How to End War and Cure Violence

Lesson 1: Detention Doesn’t Work

“An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.”

Last month, the Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria entered its thirteenth year. The protracted conflict has displaced more than two million people and caused the deaths of 350,000 people. How does this end?

Women queue for relief at the Teachers’ Village IDP camp in Maiduguri, 2019. (TNH)

The insurgents have had only two real ways of leaving the fight: death on the battlefield or death in detention. As one researcher put it: “A bullet or Giwa [detention centre] is not much of a choice.” 

Giwa Barracks was opened as a temporary detention centre for Boko Haram detainees, but several years on, rights groups say it has become one of the notorious cells operated by the Nigerian military across the war-ravaged northeast. In May 2016, Amnesty International released a report on the Giwa barracks detention centre, calling it a “place of death.” 

Starvation, thirst, severe overcrowding that led to spread of diseases, torture and lack of medical attention has resulted in at least 10,000 civilians dying in Nigerian military custody since 2011. In June 2013 alone, more than 1,400 corpses were delivered from the barracks to one of the mortuaries in Maiduguri.

After Boko Haram fighters attacked Giwa barracks on 14 March 2014 and most detainees either escaped or were recaptured and executed, the number of detainees decreased significantly, and so did the number of deaths. However, in 2016, Giwa barracks still housed about 1,200 people, including 120 boys between the ages of five and 16 years. Of the 120 boys, only seven were older than 12 years. As with all detainees at the barracks, these children were held incommunicado and denied access to their families.

In the first six months of 2016, 149 detainees had died, including 12 children – ten boys and two girls. Four of the boys were one-year-olds, and the others were five months, two years, three years, four years, five years and 15 years old respectively. The girls were approximately two years and five years old.

A 20-year-old woman detained for more than two months in 2016, told Amnesty International: 

“When the children died, the reaction was too much sadness and everyone, the whole place, we were in sadness.”

Children under five years old were detained in three women’s cells. Through 2015 these cells held around 25 people each, but by early 2016 this had risen to around 250 women and teenage girls, as well as many children under five. Two of the female detainees told Amnesty International that there were approximately 20 children under five per cell. Overcrowding and insanitary conditions meant that disease was rife.

A teenage girl, detained in a women’s cell for more than two months in 2016, told Amnesty International about conditions in her cell:

“The cell is overcrowded with children and elderly. There are many children with us in the cell between one month and one year. The cell is too congested, you can’t turn from right to left when you sleep. In the night the chairman arranges you in lines for sleeping.”

Cells were very hot and the detainees were only allowed to wash themselves and their clothes around once per month.

A man who was released from Giwa barracks at the same time as several boys told Amnesty International that, during the release, some of the boys were reunited with their parents who had also been detained at the barracks in other cells. One of the boys confirmed that whole families were arrested, saying:

“Some said they were arrested with their families. Their father was in a cell and mother inside the women’s cell and the girls stayed with the mothers. When they were brought to the detention centre they were separated.”

The Giwa detention centre is a massive problem and is one big reason why the fighting doesn’t stop.

Uppermost in any potential defector’s mind is the fear of being sent to Giwa Barracks. “Everyone is afraid of that place, and the people in the lake [Chad] don’t trust the government [won’t send them there],” said Aliyu, who stopped fighting after spending a decade with Boko Haram. “If it wasn’t for Giwa, more would come – [the abuse that happens there] is the biggest mistake the military has made.”

With a high likelihood of dying in detention if captured, why would any fighters stop?

But, what if there was a different option? An option of mercy that allowed these fighters to put down their guns and stop the fighting?

That’s what is now happening in Nigeria.

Lesson 2: Have Some Mercy

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Bryan Stevenson

Earlier this month, The New Humanitarian reported on a top-secret programme, known as sulhu, which is encouraging senior jihadist commanders to defect and providing them with government benefits.

Sulhu offers a way out for those looking to quit. It’s a peace deal made with the individual combatants, and protects them from either being possibly killed by the military if they are caught defecting independently, or indefinite detention in Giwa barracks. “A bullet or Giwa is not much of a choice,” said the researcher. “Sulhu is a much better option.”

It uniquely also welcomes the wives and children of the former fighters, who are given vocational training and psychological support in a Borno State-run centre in Maiduguri.

More than 1,000 Boko Haram fighters have surrendered to the army in the last few weeks – handing over the weapons they carried. (TNH)

The story of sulhu bears a striking resemblance to Violence Interruption in the United States. They both teach us that the the road towards peace must be paved with mercy.

