With its values firmly rooted in ideals of social cohesion, integration, and solidarity, social work is strongly oriented toward peacebuilding and reconciliation in Nigeria, where longstanding violent conflict, driven by ethnoreligious differences, has hampered social development. This article asks ‘what can social workers do to reduce violent conflict in Nigeria?’ How can social workers contribute to peacebuilding and social solidarity in communities riven with conflict?
The literature on peacebuilding highlights the importance of context, where local actors provide leadership and envision social change and justice (Neufeldt et al., 2020). Roelofs (2020) referred to this ‘local turn’ donors have seized upon, emphasising the inclusion of local actors, with local knowledge and connections, to make peacebuilding interventions context-sensitive. She contests this turn that originated with USAID’s push to localise its interfaith peace-building efforts in northern Nigeria, noting the fractiousness of Muslim-Christian relations and ‘limits to how far local partners can successfully leverage these ideas in the context of unequal power relations’ (p. 373). The two essential components of local peacebuilding initiatives are community participation and local ownership of solutions, concepts with which social workers are most familiar. By definition, peacebuilding involves searching for non-violent solutions.
As Akande et al. (2022) noted, small, local community projects could provide useful settings for the careful examination and resolution of conflict-related issues and the knowledge gained could influence other communities and lead to large-scale projects over time. Also familiar to social workers is the use of creative arts-based interventions, long used in conscientising Nigerians for peace-building processes (Essien, 2020), especially Nigerian theatrical productions. Noting the strong links between art and culture, Essien’s (2020) study found arts-based cultural tools, such as rituals, theatre, music, dance, literature, and poetry were highly effective in peacebuilding and women were more receptive to them than men. This brief introduction highlights a role for social workers in local community work projects focused on context-sensitive conflict-resolution using group-based dialogical, cultural, or arts-based interventions. Before examining what social workers can do, we highlight the dimensions of ongoing violent conflict in Nigeria, a country of multiple ethnoreligious diversities artificially created as a single nation through British north-south unification in 1914. As Siollun (2021) observed, though artists, poets, writers, and sculptors tried to forge a common national cultural identity, ‘it was difficult to build patriotism and emotional loyalty to a country created by a foreign invader and inhabited by people whose prior loyalties had never extended beyond their family, village or kingdom’ (p. 325). Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north and Christian south collectively contain 250 ethnic identities.
Adegbami and Adeoye's (2021) insightful analysis highlighted the central role violent conflict played and its impact on development in Nigeria to the extent that the government's inability to quell violent groups and instil peace and security has led to a loss of trust in political leaders and labels like failed state. They discussed the interacting reasons for, and causes of, 60 years of ongoing post-independence violent conflicts hampering development, including insurgencies, armed banditry, and hostage-taking; farmers-herders' disputes; poverty, inequality, and unemployment; ethnoreligious diversity and religious extremism; failure of the social contract; and culture of impunity among public officers. Ushie (2013) added resource wealth, especially in the oil-rich Niger Delta. These violent conflicts damaged people's livelihoods, welfare, and health, especially in conflict-affected areas. They had led to increases in the number of people with disabilities, displaced people, children engaged in armed conflict, out-of-school children, and people with mental illness. Additionally, they exacerbated older people's wellbeing and violence against women and children. They had also discouraged local and foreign investment with dire consequences for economic and social development.
Social workers’ humanitarian values orient them toward supporting peace-building processes that engage warring parties in conflict resolution by listening to their grievances (Tanyi et al., 2021). Ajibo et al. (2018) highlight that social workers are constantly mediating conflicts in their everyday practice, identifying and analysing underlying interests, engaging in dialogue, and listening to the conflicting parties’ proposed solutions. Their skills of accessing or linking people to resources is part of this process. On a broader level, social workers engage in policy interventions, as in the herdsmen-farmer conflicts, where inadequate national policies and interventions were partially responsible for land disputes (Ajibo et al., 2018).
Through their professional associations, social workers can mobilise support for peacebuilding initiatives. They can preserve human rights and advocate for social justice by aligning with organisations promoting peace. Neufeldt et al.'s (2020) case study of the 2001-2008 Jos conflict provides information on how social workers might have aligned themselves with faith-based organisations involved in peacebuilding activities, including training and workshops, dialogue and mediation, relief distribution, advocacy, and legal assistance.
Most important is a dialogical approach, or what Habermas (1987) called communicative action, where all parties in the conflict have their say in expressing their grievances and contributing to problem solution. Communicative action occurs when people reach agreement on goals and actions. For Habermas, social order cannot exist without it; the dialogical processes through which people reach consensual understanding strengthens social integration and solidarity. For Blaug (1995), communicative action becomes embedded in social work through increased user involvement and participation, networking, action learning, and peer support. As Houston (2009) observed, taking Habermas's idea of communicative action seriously makes communication the focal point of social work (and peacebuilding) activities. We know we are on this path when we continuously strive to understand another person's perspective, difficult as this may be, and build on this understanding to achieve consensus with points of view that differ from our own, and with which we might disagree. It requires that we reason and talk our way through tension and difference to reach mutual understanding and agreement. Communicative action‘reinforces the considerable agency of local actors in peacebuilding' (Neufeldt et al., 2020, p. 14).
