawa, Borno, Kaduna, Kano, Plateau and Yobe – but attacks may start taking place outside the ‘usual’ areas. Alternatively, JAS may pursue a strategy of infiltrating government, business and civic life, as Al Shabab have done in Somalia.

In thinking through how to deal with the situation, we would do well to remember why JAS was so popular in the first place. A protest movement against corruption perceived by followers as resisting inequities and injustices of ‘Western’ governance, its call for a return to a ‘purer’ way that Islam was seen to offer, had support from many in the general population. This is the reason why so many people in Borno have at least one family member who is or was a member. Furthermore, President Buhari himself in his inaugural address noted the extra-judicial murder of Mohammed Yusuf by the security forces was influential in its rise.

The history of the armed forces in Nigeria has been one of protecting the state not the people. Sixteen years after the transition to democracy, this needs to change. The focus should now be on human security not state security. This means ensuring security forces act above reproach, follow human rights and humanitarian principles in all operations and address frustrations at inequality and corruption as well as trying to gain military victory. As the military steps up, it is important to remember what, or rather who, it is fighting for and keep its eyes on the prize. After all, success means not just winning the hearts and minds of the population but safeguarding their very lives and well-being as well.



women, disability and conflict – why we should say and do more

The number of documents I have read on the experiences of women and girls with disabilities during times of conflict and violence in all my years of peacebuilding do not take even two hands to count. And I have gone looking for them. This lack of evidence is one of the main reasons why I am so happy to have been involved in the study What Violence Means to Us: Women With Disabilities Speak. Led by women with disabilities themselves, this research examines the situation for women in Plateau, one of Nigeria’s most conflict affected states.

Grace Jerry (one of the report’s co-authors) and I discuss research findings in this recording.

We also wrote conflict deepens dangers and worsens exclusion for women with disabilities for The Guardian:

Conflict can be both a cause of disability and a devastating complication for those already living with disabilities. Although all disabled people are affected, women face intersecting discrimination because of their gender and disability.

There is little research on the experiences of women and girls living with disability in conflict. To fill this gap, Inclusive Friends, a disability rights organisation, and the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme studied the implications of violence for women and girls living with disability in Plateau state, where there has been sporadic violence along ethno-religious lines and between farmers and pastoralists for the past 15 years.

Women with disabilities led and participated in the research, which found that women’s experiences during conflict were an extension of the difficulties they lived with during peace time.

Daily life for those with disabilities in Plateau, and elsewhere in Nigeria, is bleak. Families rarely send disabled children to school and many keep them indoors to protect them or to hide them. Women said healthcare is often inaccessible – physically, financially and because staff have little knowledge of how to manage care for patients with disabilities. Workplaces are also inaccessible: many employers presume that disabled women have poor intellectual skills, and customers may be reluctant to buy goods from them.

Violent conflict exacerbates this reality. Women with disabilities find it difficult to flee violence and are often left behind. The study found that in one village in Riyom, members of the community locked all those who were elderly or had disabilities in a room before an attack; but the room was set on fire when the attackers came.

People with hearing impairments might not hear warnings, gunshots and sounds of others running away, and so remain behind, in danger. People with visual impairments might not know what is happening, exactly where they are, or how to escape. We heard of visually impaired women who were deliberately left in unsafe areas. We also heard of women who mistakenly ran towards the attackers and were raped and killed.

The family of Godiya* left her behind when violence broke out. Unable to walk, she tried to crawl along the ground to escape. But then she fell into a river and almost drowned before someone walking by rescued her. She told us she still wonders what would have happened to her had the passer-by not come to her aid.

Even when they are able to escape, women with disabilities might have to leave behind mobility aids, such as wheelchairs, medicine and hearing aids. This can lead to long-term health consequences and restrict their independence. If their caregivers have left the area, the women may become completely dependent on others.

Camps for internally displaced people (IDP) are often difficult to navigate for those with mobility problems or other disabilities. We have heard of men forcing disabled women and girls to have sex with them in exchange for “help” getting food and water. In the Jos North district, 15 out of 35 women with disabilities spoke of violations in IDP camps.

During peace and conflict, women and girls with disabilities are more likely to experience gender-based violence but are less likely to be able to escape, speak up, to be believed, or to access services. Globally, women with disabilities aretwice as likely to experience domestic violence and up to three times more likely to be raped by a stranger or acquaintance.

Because women with disabilities rely on those in power, the risks of sexual violence and abuse are greater. When asked to identify perpetrators of violence, most of the women we interviewed named caregivers and family members – followed by security agents. We heard of female students experiencing violence from those charged with helping them. In one case, a student who was supposed to be helping a visually impaired woman to transcribe her notes raped her. She became pregnant and had to drop out of university.

When Uhuam* went into labour, her family were shocked and confused, as she had been confined to a room in the family home. They later found out that a male neighbour had sneaked in when no one was around and raped her. During our research, we heard from girls with mental and intellectual disabilities whose parents had injected them with contraceptive implants in case men raped them.

Godiya and Uhuam were among many women who felt that no one was helping them. They said they were not included in existing projects, and definitely did not benefit from programmes designed for them. Most said they received no assistance from community leaders or social services. When we spoke to people working in civil society, almost four-fifths said their organisations had no programmes to mitigate violence against women with disabilities.

The main reason decision-makers do not take these realities and needs into account is because women with disabilities are not involved in policymaking. Although there is increasing recognition of the need to put women at the centre of peace and security efforts, women and girls with disabilities are rarely included explicitly.

This general exclusion leads to further marginalisation, and undermines any hope of maximising their unique perspectives, skills and talents. Worldwide, people with disabilities are the world’s largest minority, making up 15% of the global population, or one billion people. Three-quarters of people with disabilities in low and middle-income countries are women.

As development, security, peacebuilding and women’s rights activists, professionals and officials, we need to start thinking about women with disabilities when designing and implementing laws, policies and interventions. Our work has to protect, empower and include them. If we do not, we are failing.

The report is available to read here.

bombs ready to explode? unearthing the relationship between Africa’s youth, unemployment and violence

At the top of my list of lazy assumptions people make about peace and security that I hate (should really create that list one day) is that violence is caused by high numbers of ‘idle youth.’ I wrote this for Ventures Africa examining the extent to which it is true.

A hungry man is an angry man.’

This phrase is often used to connect youth unemployment, poverty and violence. A dire warning, it is meant to act as a call to action. But, is there any evidence to prove this link exists?

Half the current population of Sub-Saharan Africa is under 25 years old. In Somalia, 62.9 percent of the population is under 24. The median age in Nigeria is 14.

A country with more people of working age can be good for the economy and development. However, rather than viewing these demographic changes as positive, there seems to be an unyielding anxiety of what this ‘youth bulge’ could mean in terms of peace and security.

After all, high economic growth, seen in many African countries, has not led to job creation. This is true in Nigeria where the last decade has seen both economic growth of 7 percent and double the rate of unemployment. At the same time, modernity and globalization have increased the gap between the hopes of young people and their realities. Once you see how others are living, you tend to be less satisfied with your own lot in life. Adding to this, state and non-state institutions have weakened and are struggling to cope. These changes are taking place against a backdrop of increased insecurity and violence, with young people at the center of these conflicts.

