A few years ago, I represented the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) in a working group put together by the Nigerian Stability and Reconciliation Programme (NSRP), a DFID-funded special purpose project to shore up Nigeria’s conflict reduction and peacebuilding efforts. The task was to come up with an action plan for preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) for the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA).
I participated alongside a huge cast of civil society, public service and bureaucrat types. Representing a writer’s union, my interests lay in ensuring that “soft” approaches to PCVE were captured, alongside the interventions one expects where NGO-types gather. I was pleased by the quality of the brain trust in those meetings at the Chelsea Hotel in central Abuja and learnt quite a bit. I thought it a worthwhile even if it was unpaid effort and hoped to see the plan became useful in combating one of the biggest of Nigeria’s threat profiles—violent extremism, especially as represented by Boko Haram. Eventually, the draft was reviewed and that was the last I heard of it. Until two years later when, by happenstance, I came across a copy of the Policy Framework and National Action Plan for PCVE as published by the NSA’s office.
Extremism in and of itself is disturbing enough and is usually found amongst young people of a choleric bent. It is something that life, a job, family and responsibility weans most of them from. Trouble comes when crisis entrepreneurs, sensing state weakness in an area with legitimate socio-political and cultural grievances, weaponize these extreme ideas. Violence, in various guises, is often the logical next step if these anti-state actors have the ability. Violent extremists thrive on two main things—narratives and terror—and these are used in a good-cop-bad-cop mix to meet their objectives.
In the case of Boko Haram, the narrative lines that have twisted together like an electric iron’s cable are 1) that a geo-political Muslim Umma exists which all Muslims are a part of; 2) that Muslims are being oppressed by “Christians” in Nigeria as evidenced by ethno-religious crisis ranging from Kafanchan to Jos and by an assumed “the West” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, China and elsewhere; 3) that local Muslims ought to defend themselves, which is reasonable, and also ought to attack local communities for things that happen abroad, in the said Iraq and Syria for example, which is not. The interplay of these narratives, backed by convenient misinterpretation of religious text and the ability to network with like-minded extremists, be it Al-Qaeda or its alqaedalettes, justifies the second part, the use of terror: suicide bombings, the kidnap and killing of schoolchildren, the bombing of churches, government offices, markets, and attacks on security personnel, all of which lead to civilian casualties and the spread of the fear of one’s personal life amongst even those who are directly unaffected. This was the position, or the general understanding, of the NSRP working group, as I saw it. Our job was to flesh out a framework for policy interventions following several strategic directives given by just about every Nigerian president since 1999.
To the document itself. It’s in three parts, the first of which expounds the Strategic Context of the National Action Plan, demonstrating a clear understanding that the government alone cannot address the threat of violent extremism. I have spoken about the virulent, cell-like structure of the Boko Haram insurgency here and here. I’ve said elsewhere that while it is important to continue shooting at all violent extremists who shoot at our gallant troops, we will not shoot our way to peace in the northeast, hence a mix of kinetic and PCVE approaches. The Strategic Context positions its human rights protection emphasis clearly and states that creating partnerships that will ensure “safer, secure and resilient” communities is its aim.
The NAP sets out its legal bona fides, rooting itself in S14 (2) of the 1999 Constitution as well as the Terrorism Prevention Act, the National Security Strategy and the National Counterterrorism Strategy and various United Nations and regional commitments on PCVE.
The second part of the Plan sets out the core constituencies and the guiding principles necessary to achieve the objective of safe, secure and resilient Nigerian communities whether it is in the northeast, in Jos or elsewhere. This is actually very important as this illustrates the all-of-government and the all-of-society concepts of strategic planning; it is pretty cutting edge stuff. It identifies Youth and Students, Women and Girls, Schools and Teachers, Community Leaders, Faith-based organizations, Health and Social Workers, Civil Society Organizations, Media and Social Media Influencers as well as Artists and Social Mobilisers, the Private Sector and Policing and Civil Military Relations as the key partners in animating the Plan. Under each of these headings, carefully phrased and exhaustive notes are provided on how these stakeholders can play their roles as envisaged.
