Plateau State, in central Nigeria, has been marred by long-standing conflicts between religious and ethnic groups. The primary source of contention stems from the fierce competition for resources, notably land, and involves two key actors: the predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen and the primarily Christian indigenous farmers. The conflict has claimed countless lives, inflicted extensive property damage, and displaced entire communities from their homes. The proliferation of small arms and light weapons in the region has further exacerbated the conflict.

In response to the crisis, the Nigerian government has taken decisive action, deploying military personnel to the region, establishing peace committees, and engaging in dialogues with community leaders. Despite these concerted efforts, outbreaks of violence have persisted.

One institution actively working to promote peace and reconciliation in Plateau State is the Plateau Peacebuilding Agency (PPBA), a government agency established on 2 February 2016. The PPBA engages in activities such as conflict prevention, mediation, and conflict resolution, as well as promoting interfaith and interethnic harmony.

Peace Insight’s Local Peacebuilding Expert in Nigeria, Prince Charles Dickson, recently had the opportunity to interview the Director General of the agency, Joseph Lengmang, who shed light on the agency’s efforts to bring peace to Plateau State.

Prince Charles Dickson (PCD): Could you tell us more about the Plateau Peacebuilding Agency PPBA, the first state-actor-established peacebuilding body in Nigeria?

Joseph Lengmang (JL): The Plateau Peacebuilding Agency is the first of its kind that has intentionally moved from being a reactionary government institution to one that is prepared to handle conflict through a proactive means; ditching the commission and panel of inquiry model and instead identifying conflicts at its latent stage before it escalates. The agency is people-centred. We shift attention from government, mobilise stakeholders to stop conflicts, and more often than not tackle it at its roots.

We deal with the traditional and non-traditional security sectors, trying to ensure a harmonised relationship between the various ethnic groups that make up the state. (As you may want to know, the state has one of the highest concentrations of ethnic nationalities in Nigeria).

It is a hub for the effective coordination of all conflict prevention and peacebuilding efforts in Plateau State. The PPBA is non-partisan, despite being a state actor.

PCD: Speaking about being non-partisan, how have you coped with the suspicion citizens have of the state being involved in conflict resolution in this manner?

JL: It is a tough environment to navigate especially as a technocrat in a political setting where there is a lot of politics. Over time we have mustered goodwill and respect, though it is not yet Uhuru (freedom), our sensitive nature requires the buy-in of the people and we are constantly doing this. We are maintaining our independence. While not easy, what we have done is to make our work people-centred and stakeholder-centric. We had a few false starts, meandering the rapids of high waters as a non-political actor.

The issue of dependency or non-partisanship, as you put it, is also a two-way pull. There is a need for people to see the level of commitment and the need for the agency to be largely insulated from government interference, and I dare say that the government has tried.

PCD: Many people don’t realize, but peacebuilding takes a lot of funds. How are you coping with funding?

JL: We have refused to be totally reliant on the government because that has its positive and negative sides in terms of respect and credibility with stakeholders and partners. And what many people do not realize is that the government has priorities, and while peace is important we do not get as much funding as we would love to get. We are equally working on amendments that would grant us autonomy as a quasi-government agency. That way we are able to explore other areas of financial sustainability. Having said this much, there are the constraints of funds.

For example, with COVID-19 our agency was exposed to the vulnerability and reality of donor baskets, and we are adjusting, but it also provided new avenues for engagements with our partners. The fact was the agency must outlive this current administration, and in so doing we are working with partners across local and international spectrums.

We have very valuable cooperation across the board, former example, the US Embassy, DFID, Tear-fund, UNDP, GIZ, Nigeria Early Recovery Initiative, USIP, training from TRICentre through the Peace Direct’s Local Action Fund has helped us in our interventions, and build our capacity.

PCD: What are your thoughts on the ongoing conversation of decolonisation especially having spoken about the issue of funding?

JL: We developed a five-year strategic plan that was endorsed by the nation's outgoing president with five thematic areas. At the heart of them is building local peace structures and local mechanisms. It is not easy, we have conflicts whose roots are not easily understood by donors or funders. And while we understand the need for partnership, we want a partnership that understands local contexts and is going to be driven by local needs.

I also believe that conversation on decolonisation is a must in light of donor fatigue. We also need to look at the consequences of these conversations and ask why now and the impacts. I believe that even the vocabulary of the development world would have to change to pro-local.

PCD: Do you think that enough is being done and that there is an understanding in the decolonisation conversation?

JL: First, let me state that the agency looks at decolonisation from a local lens, with an understanding that donor aid and power relations need to change in favour of the needs and priorities of locals. There is a need to amplify the voices and leadership of recipients in the design and implementation of aid programs. Programs should not just be brought from elsewhere; donors and funders should not see us as implementers. We should avoid the path that says this is the highway, the only way.

There is indigenous knowledge and traditional practices that can be incorporated into aid programs, which we believe can equally help in addressing concerns in reducing aid dependency and tackling sustainability. Donors have the money, but the conflict is ours. Understanding the profile of the actors and locals is important – all of these need localisation.

The reason I say this is because from experience, I see the issues from a sense of awareness, and impact, there is history for me in the conversation, while for others, for example maybe the UK, it is like a Ph.D. dissertation, having a whole lot of complexities and I think like a talk-show for them.

PCD: Tell us finally about your five-year plan.

JL: The plan has gone accordingly, despite financial constraints. The good part is that our partners have adopted several key recommendations of the plan. The successes also can be attributed to the quality of the partnership. We, however, believe that there is room for improvement and consolidation. We take seriously the act and art of listening to the communities. The plan is ongoing and continues to evolve. New and fresh perspectives and approaches to peacebuilding and conflict resolution.