The combination of these factors has led to oversimplified assumptions about the relationship between increased youth populations, high unemployment and violence.

“People say that young unemployed people cause armed conflict,” said Kimairis Toogood of International Alert, a peace building organisation. ‘They say this without any nuance, without looking at the different factors contributing to youth frustration and grievances and without any evidence backing this up.”

‘Youth’ have become a threat and a source of worry. ‘Idle youth’ are seen as ticking time bombs, ready to be activated at any moment. They form a ‘ready pool of recruits’ for armed movements and criminality alike. They are a problem waiting to happen. This narrative has led to panic, with politicians scrambling to come up with solutions (or at least claiming to do so).

It is understandable why people think this way. After all, we have seen many violent groups and gangs across the continent made up largely of young people. With only an estimated 16 percent of young people across Sub-Saharan Africa employed in waged jobs in the formal sector, unemployment seems a likely cause of why they join these groups. As Ms. Toogood said, “They cite any civil war and say ‘see all those young boys with guns? They were probably unemployed.’ And then it’s done. People don’t want to take the time to ask nuanced questions. People are generally too lazy to do that.”

Indeed, this way of thinking has a fundamental flaw. Study after study says there is no evidence to support this assumed correlation. A review of research on the topic found no evidence on the effect of creating jobs on stability for countries with a history of violence. For example, support for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (commonly referred to as the Taliban) did not decrease in Afghanistan once young people found jobs. In Somalia too, young people getting jobs did not lead to decreased support for armed groups.

It seems that, although unemployment can cause frustration and marginalisation, it is not the only reason young people join violent groups. Indeed, research finds young people take up the gun not because they are poor, but because they are angry. It is these experiences of injustice that drive involvement in political violence, not poverty. These dynamics are heightened by failures of the state.

“We need to acknowledge the heterogeneity of youth,” said Ms. Toogood. She noted that grievances which, lead to youth involvement in conflict are diverse and linked to many socio-economic and political factors. “It is more about systemic, structural inequalities that are institutionalized. These trump whether a young person is employed or not,” she said.

Grace Jerry, Executive Director of Inclusive Friends, a disability rights organisation in Plateau, agreed. She talked to me about the realities for young people with disabilities. “When people are marginalised for too long, they become perpetrators of violence. They want to just break free. They want to do something. They want to prove a point,” she said.

Indeed, while young people can accept unemployment- corruption, discrimination, feeling cheated or humiliated and abuse by security agencies leads to them feeling angry. Given the wide gap between the rich and the poor, young people see the differences between their lives and those of the elite, rich or connected. While others attend good schools and are provided jobs, they struggle to survive, are cheated by employers and harassed by the state.

Indeed being automatically judged as potential threats can heighten feelings of frustration and alienation. As Ms. Toogood said, “It makes them constantly perceived as ‘perpetrators’ by the system and those in power and also the victim at the same time.”

After all, most young people do work. They cannot afford not to. They need to feed themselves and their families. However, working in farming or the informal sector, they are not necessarily engaged in what people view as ‘jobs.’ Despite the money they earn and the hours they work, they themselves say they are ‘unemployed.’

David drives a taxi when he does not ‘have work’ in the hotel service industry in which he gets temporary work. Although he earns money when he drives, he does not consider this as real work. He sees this rather as a short term measure for economic survival. He talked about how this kind of work is looked down upon by family and friends.

As a result of this kind of thinking, young people spend years ‘technically’ unemployed without achieving recognition or status despite substantial contribution to their families and communities.

This gap between aspiration and reality is heightened by the barriers and challenges they face while engaged in these precarious jobs.

For example, despite the employment okada riding creates – revenues for government, income for those engaged in repairs and cheaper cost of trading – okada riders are often viewed as irresponsible, (potential) criminals, earning money only to buy alcohol and drugs. In both Ghana and Nigeria, research found no evidence for the link between okada riding and criminality. However, many places have banned okadas, especially in cities, tarring all riders with the brush of a small minority. Not only has this destroyed the livelihoods of millions of young people and their families across Africa but it has added to the transport costs of those now struggling to afford alternative forms of transportation.

Street traders and hawkers too have been instrumental to economic growth, particularly that of cities across the continent. In recent times, more young people have joined the older women who make up the majority of traders. However, they too complain of challenges: evictions, ongoing harassment, abuse of authority and extortion. According to David, “you need to know how to avoid the police but sometimes, you just cannot escape and get caught.”

By seeing young people as threats, we fail to see these realities.

The youth necessitates violence narrative also means that ‘youth’ becomes shorthand for ‘young able-bodied men’. All the programmes and politicians focusing on trying to create jobs for them often ignore the marginalisation and disenfranchisement young women and young people with disabilities experience.

After all, frustration with inequality and difficulties providing for families are reasons young women as well as young men join armed groups. In recent months, women’s involvement in Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lida’awati Wal Jihad (JAS), commonly known as Boko Haram, has hit the headlines due to the number of women carrying out suicide attacks. This is just one example of the ways in which women play direct and indirect roles in all conflicts, from taking part in the violence themselves to encouraging others to do so.

Ms. Jerry talked of the anger that builds up when a young person with disability sees others getting opportunities that are blocked to them because of their disability. They notice others looking at their disability first rather than their skills or expertise and what they can contribute. “A youth in that situation will become angry. And when they get angry, they become violent. In some situations, you can’t blame them. They have been marginalised. They have been left out for way too long,” she explained.

She told me of an incident where community members were shocked that a person with a disability was among those who committed violence. “When he was asked why he did that, he said he wanted to prove a point. ‘They think I can’t kill. They think I can’t carry a gun? Well, let me prove to them.’ He had been marginalised for too long and he needed to do something” she said.

People also often fail to see the realities of young men in context. In many contexts, being ‘a man’ means providing for families, being married and generous with the community. Achieving these signs is often hard, particularly in contexts of corruption, inequality and marginalisation. Although these routes to manhood may be blocked, the pressures on young men do not decrease. Many young men are trapped in places where they are no longer ‘children’ but they are not ‘adults’ either. Violence may be seen as a source of addressing this frustration to gain respect and be seen as ‘a man.’

An un-interrogated narrative ignores these structural factors. It also shifts responsibility from the powerful and influential in society, including governments, and displaces it to the vulnerable. After all, it is older, richer men that send the young and poor to die in their battles for power and supremacy. Young people may be the majority in many countries but are on the fringes of society. They are low in societal hierarchies compared to their elders – but they see these same people who they are expected to respect taking opportunities meant for them for their own ends.

James is studying part time while he works so he can support his family now and provide better in the future. His wife has just given birth to their second child. “It’s not the youth, it’s the rich men,” he said. “Look at my community. For the last year, people have not been living there because of the conflict. The politicians sponsor the fighting because they want control over the oil that is there.”

