Peacebuilding in Nigeria: Interview with Dr. Suzanne Ghais

Conflict Resolution Expert DenverWe pride ourselves on having an incredible team here at Pollack Peacebuilding Systems, and so we decided to do a spotlight blog series that will feature all of the cool things our team is up to. This story is based on an interview with Dr. Suzanne Ghais, one of our amazing peacebuilders whose strengths lie in both mediation and facilitation. Suzanne facilitated a Strategy Review Session (SRS) for a US Agency for International Development (USAID) program focused on countering violent extremism in Northeastern Nigeria. We thought this was definitely a topic worth covering.

Peacebuilding to Counter Terrorism

Suzanne’s role as a mediation and facilitation expert took place in Northeastern Nigeria where she worked for a program of USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI). She and two other facilitators supported a group of over 80 individuals—the vast majority of them Nigerian—through a three-day Strategy Review Session. In preparation for this session, Suzanne and her two co-facilitators conducted individual and group interviews with the participants to understand the needs and struggles of a program serving a community where Boko Haram and an off-shoot of that terrorist organization, Islamic State West Africa Province, had such a major impact.

The facilitation team analyzed data gathered in the interviews to look for themes so they could create a customized agenda for staff of the program to improve their work in helping the community to counter the causes of violent extremism. Suzanne says her role was not to resolve conflict, but rather to promote inclusive and respectful dialogue among these peacebuilders, leading to continuous learning, heightened morale, increased team cohesion, and ultimately more effective work in “denying terrorists the space to operate” as the program describes its overarching goal.

The idea behind utilizing peacebuilding for counter-terrorism, as distinct from any military strategy, was to help strengthen the community and allow for organic, positive responses to those changes. In other words, by changing the social and physical conditions in which terrorists are able to operate and recruit, the peacebuilders hoped to see a decrease in terrorist activity.

The SRS team wanted to help the peacebuilders find some calm and even some fun, bringing them together to de-stress and connect with each other. Every unit of the organization had a voice: from those who were top-level program managers to the drivers and the folks who cleaned the offices, all of them were equally included. In this experience, Suzanne realized that facilitation carries well across cultural lines and getting people to participate was a fairly easy task.

Strengthening the Community

One of the activities Suzanne discussed as an example of the USAID program was to dig trenches around some towns bordering the areas controlled by terrorist groups. The infrastructural goal was to simply slow down the terrorist groups, forcing them to get out of their trucks rather than infiltrate the towns uninhibited. Another positive side effect of this work is that it created a source of employment for the community.

Suzanne noted that in areas where there is intense conflict, the economy is typically hit hard, so hiring locals to dig trenches becomes positive in multiple ways. In addition to providing income, the work helps people stay productive and connected to each other, which can decrease recruitment to terrorist organizations.

Terrorism tends to create a lot of isolation in communities, so strengthening positive social interactions can decrease recruitment. “You have to remember that terrorists are human beings,” Suzanne said. “And they didn’t get what they hoped for when they joined, so [these activities are] giving them some positive alternatives.”

The program also supported the revival of local holidays and festivals that foster celebration, incorporating fun, food, and increased feelings of normality, subsequently strengthening the cohesion of the community. Getting children, especially girls, to stay in school and obtain an education is another positive way to decrease terrorist recruitment and provide hope for a fulfilling life beyond what the terrorist recruiters may be promising them. Utilizing counter-messaging through radio programs, which is a prevalent source of media in that area, was another helpful avenue through which to support the community and diminish the lure of violent extremism.

Reflections and Ongoing Improvements

Noting that her work in Nigeria was at times exhausting and exhilarating, Suzanne discussed the ways in which the facilitation team conducted layers of debriefing exercises to review lessons learned; what went well and what could have gone better. Suzanne referred to this process as being in service to “rigorous continuous improvement” where there were ongoing informal and formal opportunities to review missteps and opportunities for growth among the facilitation team, with leadership of the USAID program, and with the staff of Training Resources Group, the contractor who supplies the facilitators to OTI. “It’s a little hard sometimes on the ego to really examine every little thing that could have gone better,” she said, “even in the context of it having gone really well. But your ego recovers and you do learn from it, and it does enable you to do better the next time both individually and collectively.”

Beyond the facilitation, Suzanne reflected on her time in Nigeria noting some surprises about her trip. She shared that Abuja, the Nigerian capital, is a modern city and in terms of land use it’s quite spread out with a lot of open space and wide boulevards, not typical of Nigeria. Additionally, Suzanne felt positive about her engagements with the community noting “I was touched by how welcomed we were. I never know when going to a country for the first time how Americans will be regarded but we were treated very well all around.”

Mediation to Facilitation

Back home in the States, Suzanne currently does both mediation and facilitation. “In my view,” she says “it’s a big toolset that extends to both. It’s really a continuum from mediation to facilitation with a lot of overlap. So a lot of the approach I take as a mediator is to be facilitative; to really focus on managing the process and leaving it to the parties to come up with their own solutions.”

Suzanne noted that mediation skills transfer well to facilitation, even if there isn’t conflict, like in the group she facilitated in Nigeria. While there wasn’t high conflict present, there were pockets of tension among the participants, which her mediation skills helped to mitigate.

When asked about her history doing this work, Suzanne noted that she did her first mediation in 1991 and went on to get experience mediating consumer-business disputes, multi-party mediation, and mediation between groups before eventually leaning into her growing interest in facilitation. Recognizing that she could apply her mediation skills to facilitation, she began taking opportunities to grow as a facilitator. Suzanne authored a book in 2005 called Extreme Facilitation, which discusses some of her observations during that shift in her career.

Suzanne talked about her dissertation which she used to focus on inclusivity and its impacts on peace processes. She utilized this knowledge, research, and experience to inform her practice and recognizes the indirect but important impacts community inclusion has on decreasing conflict. Suzanne’s mission statement is “working for a more peaceful, productive world.” She noted how conflict can serve as a barrier to the positive things we’re trying to create and so helping people to move through it allows them to reach their goals more efficiently and, ultimately, to do the good things they want to do in the world.

We, at Pollack Peacebuilding, are truly thrilled to be associated with such an effective and inspiring peacebuilder. Thanks for spending some time with us for this article, Suzanne!