This article originally appeared in The Hill on 5/1/2018.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was the first African leader with whom President Trump spoke after his inauguration. Monday, the two leaders met again in Washington and expressed their commitment to working together on counter-terrorism, political stability, and economic engagement.
This willingness to cooperate is great news—but it’s the actions the two leaders will take in the coming months that will really make the difference. President Trump and President Buhari have a unique opportunity to push forward a peace agenda in their mutual self-interest. It’s vital they take it.
In the year since they first met, instability has continued to threaten Nigeria and West Africa. As American and Nigerian conflict experts at Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest dedicated peacebuilding organization, we see the toll that instability takes on the country, in the form of extremist violence, humanitarian emergencies, and sectarian divisions.
But it would be a mistake to think that the challenges of West Africa affect West Africans only. Nigeria is a strong ally of the United States and the largest economy and population in Africa, with enormous influence over the continent. Stability, security, and economic development begin and end with Nigerian success or failure. The US has much to lose from poorly managed conflict in the country.
That is why this meeting was so timely and important. Only 10 months before new elections, Nigeria is experiencing many difficult challenges that require the international community to engage.
One is the threat posed by Boko Haram and its splinter groups, who, despite claims that they have been defeated, continue their campaigns of violence against civilians and the Nigerian military. Even in areas of the Northeast that have been liberated from Boko Haram control, the situation is unfit for the return of civilians. In these communities, insecurity, resentment, and fear foster an environment vulnerable to continued tensions, cycles of revenge, and insurgent attacks.
The Middle Belt is another region where violence is increasing. Competition between farmers and herders over access to land and water has heightened ethnic and religious tensions and pitted mostly Muslim migratory herders and mostly Christian sedentary farmers against each other. Since December, recurring attacks have displaced over 170,000 people from Benue state alone and disrupted food production across the region. Since the Middle Belt is Nigeria’s breadbasket, food security throughout the country is under threat too.
Today, farmer-herder clashes are spreading to other communities, including the Niger Delta region, an area rich in oil reserves, and to countries like Mali, the DRC, and South Sudan, with potentially destabilizing effects on the entire African continent.
However, the situation in Nigeria is not hopeless. President Buhari and President Trump can work together to change the course of these crises, save millions of lives, and secure economic, political, and security benefits for both of their countries.
Specifically, we believe that there are four actions they should take:
- Develop a Nigerian-led, U.S.-supported approach to violence and fragility that addresses the structural causes, conflict drivers, and consequences of instability. President Trump should encourage President Buhari to address violence holistically, look at root causes of conflict, and work to proactively prevent violence in vulnerable communities. The United States can offer technical support and resources to contribute to this goal.
- Encourage conflict-sensitive investments in crop and cattle value chains to lessen the pressure on limited natural resources in Nigeria. The two Presidents should discuss ways to encourage conflict-sensitive public and private sector investments in agricultural and cattle value-chain development that improve food security, create jobs, and lessen resource pressures.
- Proactively address emerging social conflict in the Northeast. Reintegration and reconciliation in areas previously controlled by Boko Haram are essential to Nigeria’s stability. The two leaders should invest in peacebuilding initiatives that repair a torn social fabric and build durable peace.
- Improve trust between the government, security forces, and the Nigerian people. The Nigerian security forces are currently being used as fire extinguishers and are deployed in over half of Nigeria’s states. They are overstretched and often unfamiliar with the terrain and local dynamics, unlike local communities who are intimately aware of them. The two presidents should focus on ways to integrate local early warning systems and conflict mitigation platforms into state and federal responses to conflict.
As part of Search for Common Ground, our job is to transform the way that individuals, communities, and entire societies deal with conflict. The United States and Nigeria need to be concerned with this aim, too. We see dramatic progress being made in communities all across Nigeria by peacebuilding organizations like ours—but these efforts need to be sustained by the engagement of leaders at the highest level.
President Trump and President Buhari have a chance to prevent violence and pave the way for a more prosperous Nigeria, West Africa, and global community. We hope they take it.
Olubukola Ademola-Adelehin is a Conflict Analyst at Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest dedicated peacebuilding organization. She is based in Abuja, Nigeria. Katie Smith is a Research Associate at Search for Common Ground, based in Washington, D.C.