The panic around ‘idle youth’ blames young people for violence rather than seeing the needs and interests invested in their mobilization. It also ignores the reality that not all young people are violent. Many of them work for peace and the development of their communities.

Mariya collects food and clothing from people in her community to distribute to those who have been internally displaced due to violence. She has been doing this for the last two years. She said, “They live in our community. I have to do whatever I can to help them.” She also solves disputes, acting as an informal mediator, and reaches out to girls who have experienced violence.

Chukwuma has just started a computing center in his town. It is a place where people can come to surf the internet or learn how to use a computer. He runs classes free of cost for children, making a particular effort to reach out to those from poorer families. He tells me about his excitement in doing this work, knowing the potential of computing skills to create opportunities for young people in today’s technological world.

Mariya and Chukwuma are working for the wellbeing of their communities. They help people learn and live in peace. People seldom think of those like them – or like David and James – when they think of youth.

Trying to prevent violence by focusing on youth unemployment treats the symptom not the cause. It stigmatises and scapegoats young people, further adding to their marginalisation. Evidently, even employing all youth would not necessarily curtail violence if fundamental issues of inequality and injustice remain unaddressed.

Preventing young people from choosing violence requires addressing difficult issues. These include improving security, creating meaningful educational and employment opportunities, rooting out corruption and tackling prejudice. Taking action on these areas is much more difficult than simply creating jobs, but it is also much more effective.

After all, an angry man (or woman) may be more likely to be involved in violence – but it’s not hunger alone that makes people angry.

beyond Chibok: Nigerian women in the middle, grasping for peace

On the one year anniversary of the abductions from Chibok (14th April), the wonderful Lacuna magazine published this feature article I had written for them. Often, when writing or talking, we have to focus on just one aspect of what is happening. When the topic is women, conflict and insecurity, this is most likely to be either about women experiencing violence or about women fighting against all odds. While these both represent part of the reality, they can provide only a cardboard, one dimensional view of the situation. It was a luxury to be able to write about the full picture of what I have been seeing. Thank you Lacuna.

It has been 365 days and they are still missing. A whole year has passed since global attention focused on Nigeria in the aftermath of the kidnap of female students sitting exams from the Government Secondary School in Chibok in Borno State in the North East.

This was not the first time girls and women have been abducted and it was not the last. What was different about Chibok was the number of girls taken and the global interest this sparked. The worldwide movement encompassed the unlikely combination of Nobel Peace Laureate Malala Yousufzai, the pop star Chris Brown, women in a Syrian refugee camp, Michelle Obama and, of course, women’s rights activists from across Nigeria. They demanded a serious, urgent and decisive response.

What has been lost in the narrative is that this movement was started in Maiduguri, Borno’s capital, by women who live with the conflict every day. A week after the abductions, these women called on the Nigerian government and President Goodluck Jonathan to take action. Their plea was simple: “If it were Jonathan’s daughters that have been stolen today, would the country go to sleep?” Their voices came from the heart of the conflict and in the face of great personal risk and fear of reprisals.


A wave of protests took place across Nigeria and on social media calling on the government to #BringBackOurGirls. In Abuja, over 1,000 people, mostly women, marched in the pouring rain to the National Assembly to urge their representatives to act.

Protests were also held in Lagos, Port Harcourt, Kano and other cities around Nigeria.

Solidarity actions took place in cities around the world. Protesters, women and men of all different ethnicities and religions, gathered daily at Unity Fountain in Abuja to maintain pressure on the government. Women in the parts of north-eastern Nigeria most severely affected by the fighting and kidnapping had been organising already around previous cases of abduction. They intensified this, setting up services offering trauma counselling and advocacy for individual survivors. They reached out and rallied those within their communities that held power, such as traditional and religious leaders, to join the fight against the stigma and shame survivors often face.

Beyond hashtags

Living in Abuja and doing human rights, peace and security work, I experienced life in the eye of the tornado that was the intense media and political attention at the time. I was overwhelmed with requests for meetings from international NGOs, foreign government investigative missions and journalists.

Many seemed most interested in their own reputations and arrived in Nigeria with firmly-held preconceived ideas. I became profoundly disillusioned. My frustration was born out of the incomplete and twisted nature of the narrative being spun, in Nigeria and across the world. This was that the issue was about Chibok only, that it was about an easily demonised organisation they called Boko Haram (not actually their name but one given to them by the media) who had kidnapped more than 200 girls. Such abductions have taken place before and after what happened in Chibok in April 2014.

Little attention was paid to the women in the North East who had been negotiating for the release of kidnapped women and girls. Few noticed when women provided healthcare and psychological support for those who were released or managed to escape and others in their communities and spoke out about this on public radio and in other forums. This is in stark contrast to the horror and international attention and condemnation in the wake of the Chibok abductions. Services and assistance were focused solely on the Chibok community. Even when other abductions took place after April, if it wasn’t about ‘the Chibok girls’, people were not interested.

Then there is general prejudice. Nigeria occupies a strange place in the psyche of outsiders. Part fascination, part fear, people come to it full of preconceptions, thinking they know the country without having visited. Synonymous with 419 scams (such as the emails you receive promising untold millions – if you just send your bank details) and corruption, terrorism has been added to the many strings of Nigeria’s bad PR bow. Indeed there is only bad news ever coming out of Africa’s most populous nation: the heart of darkness for modern times.

Amid violence and kidnapping, aid shortages and hunger

Recently the violence in North East Nigeria has intensified. Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal Jihad (JAS), commonly known as Boko Haram, carry out attacks on villages and communities on an almost daily basis.

Chronic underreporting and discrepancies between figures make it difficult to understand the scale of what is happening. The UN at the end of January reported approximately 981,416 people had been displaced across the country, of which more than 90 per cent are in the North East. Others estimate that over 1.5 million people have been displaced since the start of the fighting. People have abandoned rural areas in particular and flooded into the state capital Maiduguri, now bursting at the seams. Given the lack of camps for those displaced, people have been staying with friends, relatives and goodhearted people. I know of families living in chicken coops.

Acute food insecurity seems only months away. People have abandoned farms and agricultural activities due to the fighting, with predictable effect on the next harvest. Food stocks being depleted, people are resorting to eating grain saved for the next planting season. Markets have shut down.

Not only have people’s livelihoods in rural and urban areas been lost due to the fighting but there are now additional members (refugees from pillaged villages) of their household to feed – and food prices in Maiduguri are rocketing.

There is little humanitarian assistance being provided in the face of this escalating need, from the government or from the international community. In 2014, donors provided 17 per cent of the amounts needed for humanitarian work. The humanitarian crisis in Syria and elsewhere in West Africa, added to the perception that Nigeria is rich enough to cope without external support, are likely causes. Meanwhile, local communities try to cope.

The impact on boys and young men

Gender norms are significant in sparking, perpetuating and intensifying violence. This conflict has impacted men and women differently. The way that ideas of masculinity are used to perpetuate violence and drive recruitment is completely absent from analysis and debate.

It is significant, for example, that there is a social expectation that young people, men in particular, defend their communities and take responsibility for their protection. As reported by the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, “If you are a man you must join. At 13 and 14 you can join, you are a man.”

