Nigeria: A tale of two chiefs

UNDP Nigeria
Chiefs from the Agila community in Nigeria attend a peace celebration. Photo: UNDP in Nigeria

On a muggy day in June, hundreds of men, women and children from the Agila community, in north central Nigeria, dance to the beat of drums. Two chiefs--once at war--exchange a white sash as a symbol of peace and embrace. The crowd shouts.

Peace has finally returned to Agila.

Fifteen years ago, things were very different. A leadership crisis in the small farming community in the state of Benue tore the community apart when two chiefs vied for leadership, beginning a prolonged conflict that cost lives and displaced thousands.

“The people could not go to their farms, so agriculture ground to a halt," says Alex Ogaba, the local government chairman, about the ensuing conflict. "Children no longer went to school and teachers fled, fearing for their lives. Doctors went nowhere near the community and markets and economic activities stopped."

Highlights

  • The peace-building project was launched in 2009 to address a 30-years prolonged conflict among border communities, leading to loss of lives and properties.
  • The initiative was funded by UNDP for a total budget of $150,000 over 4 years.
  • Two skills acquisition centres have been created, with 100 students, mostly youth and women, expected to graduate each year.

In 2010, however, UNDP stepped in to help restore peace by focusing on the causes of the conflict. As a neutral arbiter, UNDP helped the warring chiefs as well as members of the community discuss and negotiate peace. As a result, the two chiefs have stepped down and the members of the community will soon hold elections.

To ensure lasting peace, UNDP also addressed underlying issues, such as unemployment among young people, who had become willing tools in the communal war. Together with the Women Environment Programme, an NGO, and the Federal Government's Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, UNDP built two centres to provide vocational training. One skills centre trains women in designing and tailoring clothes, while another centre trains men in carpentry and other practical skills.

“You see this fine cloth I am wearing, I sewed it myself," says Elizabeth Osepe, a mother of three and a recent graduate from the skills centre. "I no longer take my children’s clothes to the tailor, I sew them myself. And I have sewn for a number of customers too.”

Elizabeth is one of the first 30 students to graduate from a UNDP supported training centre. More than 100 students are expected to complete training every year. Many will set up their own businesses.

“I plan to set up a fashion and design shop as soon as I can raise the money," Elizabeth says, proudly displaying her graduation certificate.

In addition to providing long-term employment, the skills centres are helping bring the community together again. Recent graduates who have been trained in tailoring and dress-making do not discriminate against costumers who were former enemies. And slowly, over time, members of opposing factions have once again begun to collaborate and even inter-marry.

"Various attempts to restore peace in the past have failed because the root causes of the conflict had not been addressed and tensions flared up again after a short time," says Says Matthew Alao, the UNDP Nigeria project officer in charge of the Agila peace effort. "But UNDP's approach focuses on long-term development goals, such as providing vocational training and long-term employment opportunities. Working side-by-side creates a sense of solidarity, helps overcome differences and improves the economy. And our mediation and training in conflict resolution helped members of the community come to an agreement and settle the dispute once and for all.”

During the peace celebrations, the two formerly warring clans even compete in a novelty match, with members of UNDP nominated as umpires.

The two former chiefs, who had been at war for more than a decade, also attend. Chief Ede Otokpa says he is happy that peace has returned at last.  

Chief Mike Agbese agrees. “Today, we have drawn the curtain on disunity in Agila."

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