Ending civil wars in Nigeria and beyond

By Nicole Feldman. Featuring Karl Eikenberry, the Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow at FSI’s Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, and FSI senior fellows Paul Wise and Stephen D. Krasner.

In Nigeria’s northeastern state of Borno, fighting between Boko Haram and the Nigerian military has driven over 1 million people from their homes. Cholera has broken out, nutrition is plummeting, and supplies aren’t coming: large areas are inaccessible to government and humanitarian agencies.

And no one is talking about it, outside of Nigeria at least. While global headlines feature fighting in Syria or the Rohingya genocide, international media has largely forgotten this civil war.

“You could feel the fear that global interest was fading and would leave in its wake a kind of indifference to the suffering that is affecting literally millions of people,” said Paul Wise, the Richard E. Behrman Professor of Child Health and Society, upon speaking to a local NGO worker.

In many countries, internal violence like the conflict in Borno rages quietly. A team of scholars, led by FSI’s Karl Eikenberry and Stephen D. Krasner, is working with policymakers and humanitarians around the world to meet the threats posed by these conflicts and learn how to stop them.

Karl Eikenberry speaks with the National Defence College Nigeria. Photo courtesy of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

“The purpose is to take our ideas and test them in the field,” said Eikenberry, the Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center.

Their project focuses on civil wars: how they’ve changed over the last 20 years, how those changes threaten both locals and the world at large, and how the international community can help to end them. Supported by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Eikenberry and Krasner began the project, entitled Civil Wars, Violence and International Responses, by editing the fall 2017 and winter 2018 volumes of Daedalus. The essays, eight of which were written by scholars from the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), outline issues and possible solutions to new threats like increasing numbers of refugees, fighting that spills across borders, and the increased likelihood of a global pandemic.

Karl Eikenberry and Stephen Krasner explain the civil wars project on World Class.

Now the team is putting those ideas to the test. This year, small groups of scholars are traveling around the world, talking to policymakers and to people affected by intrastate violence.

“Our effort has been to speak less: let people know what our findings were, and then encourage them to be very candid and to provide frank feedback,” said Eikenberry. “To let us know where we got things wrong and where we’ve been incomplete in our analysis.”

Nigeria was the first stop on a tour that will include Ethiopia, Columbia, the Balkans and more.

“There’s no real substitute for being there, even if it’s for a relatively short time,” said Wise.

Visiting in person allowed the authors to meet with groups like the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Civil wars are lasting longer, and the number of refugees fleeing to nearby countries has increased. As we’ve seen with the Syrian crisis, many nations struggle to absorb the daunting numbers of migrants. Within Nigeria, large numbers of people have been displaced by conflict.

The UN team helped the scholars get a better idea of what is happening on the ground in areas packed with refugees.

“The team that we met was absolutely superb,” said Eikenberry. “This was a great example of where the outreach that we’ve been doing can pay such dividends.”

The scholars and the UN plan to work together on a solution.

Karl Eikenberry meets with W. Stuart Symington, U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria. Photo courtesy of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

For the refugees to return home, war within Nigeria must cease. Finding a peaceful solution involves players in the international community as well as within Nigeria.

The United States already provides military aid, focusing on Boko Haram. While everyone agrees that Boko Haram is a problem, it’s not the only security issue Nigeria faces.

A remnant of the Biafran war, fighting still breaks out in southeastern Nigeria when separatists turn to violence in their quest for independence. In the delta region, groups like the Niger Delta Avengers fight for a greater share of the region’s proceeds, and their violent protests have at times crippled Nigeria’s oil production.

Within Nigeria, these groups are just as disruptive as Boko Haram, but the international community tends to focus on the better-known, more globally-oriented terrorist group.

Through their talks with Nigerians on the ground, the scholars aim to understand how best to bridge the gap between international priorities and local needs, and how to apply those lessons in other parts of the world.

The threat of a global pandemic is particularly relevant here. Nigeria was just across the border from the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Wise, who co-authored a Daedalus essay on pandemics with Michele Barry, exchanged ideas with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control about how to manage an outbreak in a nearby country with porous borders.

“We tailor our group of participants according to the particular site,” said Eikenberry. “Paul with his incredible knowledge of epidemiology and global health issues was fantastic to send to Nigeria.”

After a travel-filled 2018, Eikenberry and Krasner plan to write an occasional paper for policymakers, taking the essays from Daedalus, modifying them with ideas shared around the globe, and adding next steps to change how the international community handles civil wars.

If all goes well, areas like Borno that can’t seem to surface from conflict will get some relief, and the people trying to help them will not feel abandoned.

As Wise said, “The feeling of being forgotten when you’re so dependent on the support of the international community is something you don’t forget.”

(Left to right) Will Reno (Director of the Program of African Studies at Northwestern University and Daedalus author), Karl Eikenberry, Michael Femi Sodipo (Project Coordinator of the Peace Initiative Network in Nigeria), Paul Wise, and Abdeta Dribssa Beyene (Executive Director of the Centre for Dialogue, Research and Cooperation in Ethiopia). Photo courtesy of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.