Boys and young men are pressured to join groups by threats to their families and incentivised by cash. Such pressure is difficult to resist. Gender norms oblige men to provide ‘bride price’ and be the family breadwinner. Faced with these responsibilities and high rates of unemployment, joining JAS offers livelihood opportunities. This is especially so, when manhood is synonymous with aggression and power. Add to these ideas the notion of a man’s responsibility to defend the community, whether from the encroachment of Western ideas, or from the abductions and killing by JAS.

Kashim Shettima, the Governor of Borno, recognized these pressures on young men and boys. He said: “Yusuf [founder of JAS]… also arranged inexpensive marriages between sect embers, which enabled many of them to marry and gave them personal dignity and self-worth.”

Living with violence

When people think of women and North East Nigeria (if they think of them at all), they think of the abductions of girls from schools and, more recently due to a wave of attacks, young girls used as suicide bombers. These are issues that need urgent action but this is only a partial account of what is actually happening to women.

The conflict exacerbates existing inequalities and marginalisation. According to a 2007 Population Council report, 75 per cent of women who live in rural areas of the North East and North West had never been to school, 64 per cent of young women in the North East are illiterate and the median age of marriage is about 16-years-old. Women own just 4 per cent of the land in the region despite their involvement in subsistence agriculture and other farm activities.

The way the conflict has unfolded, with constant attacks on villages and local infrastructure, has led to the closure of health centres, both permanently and for extended periods of time. This has particularly impacted women: pregnant women are rarely able or willing to seek medical attention and instead look to traditional birth attendants, who often provide a lower quality of care and may engage in harmful practices.

The majority of those displaced by the conflict are women and girls. Of the estimated 87,000 refugees in Niger, 50 per cent are women and 45 per cent are children. Many women must cope with the disappearance, detention, execution and recruitment of their husbands by JAS and the security forces. They live with the uncertainty of not knowing what has happened, the trauma of loss and violence, and the reality of providing for the family left behind. The little aid that is there is given to (male) heads of households: when a man is dead or missing, this may go to his brother and not his wife. Many women, having lost their primary breadwinner, engage in street hawking and selling sex.

There is also a concerted attack on women’s rights and freedoms. Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of JAS, first called for women not to mix with men in schools at all. Then he said women should not attend schools. He later said that nobody should go to school if taught Western, rather than Islamic, education.

My friends in Maiduguri report JAS members threatening women in markets, telling them they should not be in public without male relatives. Women wearing ‘tight clothing’ and particular hairstyles are often killed during ambushes and attacks.

It is right to say that women’s rights, their bodies and freedoms in Borno, as in other countries, have been the battleground on which the war is being fought.

Why does JAS use kidnapping as a weapon?

It was in response to the government imprisoning their own wives that JAS fighters began abducting women and girls.

Following the arrest of over 100 women and children in 2012, JAS leader Shekau said, “Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women. Just wait and see what will happen to your own wives according to Shariah law, just wait and see if it is sweet and convenient for you.” The wives and children of soldiers were abducted from military barracks in Bama, an area in Borno, in December 2013 and the rate and scale of abductions has increased in the past 18 months. The following verse is used as Qur’anic justification to abduct so-called enemy women. “Also (forbidden are) women already married, except those (captives and slaves) whom your right hands possess. Thus has Allah ordained for you.”

Women and girls are being taken from schools, markets, during raids, public transport, during and after attacks on villages and on roads. On 12th December 2013, armed men along the Damboa-Biu road captured women on their way home from the bank. Young women have been taken from their homes at night or from the streets while hawking products. The kidnappers offer between N2,000 to N5,000 (between £7 and £17) to their parents as bride price. Then the women and girls are taken to camps where they are forced into domestic servitude, ‘marry’ fighters and to convert.

One of the women who escaped spoke about being raped repeatedly by 10 to 15 men a day, some young enough to be her sons. She was also ‘married’ to one of them. When tested for HIV, she found she was pregnant. Her husband “found it difficult to accept her back”. She became depressed and tried to commit suicide. It was only then that she was permitted to have an abortion. In Nigeria, abortion is illegal unless to save the life of the mother.

When people sent to protect become the bad guys

Another reality of the conflict is abuses committed by government forces and officials. The International Centre for Investigative Reporting found that hundreds of girls and boys had been kidnapped from refugee camps in Borno and had been trafficked, raped or sold as unpaid domestic workers.

A reporter from the Centre was offered children at a price of N50,000 (£165) each by officials from the government’s National Emergency Management Agency. The same journalist interviewed a 16-year-old girl who was promised a job helping the wife of a State Emergency Management Agency official. When she arrived at his home, there was no wife. The state official locked her in his home and raped her continuously until she managed to escape. A panel set up to investigate the incident has been given just one week to gather evidence and present findings.

I interviewed women’s rights activists in the Middle Belt of Nigeria for an earlierreport and they told similar stories of the sexual abuse of women and girls by security forces. Sexual exploitation and abuse by armies is a problem worldwide, and while it has received greater international attention in recent years, there is still a culture of silencing and denial. When you raise the issue with officials, the reaction is either to reject it happens or acceptance with excuses such as, ‘What else can you expect? They’re so far away from their wives.’

Women as fighters

Women as victims and survivors of violence is just one side of the story. They are also active participants in both JAS and in groups aimed at stopping the sect.

There is a women’s wing of JAS made up of women and girls who chose to join or were forced to do so after being abducted. Although coercion is at play through the use of drugs, indoctrination and fear, at least some of these women are active agents who have chosen to join the sect. Gender inequality is tied to reasons why many women get involved. Academics Zainab Usman, Sherine El-Taraboulsi and Khadija Gambo Hawaja found in their recent research on radicalisation that societal and cultural expectations of women to depend economically on men leave them with few options when husbands or fathers leave to become active members of JAS or if they die. Without education and with little access to jobs, women have few ways to support themselves and their families. JAS gives money, food and other benefits to members and has a dedicated fund for widows of insurgents, in contrast to the lack of compensation or social safety net provided by the state.

JAS also offers opportunities to women they do not have elsewhere. Women in parts of North East Nigeria typically face barriers in taking part in public life, but were able to participate in gatherings led by Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of JAS. He would also speak to them directly, albeit about how to behave and dress.

A desire to avenge the deaths of family members by security forces is also a motivating factor for women joining, especially given widespread detention without trial of anyone of fighting age and extrajudicial killings of those suspected (but not proven) to be part of JAS.

Women play the traditionally gendered roles of cooking, cleaning, companionship and providing sex (either voluntarily or through force). They transport weapons and money past security officials, gather intelligence and lure security forces into ambush, as they are less likely to be suspected than men. Three women caught with eight AK-47 rifles which they planned to sell, said they had no other choice given lack of sources of livelihood and that JAS was offering them N1,500 per gun.

Women are also instrumental in recruitment and training, particularly of other women, by using family and kinship connections. Indeed, marriage is a powerful tool to cement relationships of trust and loyalty to keep those already radicalised within the fold and used as a reward for joining. Honour accrues to families whose members have been martyred in the struggle and there have been reports of women urging their men into battle and using social pressure to persuade family and close friends to join.