The third part of this document sets out an implementation matrix. A national Steering Committee under the strategic coordination of the National Security Adviser is to be created which would factor in the stakeholders already identified in Part II for the purpose of ensuring an “integrated, coordinated, comprehensive and adaptive” implementation of the National Action Plan. It says all the right things and provides for a Secretariat to be created with two primary committees—one for Civil Society Partnerships and another for Strategic Communications. Four Priority Components for this Secretariat are identified—1) Strengthening Institutions and Coordination for PCVE Programming; 2) Strengthening Rule of Law and Access to Justice, and Human Rights Approaches; 3) Engaging Communities and Building Resilience and, lastly, Integrating Strategic Communications in PCVE programming. An exhaustive list of roles and responsibilities is provided alongside timelines of PCVE projects as envisaged under the National Action Plan side by side the actual implementation matrix. A section on using literature and the arts for counternarratives STRATCOM, which was my suggestion, is suitably captured within Component 4.
From the foregoing, this is a very important document, a silver bullet if you will, for addressing violent extremism in Nigeria. Underscoring the importance of this National Action Plan on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism in Nigeria is the fact that the Head of State, Muhammadu Buhari, caused a Presidential Directive to be issued under his hand on the 24th of August, 2017, alongside mandating the implementation of the Plan in all Federal MDAs while encouraging states and local governments to mirror and develop their own action plans based on the national Plan. Further, within the PCVE NAP, State governments are encouraged to appoint State PCVE Coordinators to work on and deliver on state-specific PCVE plans.
Now, putting it all together. Question: What has happened to this Policy Framework and National Action Plan on PCVE? Answer: Not a whole lot. It is not even widely available and on a couple of occasions, postgraduate students working in the areas of CT and Africa-focused Strategic Studies, at home and abroad, have asked me if the document actually exists. Nigeria’s most important document for PCVE activity is wil-o’-the-wisp-esque. I certainly did not get a copy of the final draft, nor did I get a copy when it was printed.
A little over a year after it was issued, the NSA’s office held a three-day training for NGOs, as reported by Today.ng and Legit.ng, which stated that the Presidency had approved special funding related to the Plan as part of the counterterrorism war. Yet, even in that report, the implementation was still futuristic, the language of “we will”. If a Steering Committee was inaugurated for this Plan, as envisaged, there is no indication of it in a cursory Google news search. Is there a Secretariat for PCVE NAP? I have no idea. The Counter Terrorism Centre, identified in the Plan as having a key responsibility, exists and its reasonably regularly updated website was, as at March 8 2020, still urging Federal MDAs to establish PCVE desks. Three whole years after the Plan was released, its potential remains unrealized, its coordinative power remains unharnessed in dealing a knockout combo to violent extremism in Nigeria. Most definitely, no state government in Nigeria has a State PCVE Coordinator and I’ll bet that this country’s 700+ odd local government councils have zero idea what the PCVE NAP is about or their own crucial roles in implementing it. Within civil society, there may be some knowledge of the Plan, especially amongst those who participated in the working group. Likely very little outside this group.
What is clear from all this is the fact that in Nigeria, generating the brain trust for maximum brilliance is not the problem. Not all of us have run to Canada or wherever else. Clearly also, synthesising this brain trust and coming up with thorough plans, be they strategic, tactical or even advisory, is equally not the problem as we have seen in the all-of-government and all-of-society sinews of the National Action Plan on PCVE. What we lack is implementation and this breaks my heart, for all the wasted opportunity to rebuild our ship of state against state failure, to rejig our administrative and social systems. We are thus like the doubly unfortunate person cast into the sea of violent extremism who has a lifebuoy but does not know, or pretends not to know, how to go about inflating it. Thus we continue this very unseemly business of drowning.
I am just a columnist and I hate appeals as much as the next person but today, I am flouting this preference. I have explained this very important document to “the streets”, in memory of Professor Pius Adesanmi, to the masses, so that you each can write letters to your governors, your Representatives and Senators, the Ministers “representing” your part of federal character asking WHY the National Action Plan on Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism has not been streamlined all-of-government and tasking them on what they intend to do about that.
Let us not be the unfortunate fellows who bath with spittle at the banks of the river Niger, as the late sage, Chinua Achebe, once stated, which quote we should all do well to remember and think on.
Richard Ali was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2010 and has worked in private legal practice, consulted in a policy-shaping role at the Ministry of Interior (2015 to 2017) and has run a preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) programme. His expertise is in soft approaches to PCVE. He is an alumnus of the US National Defence University’s Africa