Youth Participation in Peace Processes Key to Sustainable Development

By CoD Youth Lead Rafiu Lawal from Nigeria 

August 2011, my heart was filled with joy after I fulfilled all requirements for a Bachelor’s degree at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, Southwest, Nigeria. I was very delighted because all fresh Nigerian graduates are expected to proceed to the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) Scheme where we commit one full year in service of our fatherland. My joy, however, was breached when the list for posting was released. Lo and behold, I was posted to Borno State, for the one-year mandatory national service.

Borno State, is a State located in the Northeastern part of Nigeria, traditionally, one of the most peaceful states to live in and used to be the pride of Northern Nigeria. However, it had within a short time, become a dreaded place in the entire Sahel due to the activities of Boko Haram terrorist group, resulting in the loss of over a hundred thousand of innocent lives including women, children and youth, destruction of property worth billions of naira and displacement of about 4 million people. I remember clearly how some traders from my community in Ibadan, Southwest, Nigeria went to Borno State to buy beans and tomatoes in large quantities only for them to be attacked and their corpse transported back to Ibadan in Southwestern, Nigeria. The entire community went into mourning. So, for the fear of being killed and sacrificed on the altar of violence for the conflict I know nothing about, I rejected the posting and sought redeployment from the north back to southwest, Nigeria where there was relative peace and security.

As I transport back down to the southwestern part of Nigeria, several questions dropped on my mind. Firstly, what if I couldn’t secure redeployment? What if I didn’t have a choice than to serve in Borno State or anywhere in Northeastern part of Nigeria? What if I had relatives in those places affected by the insurgency, would I run away? Would I fold my arms and allow the forces of darkness dominate light. I searched for answers, I couldn’t find. Eventually, I remembered a popular quote by a German theologian Martin Niemoller,   ‘First they came for the Socialist, and I didn’t speak out because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionist; I didn’t speak because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I was not a Jew. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak for me’’. Something struck me afterwards, I made up my mind immediately to do something to assist those people who didn’t have a choice, those whose ancestral homes were faced with destruction and whose future was been endangered. That was the turning point for me. I decided to take actions for the millions of youth who are at the risk of been consumed or killed by a conflict they have little or no control over. If we all showed more concern for those in conflict zones, maybe the world would have become a better place.

In response to this, I founded a youth NGO known as Building Blocks for Peace Foundation which has been helping to empower young people on youth participation in peacebuilding, accountability governance and sustainable development. We now run a campaign called Nigeria Youth4Peace Initiative, a movement of young people who are determined to work and support the restoration of peace in Nigeria. With this initiative, we are building the next generation of peacebuilders by organizing peace education outreaches across primary and secondary schools in Nigeria and also creating a platform for intergenerational dialogue between young people and relevant stakeholders in the peace and security sector in Nigeria x-raying the challenges and exploring possible solutions.

However, there is a major obstacle responsible for youth participation in violence and criminality in Nigeria. Our society still believe so strongly in the adage which says what an ‘elder sees while sitting, the young ones will not see even when standing on their toes’. So when it’s time to take decisions that affects all, young people are excluded from the table and not considered wise enough to offer meaningful solutions. It is believed that because of age and experience that elders have accrued, elders can easily perceive things that younger people can’t, no matter how hard they try. Youth often are not taken seriously by elders; there is strong doubt over the capacity and motivations driving youth initiatives. Adults not only did not trust them, but often censor and discourage young people from expressing their ideas.

Young people should be given the needed space and cooperation to support community development. Through our initiative, we are proving that there is an untapped ability in the Nigerian youth that can be leveraged upon if the nation will experience peace and development. We should be heard and considered as partners in progress. Nigerian youth are highly creative, knowledgeable, wise, energetic and innovative.

I ask that all stakeholders increase investment in youth and peacebuilding activities, be it through direct partnerships with youth-led organizations, developing the capacity of youth from diverse backgrounds, meaningfully including them in local, national, regional and international decision making, or by providing them with spaces to manifest their work.

A peaceful world is possible if only we give young people the needed space and support them to transform the world.