Women and girls have also participated directly in attacks. In July 2014, female bombers carried out attacks in Kano. In July 2014, a 10-year-old girl was arrested carrying a suicide belt. In January 2015, a girl suicide bomber thought to be as young as 10 detonated a device near the main market in Maiduguri, killing at least 20 people and injuring many more. Teenage girls with AK-47s carry out attacks on communities such as that on Marte LGA on 10th July 2014. A student at the Federal Government Girls’ College in Taraba was found during a routine bed search with two grenades. A 19-year-old girl who escaped from a camp was interviewed on BBC Hausa about attempts to initiate her as a warrior. After they had killed four men, she was asked to kill the fifth. When she was unable to do so, the task was taken over by a woman fighter. Part of the responsibilities of active senior female JAS fighters is to oversee the integration of newly abducted women into camp life.

Not only are women active in JAS but they are also active in fighting against them. Young women and men, filling a vacuum caused by the failure of security forces to adequately protect communities, formed community self help groups, known as the Civilian Joint Task Force (JTF).  The Civilian JTF is not above reproach: there have been a number of incidences of human rights violations, including sexual harassment of young women. People in the North East are worried that there may be a trend towards indiscriminate violence if care is not taken. However, they are also seen as the key factor stopping JAS taking over Maiduguri.

Although young men make up the majority of Civilian JTF members, women are also active due to their personal commitment to act and the outcry against men searching women at checkpoints. A young widow, who witnessed the killing of her relatives by JAS and was threatened with assassination for not wearing the hijab, started the women’s corps. When female JAS members began carrying arms to sustain the insurgency, women started checking fellow women, catching many trying to sneak past checkpoints with arms and ammunition. Women have been active in ferrying people out of occupied territories, including two who were caught and killed in front of other women last year. Women, such as Mai Bintu, the woman chief hunter of Bama, have also led the Civilian JTF on operations against JAS.

JAS has threatened to be particularly violent with female security and intelligence officials: “Whenever we catch any woman spying on us, we would slaughter her like a ram.” In 2013, a video was released of the beheading of a female security official.

Women as negotiators for peace

In addition to women’s roles in fighting on all sides, they are also crucial in keeping families and communities going. They have been finding new ways to ensure access to education despite closure of government schools.

Women’s rights organisations have been working with vulnerable and marginalised groups such as sex workers, hawkers, domestic workers, widows and survivors of sexual violence equipping them with life skills and linking them to microfinance bodies. They have been vocal in pressuring the government and traditional and religious leaders to take action. There have been multiple marches from 2009 onwards calling for peace and justice by women through the streets of Maiduguri in the midst of the conflict and violence.

Women act as interlocutors and negotiators as they are more trusted than men with JAS and security forces alike and due to their contacts. They ensure safe passage for humanitarian and medical agencies to provide emergency care needed. They negotiate for the return of women and girls who have been abducted. Caught between security forces who commit human rights violations and JAS fighters who attack, kill and abduct, these women walk a narrow path to be seen as independent and neutral. As Barrister Aisha Wakil, one of the women trying to negotiate peace, says, ‘I’m just in the middle grasping for peace.’

They draw on a long tradition of women’s active participation in politics and state administration including during the time of the historical Borno Empire. This reality is in stark contrast to stereotypical images of north-eastern Muslim Nigerian women: victims of abuse, married off at an early age, in seclusion with little agency or power.

It’s complicated:  the role of women in the conflict

Despite the active and pivotal roles women are playing as JAS fighters, CJTF members, security officials, to negotiate and build peace and fight for human rights and justice, the conflict is seen as between men. The clash is seen to be between young men in the army, young men in JAS and young male Civilian JTF members, with women only occupying the space of victimhood.

One year after the Chibok abductions focused the eyes of the world onto Nigeria, the epicentre of the international storm has moved elsewhere. Foreign media and politicians no longer talk about the Chibok girls. They are now concerned with Isis, Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile, in Borno, the battles, physical, rhetorical, political and ideological continue to be fought on and over the bodies of women. They suffer violence and its short and long-term impact but victimhood and suffering is not the only story. Women are also active participants in the insurgency, in fighting against it, in resisting violence, helping others cope and in working for peace, justice and rights.

initial thoughts on Buhari’s inauguration speech

I don’t know about you but I was quite impressed. He did what he needed to do. He was gracious, set out the vision of his administration, reaffirmed his commitment to democracy and human rights, admitted that there were huge challenges ahead but stated that they were not insurmountable. He called on the spirit of the past, referring to the founding fathers of the nation and civilisations from the Kanem-Borno to the Oyo Empires that existed in the land that now makes up Nigeria.

Well done to his speech writers and well done to him. I do wish he had spoken about women’s rights though. Given the momentous signature of Jonathan of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Bill four days ago and the record low levels of women’s representation in the National Assembly (now a woeful 5.11%), it was an opportunity missed to show that he would govern for the best interests of women as well as men.

My top 5 highlights of the speech

1) Taking a holistic approach to peace and security

Where do I start? Moving the Command Centre to Maiduguri. Overhauling the rules of engagement to avoid human rights violations. Placing the security forces within the overall security architecture. Making sure to focus on all security issues in Nigeria, not just those in the North East. If he had added just a few more things (like transparency of funding for security, addressing the phenomenon of vigilante groups, prioritizing security needs and realities of women as well as men and building trust between security forces and communities), I feel like he might have been listening in to conversations that I have been having recently!

I assume his thanks to the forces of Cameron, Niger and Chad for their assistance is symptomatic of an increased willingness of this administration to cooperate than was present in the last? Given the increasingly regional dimension to the conflict and violence and the need for a joined up approach, I hope this is the case.

The move of the Command Centre to Maiduguri is a welcome one. It is as much important for perceptions that the government takes what is happening seriously and cares for the people of the North East as it is for any improvements in intelligence gathering or increased fighting capacity. I wonder though what this means for the rest of the country? Will this be accompanied by Command Centres being set up in other conflict affected parts of the country (such as the Niger Delta) too?

It was also important that he mentioned the girls from Chibok who were abducted, said that victory would not be achieved without their being rescued, and committed to trying to do so alive. I hope this extends to all the women and girls who have been abducted over the past two years – and is linked with proper health and psychosocial care and assistance to reintegrate into their communities.

The announcement that he intends to commission a sociological study to examine the origins, sponsors and international connections of Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lida’awati Wal Jihad (JAS, commonly known as Boko Haram) to ensure something similar does not recur is welcome. He showed a more nuanced view of the origins of the sect than I was expecting, linking it to the extra-judicial killing of Mohammed Yusuf by the police and the sense of injustice this caused and talking of negligence, bungling and complacency. Those in Maiduguri that I talk to do speak of forces within government (both state and federal) who may directly or indirectly be supporting JAS. If true, I hope they feel right now that judgment will come one day.