Violence interruption is a community-based approach to reducing communal and interpersonal violence that treats violence as a public health problem. In the United States, violence interruption is a focused deterrence, problem oriented and community driven practice to addressing gun violence. It is a partnership between law enforcement and community partners. Individuals providing violence interruption services are known as violence interrupters. Techniques used include mediation and measures to address underlying causes of violence such as poverty. These mediation’s are usually between rival gangs. The violence interrupters are people who have lived experience and usually come from the neighborhoods they work in, making them “credible messengers”. Maintaining respect and trust from the community is of the utmost importance to foster strong relationships with the individuals who are being served so that they maintain their credibility as messengers. They also help these individuals access services that can address the underlying root causes of an individual’s actions. For example, job training and job placement.

The initiatives use a public health model to prevent violence and crime by treating them as diseases. The CeaseFire program implemented in Boston decreased homicides by 71% and reduced gun assaults by 70%. Baltimore’s replication of CeaseFire showed program-related reductions in gun violence in three of four neighborhoods where it operated; neighborhoods with more conflict mediations had greater reductions in homicides.

Lesson 3: Defund the Hawks

The prison-industrial complex and the military-industrial complex are here with us and are multi-billion dollar enterprises. We can make more money off the kid in Compton if he’s a criminal instead of a scholar. It’s business.

Henry Rollins

Since World War 2, the USA has been plagued by a military-industrial complex (MIC) that, at present, takes over 700 billion dollars of public funds on bombs and bullets instead of social programs, like education and health care. None of this is necessary. The Pentagon is the least accountable part of the federal government, wasting billions of dollars on needless bureaucracy, pouring billions more into dangerous (and redundant) nuclear weapons, and cozying up to contractors who siphon off roughly half of the Pentagon’s budget each year.

Imagine a world where the War Hawks weren’t in charge of spending our tax dollars.

The same MIC problem faces all countries that can always seem to find money for their militaries but never for their poorest citizens.

Nigeria spends two billion dollars a year on its military. Although this is a much smaller figure than the US, it is the second largest in sub-Saharan Africa and more than all of West Africa combined. Worst of all, it is a waste.

In Nigeria, armed forces don’t have the best equipment to fight against terrorists and bandits because military personnelpoliticians and other public officers enrich themselves by diverting public funds meant to fight terror and insecurity. According to Temitope Francis Abiodun, to avoid wasteful military spending and attain stable security in Nigeria, there must be transparency and accountability in military budgeting and procurement processes. Corrupt and incompetent security chiefs who have turned the nation’s security into a “business venture” should be shown the way out.

Taking this full circle, police departments in the United States are terribly bloated and ineffective. Take, for example, the New York Police Department.

Since 2014, the NYPD’s budget has increased by more than $1 billion to nearly $6 billion in 2019, though the proceeds it receives from contracts remain shrouded in secrecy. This $6 billion amounts to more than the budgets for the Departments of Health ($1.9 billion), Homeless Services ($2.1 billion), Youth and Community Development ($907 million), and Small Business Services ($293 million) combined.

The New York police department has a budget THREE TIMES LARGER than the military of Nigeria!


Imagine if all this money, from overfunded militaries and policing, was spent on actually helping people?

Imagine if just a fraction went into ending violence, rather than just managing it?

The Sulhu program and Violence Interrupters both show a unique alternative path for people who would otherwise continue to use violence to solve their problems.

However, policy hawks who advocate for continued violence, through ever-growing military and police budgets, to fight violence have shown to be wrong. Both in terms of policy and morality.

The amount of dead and displaced in Nigeria (like most protracted conflicts over the past decades) teach us that the military is not the solutions. So, what is the solution?

Development. Investment in people not in guns.

These are the only things that will end violence and wars. Insurgent groups and gangs both thrive in environments that have been ignored and underdeveloped by their national leaders. When no one cares about your well-being, then people will become desperate and more likely to become violent.

Lashonia Thompson-El, who co-leads Cure The Streets, the violence interruption program at the D.C. attorney general’s office, worries that during an economic downturn like the one triggered by the pandemic, when people’s basic needs for food and safety go unmet, the disease of violence can spread.

“First of all, some of these are families and friends and people that we know and love, so we don’t want them to be hungry and malnourished … during a very stressful time,” says Thompson-El. “But second of all, we don’t want this need to lead to more conflict, more inability to resolve situations that could potentially lead to violence.”

Unfortunately, for the corrupt politicians and greedy arms manufacturers, peace isn’t profitable.

Police unions — the only unions that fight against the working class rather than for it — regularly fight calls for funding to shift away from armed responders to unarmed responders. Rather than shifting funding towards more teachers, they fight for more police in schools. Rather than funding mental health and harm reduction, they sign million-dollar contracts for tasers and other “less lethal” (but still lethal) technology.

We need to stop listening to these national and global warmongers, who prescribe violence as the answer to any and all social problems. There arguments are hollow and outdated.

We must chart a new path. One of peace that allows people to put down their guns and chose to reclaim their humanity.

Police line during the sweep of Treaty Camp, north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, October 27, 2016

Those of us who love peace must organize as effectively as the war hawks. As they spread the propaganda of war, we must spread the propaganda of peace.

Martin Luther King Jr.

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