In northeast Nigeria, the Boko Haram insurgency is now in its tenth year. Young people have been at the heart of the conflict – whether as perpetrators or victims of extreme violence – yet they are all too often excluded from processes to build peace. As a result, they have become increasingly disengaged from society.
Mohammed was the founder and leader of a violent armed gang in Yobe State, northeast Nigeria:
"We were just a group of friends from the community who got together and took drugs as a way to forget about the violence. But over time, we turned to dealing drugs. The drugs made us violent, they changed our mind sets. We were feared in the community, everyone was scared of us. We were rejected by everyone; my parents didn’t want me at the house. I felt hopeless and angry, it just made the gang more stubborn and violent. Eventually, politicians started using us to undertake violence for their own gains – they would buy us arms, ammunition, or our drugs."
This cycle of violence is all too common in northeast Nigeria, but without support networks the cycle won’t stop:
"I knew we were doing wrong. I tried so many times to stop selling drugs and getting in trouble with the police. But I always fell back into it."
Over the past year, we’ve been working with local civil society organisations to establish 12 Youth Peace Platforms in northeast Nigeria. These groups of young people target the most vulnerable and excluded youth living in communities that have been under the control of Boko Haram, or that face repeated attacks. Mohammed and his gang were idenitified as among the most troublesome and at-risk group in this community. Gradually, the YPPs and the gang began to talk:
"Their visit to us expressed love. Nobody had ever come to speak to us like that before. They weren’t saying we were bad people, but they expressed love for us. Their visit made us feel like we belonged in the community."
The trust that had been established over the outreach sessions meant that when the YPP invited the group to take part in their activities, every member attended. Like many of his fellow gang members, Mohammed pledged to give up his criminal behaviour and to commit himself to helping his community:
"Now that the other youth in the YPP support me and believe in me, for the first time, I feel like I have a bright future.
"I have not sold drugs for six months and have taken up farming. I will never carry any weapon to destroy my own people and property again – that’s a promise. We have changed the name of the gang to Nice Club and rather than sell drugs we try to help the community in some way –we do sanitation, help people on their farms and do other charity work. I want my life to be an example to others about how you can change, I want to tell people my story, tell them about my old life and how different it is from the present one I am enjoying."
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Pioneers of peace often come from communities experiencing violence. Living at the hard-edge of conflict, they feel its effects every day – and are often best placed to understand its causes.