However, he did only talk about the use of force in terms of dealing with the insurgency. Although better training and equipment for the armed forces, cooperation with neighbours and increased effectiveness of armed forces is necessary, I do hope that this ‘kinetic approach’ is not seen as all that is needed to ‘destroy Boko Haram.’ It needs to be married together with address the root causes of the conflict, including lack of trust in state institutions and perceptions of inequality and unfairness engendered by underdevelopment and human rights violations.

Focus and prioritisation of the situation in the North East should go hand in hand with addressing conflict that is either more latent or just does not make the headlines. Let us not take our eyes away from areas affected by violent conflict, such as the Middle Belt and Delta, and wait for things to flare up again before doing anything about conflict dynamics there. After starting from talking about the North East, Buhari said that this was not the only security issue in the country, talking about cattle rustling, the situation in the Delta and clashes between farmers and pastoralists. He committed to investing heavily in projects and programmes currently in place in the Delta, particularly in light of the amnesty due to end in December and called on people to cooperate with rehabilitation programmes. He did not have time to go into detail about what this means, but I’m looking forward to more details. And I’m just so happy that he didn’t buy into the (dangerous) narrative of ‘marauding Fulani herdsmen’ which seems to have infected national and international media and discourse, not only making things worse but criminalising ethnicity.

2) Showing commitment to democracy and human rights

In the election campaign, much was made of his past as a military dictator. Given this history, it was good to see him talk about democracy. He started by emphasising that today was an occasion to celebrate freedom and cherish democracy, giving credit to Nigerians, who had shown their commitment to entrenching the culture of democracy. He then went on to talk about the three arms of government, stating he was not seeking to encroach on legislative and judicial functions. He committed to reforming the public service and judicial system to ensure integrity and stability. In addition to looking at the breadth of government, he also looked at its depth, talking of the limits to the powers of each of the three tiers of government but that the federal government should not close its eyes to what is happening in the states and local government. Corruption at the local level was particularly picked up here as needing to be checked. He committed to doing this to ensure responsible and accountable governance, within the bounds of the constitution. With the fears of Buhari overstepping the boundaries of his authority as President that were present, it is good that he stated this so clearly in his inaugural address.

I think my favourite part of the whole speech was when he spoke of human rights violations committed by security forces. These are well documented in Nigeria but, as with most other countries, the government has not always been open to their possibility, let alone taking decisive action to prevent and punish. I am looking forward to the overhaul of the Rules of Engagement that he mentioned to avoid violations of human rights in operations. I also hope that this understanding of human rights violations includes sexual violence committed by security agents. This is something I hear about again and again when talking with civil society activists and women living in communities, but this is under-documented. Whenever this has been mentioned to security or government, the response has always been either to deny it happens or words to the effect of ‘What can you expect? They’re so far away from their wives.’ I’m looking forward to a Buhari administration instituting a zero tolerance policy towards all human rights violations, including sexual violence, starting a training programme to inculcate this at all levels and investigating allegations and punishing perpetrators (after a fair trial).

3) Planning for power and employment

He name-checked a lot of issues, from education and health to climate change, and from communicable diseases to cyber-crime and infrastructure, but the focus of his speech was, not surprisingly, on youth employment and the power sector. It is a shame he did not expand further on the others. Education and healthcare in particular are key sectors needing fundamental reform. I guess you only have a certain amount of time and you can’t talk about everything.

As someone who has (as have we all) suffered from lack of light, particularly in the last few days, I’m looking forward to seeing the results of the several studies he says are underway to bring light to the country safely, quickly and reliably. He, quite rightly, calls it a national shame.

His plans for increasing employment, particularly of young people, were described more fully than during much of his campaign. He talked about revival of agriculture and mining sectors, giving credits to small and medium size businesses, examining the best way to revive labour industries and accelerating the development of railways, roads and other infrastructure. I hope he does so in a way that is sensitive to both gender realities and conflict dynamics. After all, of the 6 million young women and men who enter the labour market in Nigeria every year, only 1/3 of the 10% of them who find jobs are women. Young women also experience sexual harassment and violence when at work, perhaps no more so than the girls who hawk products on the roadside. Research in Anambra showed that 93.1% of girl hawkers experienced some force of abuse, with 69.9% of them experiencing sexual abuse. Presently, youth employment and empowerment programmes in Nigeria not only do not work for young women, but they are seen as actually increasing conflict in communities. This is as selection procedures are not fair, so many people believe that spots go to those linked to politicians. It is because they have been designed with no market needs assessment in place so, there are no jobs in place once youth go through the programmes. And it is because not enough information is given about them, so young people do not know how or when to apply. Buhari’s administration needs to learn from the mistakes of its predecessor here.

4) Reaching out to different groups

He started his speech by thanking the outgoing President, Goodluck Jonathan, for setting a precedent that he said, made us ‘proud to be Nigerians wherever we are’ and for his support to the transition. Of course, this comes in the context of the APC complaining of lack of cooperation by the PDP and Jonathan to the Transition Committee two weeks ago – but it was important that Buhari rose above this.

The new President also made sure that, when he referred to the founding fathers (of course none of them were women) and great civilisations, he talked about those from all corners of the country. This is important, especially given the ways divisions between the North and South were drawn upon and exacerbated during the election campaign itself. Although elections were not as violent as we previously feared, tensions persist and have heightened, particularly in the South South and South East. My friends and colleagues in Port Harcourt talk about a state of ‘uneasy calm’ that has persisted weeks after the elections took place.

Buhari needs to be and be seen (perception as important as reality here) as a President for the entire nation. He needs to govern in a way that actively reaches out to and involves those in areas that did not vote for him. He needs to avoid the perception that these states are being punished.

Buhari also spoke about trade unions, the private sector, the media and civil society, as well as the importance of the legislature and judiciary performing their functions, including that to check government power. I am pleased he talked about both unions and the private sector – hopefully this means the approach taken towards stimulating the economy will be one that respects workers’ rights as well as supports employers.

He appealed to the media, including social media, to exercise its power with responsibility. This is particularly pertinent in the aftermath of the high levels of hate and dangerous speech that we saw in both traditional and social media before and during the elections. I do hope that this is not a coded message however, given initial worrying signs such as his decision (since reversed by his party) to bar AIT from covering his activities. Let us hope this was an aberration rather than a sign of things to come.

5) Quoting Shakespeare

This was a bit unexpected. He ended his speech by quoting Brutus in Julius Caesar:

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Here, Brutus urges his friends for quick and decisive action and to seize the opportunities that are being now available. Better Shakespearean scholars that I can analyse what this means in the context of Buhari’s speech and his presidency, but it does add to the general impression of needing to act and being at the cusp of something that could be great. As Buhari himself says, ‘the newly elected government is basking in a reservoir of good will and high expectations,’ seeing this as a ‘window of opportunity to fulfil these expectations.’

The expectations surrounding Buhari are (unrealistically) high. The day after Jonathan’s concession, when I arrived at work, I was met by a colleague from Maiduguri. The first thing she said to me, before even greeting me, was ‘Now we can go home.’ I spoke with young men who felt they had no alternative but to drive informal taxis who insisted that, once Buhari took office, that they would all have the meaningful careers of their dreams.