The global definition of social work claims that the principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility, and respect for diversities guide social work in promoting social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people (IASSW/IFSW, 2014). By implication, social work education prepares practitioners committed to these principles and provides the knowledge, practice frameworks, and skills that enable them to foster collaboration and engage in collective action to change unjust social conditions and structures that prevent the fulfilment of human rights. In Nigeria, the most pressing factors hampering social cohesion and human wellbeing contribute to, and result from, ongoing violent conflicts. To respond to this situation, in the first instance, social work education would need a much greater focus on local contexts and curriculum content on the factors leading to, and exacerbating, conflict, in an educational context that encourages discussion and debate, with educators modelling skills and behaviour oriented toward consensual understanding. In a social environment rife with ethnoreligious differences and tensions, social work students need practice frameworks that foster social cohesion and transformative change, on the one hand, and promote peacebuilding and reconciliation, on the other.
Most importantly, however, they need new knowledge with readings lists of articles by Nigerian and other African scholars, who have studied the historical and contemporary factors contributing to, and exacerbating, conflict and hampering social development. There is a rich knowledge reservoir on which to draw, with the reference list for this article, providing a few of these. They also need to learn theories that expand their minds and open up new perspectives, possibilities, and understandings. The example we provide of Habermas' communicative action is one such theory. Learning about and understanding different theoretical approaches to peacebuilding would enrich students' knowledge.
Neufeldt et al. (2020) provides a useful overview of the theoretical origins of, and influences on, peacebuilding theories. Perhaps best known to African social work scholars is Paulo Freire's (1971) pedagogy of the oppressed, a conflict-oriented critical theory of 'transformation and peacebuilding … rooted within local and relational contexts' (Neufeldt et al., 2020, p. 2). Alongside transformative theories like Freire's are liberal peace theories drawn from political science and international relations with a focus on post-conflict state building. Though Habermas is a critical theorist, his theory of communicative action, like liberal peace theories, has a democratising ethos, wherein the goal is social harmony and consensus building. Liberal peace theories come from an outsider perspective and inform international interventions that, though they emphasise local participation, do not necessarily involve local agency. In other words, as in representative democracies, they seek local groups and organisations that represent the interests of local communities involved in conflicts, not necessarily those involved in the conflict themselves. Combining these is a third hybrid theory of international-local engagement (Neufeldt et al., 2020).
Theories that promote harmony, solidarity, and nation building are consistent with the Nigerian National Universities Commission’s (2007) benchmark curriculum standards for social work. They could be part of stand-alone courses on social work and peacebuilding or inform any courses that involve the study of social problems, because conflict affects every client group with which social workers engage. It affects women on an interpersonal, community, and policy level. It affects children, whose education it constantly disrupts. Resultantly Nigeria has the world’s largest out-of-school population. It is a major cause of Nigeria’s large displaced and trafficked population with older people, women, and children most affected. Social work students need to learn to deal with conflict at all levels by developing skills and strategies of communication, relationship building, negotiation, mediation, and advocacy.
To tease out issues relating to social justice, like violent conflict and human rights violations, educators need to engage in curriculum development workshops, where they discuss ways of incorporating these themes into their courses and teaching strategies and skills to address violence, conflict, and oppression at all levels of engagement (Onalu et al., 2021). Courses need to include diverse social work theories, models, methods, and perspectives that inform understanding of social justice, such as rights-based approaches that emphasise the importance of human rights observance, the policies ratified by Nigeria in this regard, how they inform local policy in various areas, and the models they suggest, like anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice. Feminist theory provides an understanding of women’s inequality and oppression and suggests practices that promote their inclusion and consider their voices. Structural theory promotes an understanding of the way social institutions and practices discriminate against women, children, and minorities. They promote understanding of stigma and discrimination as practices embedded in the system, due to cultural and religious understandings of mental health, disabilities, and epilepsy, for example. All these theories emphasise the importance of context and the role of race, gender, ethnicity, class, religion, and ethnicity play in shaping people’s understanding and behaviour. Addressing violent conflict requires complex understanding of these intersecting factors and the way in which they place individuals and communities at odds with one another.
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Onalu, C. E., & Okoye, U. O. (2021). Social justice and social work curriculum at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria. Research on Social Work Practice, 31(6), 576-583.
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Tanyi, P. L., Odo, C. O., Omeje, A. E., & Ugwuanyi, C. A. (2021). Ethnic agitations and threat of secession in Nigeria: What can social workers do? Journal of Social Work in Developing Societies, 3(2), 29-45.
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