Publication Date
October 1, 2016

“Due to the high degree of correlation between ethnic and religious identities, and because some ethnic groups traditionally have stronger control of resources, one’s religion is often linked to one’s access to and control over resources, particularly land and economic opportunities. These overlapping factors create a powerful basis for mobilization, rivalry and, sometimes, violent conflict.”

This report looks at the results of a qualitative research study to evaluate the impact of religious leaders and interfaith initiatives on peacebuilding outcomes in one of the Northern Nigeria states, Plateau. The research forms part of the Mercy Corps’ Interfaith Peacebuilding in Northern Nigeria (IPNN) programme, supported by the Gerald A. and Henrietta Rauenhorst (GHR) Foundation, which is designed to reduce violent incidents and increase economic activity by leveraging the roles of religious leaders to create interfaith cooperation in a region where ethnicity and religion are closely interlinked. The research is intended to inform future programming and also serve as a monitoring and evaluation tool for ongoing IPNN activities in the project areas.

The research was conducted in four separate field visits (in November 2014, June 2015, March 2016, and August 2016) to Plateau State - including the four IPNN sites and one control site. Each IPNN site is home to one farmer and one pastoralist community, which are in conflict with each other. Using focus group discussions (FGDs), key informant interviews (KIIs), and key actor mapping, attitude and behaviour modeling, story-telling exercises, and impact indicator mapping, the researchers sought to answer three interconnected questions:

  1. What role do religious leaders and religion play in conflict escalation and de-escalation?
  2. How can religious leaders contribute to peacebuilding, and what has been their impact thus far?
  3. How can interfaith activities, including economic activities, contribute to peacebuilding?

While most participants did not see religious differences as driving the conflict, the research found that over 94% of the study’s respondents thought that identity — including religion — affects how other groups behave.  In this way, respondents reported that religious and ethnic identity help create the conditions for misunderstanding to occur and for conflict to spread, even as land and other resource competition is at the root of conflict. Such views were reflected in the low levels of trust and strained inter-communal relations. However, the respondents reported that the level of trust is improving, thanks also to the role played by the religious leaders supported by IPNN.

Findings showed that religious leaders have great potential to influence people’s attitudes and behaviours. The role of religious leaders, as well as the mediation training they received, was often mentioned as one of the reasons for the reduction of conflict in Plateau State. The research also found that religious leaders have a high potential to positively influence long-term peacebuilding, which is, in particular, due to their role in changing attitudes and behaviours. In fact, 68% of the respondents said they would stop trading with the opposing group if their religious leader advised them to do so.

However, while the findings provide a strong basis for including religious leaders in peace programming, some gaps and limitations remain. Traditional counterparts, such as the chiefs and members of traditional councils, are often more involved in conflict resolution than their religious counterparts; furthermore, despite reportedly high trust in and reverence towards the religious leaders, community members may choose not to follow their advice if it conflicts with their financial interests.

Based on the findings, Mercy Corps developed recommendations for other actors working on farmer-pastoralist conflict in the Plateau State. While the recommendations address actors specific to these areas, some of the findings are applicable in other Nigerian states - and beyond Nigeria - in situations with similar resource conflicts where religious and ethnic identities are closely intertwined. The recommendations are as follows:

  • All actors should consult and include local religious leaders in all initiatives addressing the grievances between farmers and pastoralists, as it is important to capitalise on the knowledge of local religious leaders.
  • Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the Plateau State Government should work with religious leaders, including women and youth religious leaders, to increase their peacebuilding capacity, enabling them to engage in peacebuilding from early stages.
  • All actors should support greater cooperation among religious and traditional leaders on issues of conflict over resources and other divisive issues. While religious leaders can be very successful in resolving disputes over resources because of their authority, resource management remains the official remit of traditional leaders.
  • Based on the reported success of the IPNN women-led peacebuilding meetings - which brought members of the two communities together, increasing their interaction, reportedly reducing distrust and suspicion, and contributing to greater conflict resilience - local leaders should organise regular peacebuilding meetings, led by religious leaders including women and youth, bringing together the members of the two conflicting communities to discuss the issues they face.
  • While this study shows initial evidence of the great potential of women and youth leaders in changing the behaviour of youth and preventing conflict, there is a need for more research on the role of women and youth in peacebuilding in the context of pastoralist-farmer conflict in the Plateau State. Nevertheless, Mercy Corps recommends including youth and women religious leaders in all programming linking peacebuilding and religion.

Mercy Corps website on August 19 2017, and email from Liza Baran, Director of Conflict Management Programs, Mercy Corps, on September 25 2017.