It is wonderful to have people so invested in a government and so certain that they will stand up and deliver on promises made in their elections. The lack of cynicism is both heartwarming and breathtaking. It is a welcome departure from the resignation and frustration that has been there until now. But, I worry that expectations are just too high. It is good to know that Buhari is aware of the weight of these expectations, of the burden of history upon his shoulders, and is determined to act quickly to keep the momentum of goodwill flowing.

As he himself said, ‘We have an opportunity. Let us take it.’

Spinning Stories: Competing Narratives about ‘Boko Haram’

Last week, I attended two events on Jama’atu Ahlu Sunna Li Da’awati wal Jihad (JAS), commonly known as Boko Haram, and the situation in North-East Nigeria.

As one of the speakers, Dr Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos himself said, in addition to the war between the government and JAS, there is also a war of words between conflicting narratives of what is taking place. This came out very strongly in the different positions taken by the speakers at the two events, especially concerning the ‘internationalisation’ of JAS.

I have my own thoughts about this. It’s clear the ‘internationalisation’ narrative fits very neatly into the interests of certain actors in growing militarisation and international presence in the region. I’m yet to be persuaded that the evidence backs this narrative. What is used in support seems too much like constructing theories on the basis of stringing together a number of assertions based on flimsy evidence interpreted in certain ways.

I am open to changing my mind if presented with the evidence.

There were many other issues discussed beyond the internationalisation debate. Can elections be held in the North-East given the state of insecurity? Who does it benefit to hold or not hold elections? From where does JAS get food, fuel and arms? Is there an incentive to have an amnesty process?

You can read the full discussions at the events at my Storify of the event.

And, of course, the end of the week saw the announcement of a ceasefire by the Chief of Defence Staff, followed closely by continued attacks over the weekend in the North-East.

feminism and conflict: whose security is it anyway?

I wrote this for The New Left Project back in March.

You need to give us more condoms because ‘you know, we have to use three or four women a day’.

These are the words of a soldier in Plateau State in Nigeria as reported to me by women’s rights activists there. They are telling me of the numbers of girls and young women who are being left pregnant by men in the security forces. The irony of messages around safe sex and HIV prevention being heard, while issues around power and violence against women and girls are not, is not lost to any of us.

Despite the international attention being paid to issues around sexual violence in conflict, and sexual exploitation and abuse by security forces in particular, these issues are not part of mainstream discourse when talking about peace and security. Sexual relationships between young women and men in security forces are well known. Men tend to view these relationships in terms of the material gains the women concerned make. They rarely consider whether genuine and enthusiastic consent to sex can truly exist when it is a man in uniform. Only a few women activists are trying to support the girls and young women concerned. They are not receiving any assistance to do so. Nor are they supported to speak out against what is happening.

Issues of women, peace and security are now on the global agenda in ways never previously seen. The Security Council, due to the activism of women’s rights activists and organisations, including those from conflict affected countries, passed Resolution 1325 in 2000. This was the first time, the organ charged with responsibility for international peace and security talked about women. In the past 13 years, a further 6 Resolutions have specifically looked at women and conflict. The African Union, the Committee on the Elimination of Violence against Women, conflict affected and donor countries are just some of those taking action.

Work is being done to look at sexual exploitation and abuse committed by peacekeepers and other military men and other forms of sexual violence in conflict. In fact, over the years, we have seen a narrowing of discussion around women, peace and security to issues of violence and an even further focusing to look particularly at sexual violence in conflict. This is conceptualised in a particular way: a militiaman coming across a (civilian) woman and raping or otherwise sexually torturing her. The sexual abuse by security forces that I talk about above fits into this and this reflects the realities for a lot of women. However, the risk is that the international community addresses this alone rather than looks more broadly at all types violence against women and girls that forms a continuum.

Doing so reflects only one aspect and misses the complexities of women’s experiences of conflict, peace and security. Although the most recent Resolution offered a welcome change to this overwhelming focus on sexual violence in conflict by examining women’s roles in peace processes, there is a danger in looking at women only as victims. Crucially, it misses the centrality of issues of women’s empowerment and leadership and does not see women as actors as well as being acted upon. In doing so, ways that experiences and expectations of gender roles change over the course of a conflict and how ideas of ‘what it means to be a woman’ and ‘what it means to be a man’ contribute to conflict, are lost.

Who are the women we are talking about?

The international discourse also tends to characterise all women into a homogenous category of ‘women’ writ large, as opposed to looking at differences between women. As a result, while some of the able-bodied, city-based, educated women may have opportunities, a lot more needs to be done to reach other women such as those who live in rural areas, and women who are of non-dominant ethnicities and religions, or marginalised classes and castes. One significant omission is women with disabilities, who are at least twice as likely to experience violence against them, are less likely to be believed when they report it and find it more difficult to access services and justice. Yet little national or international rhetoric, policy and action around gender based violence looks at this, let alone ensures that women with disabilities are able to take part in peace and security processes and decision-making. There is also little to no examination of homophobia and transphobia, and the ways in which strict policing of sexuality and gender identities drive conflict, how expectations around sexuality and gender identity change during the conflict and what happens to those who do not conform.

Supporting the women who create change

Women are often seen as weak, vulnerable, faceless and voiceless victims rather than as active agents for security and insecurity, while men are seen as strong, aggressors, perpetrators and those who take action. For example, when talking about youth, marginalisation and violence, we may be saying ‘youth’ but what we are really thinking is ‘young men.’ This stereotypes ‘young, angry, disaffected (black*) men’ as ticking time bombs that need defusing quickly. It ignores not only that the vast majority of young men are not violent and some of them actively work for peace, but also that women can be involved in violence too. Women make up 10-30% of armed forces and groups worldwide. In Nepal for example, women are estimated to be 30-40% of the guerrilla force. In addition, young women support militias and government forces (willingly or unwillingly) both directly and indirectly. In fact, while men are socialised into fighting due to dominant forms of violent, militarised masculinity, many women get involved precisely because it is seen as a way of challenging gender norms.

It is often men alone who are seen as those with political consciousness and power, when the reality is that women are also active agents for rights, peace and security. In Riyom, in western Plateau, women with sticks chased out men with guns, saying these soldiers were not providing security and so they did not want them there. Women activists in Plateau also point out that it is the women who are responsible for security for the family a lot of times; they are the ones who lock up the house at the end of an evening and make sure all is well. In terms of financial security too, the myth of the breadwinner is not borne out on examination of who actually provides for the family; women’s money is seen as belonging to families, while men’s money belongs to the men.

Riyom is not an isolated incident. All over the world women take action to deal with threats to the security of the community, promote rights and to mobilise for peace. In many cases, women are at the forefront of activism for democracy and human rights. In others, women take the lead in negotiating with (government and non government) militia groups as to what takes place in their communities during conflict. How the women of Liberia mobilised to end its civil war is probably the most well known example of this but there are countless others at community, national and regional levels that continue to be overlooked and unknown from Afghanistan and Palestine/ Israel to Nepal and beyond.

In Afghanisan, women in Shah Rahim in Balkh Province, with the support of men, negotiated projects that have provided access to water, irrigation systems, and a community centre. They also mediate community problems and help reduce corruption. In Nepal, Women For Human Rights ensured that the rights of widows was recognised in the interim Nepali Constitution and continue to raise awareness to change societal attitudes and assist widows to bring cases of violence to authorities. Activists from Palestine and Israel formed the International Women’s Commission after the breakdown of the Oslo Process. They are asked to brief the EU, UN and other stakeholders but are excluded from taking part in peace conferences themselves and told to continue to do what they do best: ‘whispering in the ears of decision-makers.’

Women make up only 1 in 40 signatories to peace agreements. Of the agreements signed between 1990 and 2010, only 16% even mention ‘women’ – and when they do, it is often to restrict their rights.

Not only do women continue to be marginalised from decision making but women’s rights activists also continue to lack resources and support. Only 1.3% of development funds for gender equality went to women’s rights organisations or women’s ministries in 2010. This means that 98.7% of money for gender equality is not going to activists or government departments concerned with achievement of women’s rights. Where is it going? What proportion of this 1.3% is actually going to activists as opposed to ministries? If this is the case for gender equality money, does any non-gender specific money go at all to women’s rights activists? It seems not. A global survey of 1, 119 women’s organisations from over 140 countries in 2011 found that only 1 in 10 of them received funding from national governments, international NGOs or foreign governments. Women’s rights organisations working on particular rights may receive even less. In 2010, groups empowering LGBTQI people received less than 0.01% of total aid donated by major government donors.

After all, whose peace and security are we talking about?

The prevalence of violence against women and girls should force us to rethink what is ‘conflict’ and what is ‘peace’. If women do not feel safe, this is not peace. Research shows that what is meant by peace can vary sharply between women and men. A study by ActionAid, Institute of Development Studies and Womankind Worldwide found that while women are more likely to see peace as including education, healthcare and freedom from violence, men have a greater tendency to look at the absence of formal conflict and the stability of government institutions and infrastructure.

In Plateau, one of the causes of violence is conflict over natural resources, particularly over control and use of land, between those who farm and those who herd. There is unclear demarcation of farming and grazing lands and, as a result, cows destroy crops, ruining the livelihood of famers, and herders do not have areas for their livestock to graze. Young men have set themselves up as ‘vanguards’ that protect and safeguard the land, the community and the women, against threats of violence and encroachment. However, the actions of these vanguards do not necessarily serve to reassure and make people feel safe but rather sometimes generate fear and conflict. Many women in particular feel unsafe walking alone, at night and/ or in secluded areas out of fear of harassment or other forms of violence from these male vanguards.

A key reason why these young men form these groups is because of practices of land ownership and inheritance. Despite provisions in the draft gender policy for Plateau State, women do not inherit land. They marry into other communities and so are seen as having no claims to either their natal or marital land. In contrast, young men are brought up to see the land as theirs and so act to defend what is seen as their inheritance. As such, ideas of masculinity and ownership are mobilised in ways that drive conflict. But of course, in a lot of communities it is women, not men, who actually work the land and they are the ones who collect the water for household needs. Due to gender norms around inheritance, however, women do not have rights over land that they work. Furthermore, due to harassment by vanguards, they are afraid when doing that work and caring for the family.

Young men appointing themselves as ‘community protectors’ is not ‘an African problem.’ During the recent riots in the UK, ‘community protectors’, largely men who came out to protect their property, were lauded as heroes. Information as to the violence with which some of them were behaving did not really reach the media. A friend of mine saw a group severely beat a young man who they thought was a rioter.  There is also a rich history of these self-appointed ‘protectors’ monitoring the behaviour of women and threatening them. Women’s sexuality and freedom are often policed to ensure adherence to ossified ideals of ‘tradition’ and culture’ in the name of ‘protecting community values’.

The Way Forward

In the past 15 years, gender and conflict has been taken increasingly more seriously. Given where we started from, this is a huge achievement in and of itself. It falls far short, however, of what is needed.  We are still at the ‘sometimes add women and stir’ stage rather than anything truly meaningful and transformatory. This is despite the overwhelming evidence of the roles that women play in making and building peace. Moreover, gender inequality is both cause and consequence of violent conflict – and a form of violence in and of itself. As restated recently in Sex and World Peace, gender inequality is, more than national wealth, level of democracy or issues of ethnicity and religion, the best predictor for whether a state will engage in inter or intra state conflict. Given these empirical facts, it is astounding that more is not done to redress unequal power relations between women and men.

Seeing the full complexity of what happens and what is meant by peace and security provides new insights and ways forward. We need to reconfigure our understanding of security to look at issues of concern to both women and men and counter how gender norms influence and perpetuate insecurity. This would mean dealing with threats to security that women mostly face, such as from security forces themselves; looking at ‘traditional’ security issues, such as land conflict, and seeing what is happening to women; and thinking about how stereotypes, roles and norms of what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man, such as inheritance, influence and add to conflict dynamics.

We should not lionise all women as noble and brave, struggling and providing or stereotype all men as feckless, concerned only for themselves and a good time and living off the hard work of women. Black men get a hard enough time as it is; racialised as ‘perpetrators’ from which ‘their women’ need ‘saving’. Makua Matua critiques the savages – victims – saviours triad of international human rights: black men are seen as savages who perpetrate acts of violence against black women victims, who are rescued by white people saviours. As Gayathri Spivak writes, white men will not save brown women from brown men. There are many good men who work for human rights (including the rights of women), who resist toxic forms of militarised violent masculinity and act for peace. We need to be careful not to feed into racist perceptions of black men while also speaking out against gender inequalities. This is the classic dilemma of the black and Third World feminist.

We need to look at what is actually happening, contextualize and allow for nuance, rather than deal in broad-based gendered generalisations. There is a difference between what women and men are expected to do and what their realities and experiences actually are. It is true that men are supposed to provide security – both physical and economic – for their families and communities and that they may suffer when they are seen as not being able to do so, with their masculinity called into question. It is also true that women’s experiences and realities are complex. Women fulfill traditional gender roles, perpetrate violence and abuse and protect and defend rights and peace. Sometimes the same woman even does all three.

For peace and security to be fully achieved, it needs to be truly meaningful for both women and men. Without a feminist analysis, not only does what happens to women and girls get left out of the conflict narrative and what happens in response, but the root causes of conflict and how they are intertwined with gendered expectations of women and men are never addressed. Conflict analysis and peacebuilding work that is gender sensitive is both good for the achievement of the rights of women and girls and absolutely essential for the achievement of a genuine, meaningful and sustainable peace.

* I use black in the political sense of the term. It denotes strength and solidarity in the shared past and continuing experiences of imperialism, slavery, resource extraction, inequality and power imbalance of all those descended (through one or both parents) from Africa, Asia (i.e. the Middle East to China, including the Pacific nations), Latin America, the original inhabitants of Australasia, North America and the islands of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean. It does so while acknowledging and celebrating our difference and diversity.