Preventing violent conflict

The towns and villages that don’t join wars.

Even in the most savage of conflicts there are normally pockets of peace. So how is it that some places can opt out of war, when others clearly can’t?

Last November I visited a community in Nigeria that sent me into a spin. It was a town called Dadin Kowa, in the city of Jos, the provincial capital of Plateau State. And quite remarkably it had managed to stay peaceful.

You see, Jos is a troubled place. At the core of the deadly ethnic riots that have shaped the last two decades, and taken countless thousands of lives, is the issue of citizenship status: who is considered to be an ‘indegene’ and who is considered to be a ‘settler’.  A person’s citizenship status is hugely important for determining life chances in Jos, regulating access to state resources such as land, jobs, scholarships, healthcare and employment. When whole tribes are excluded from this, as some currently are, violence becomes very likely. And when these tribal identities intersect with religious identities, so that Christians are Muslims are seen to be invested in each other’s downfall, then it becomes all but impossible to withstand.

Yet Dadin Kowa has somehow managed to avoid sliding into violence. Nearby towns and villages have torn themselves apart, chasing out minority groups and destroying places of worship, creating a patchwork of segregated areas and no-go zones. But the people of Dadin Kowa have kept themselves united across their differences, committed to preserving a precarious peace. They have invested in one another, trusted one another, and made outsiders accept that they are different.

Dadin Kowa is remarkable in the truest sense of the word, and yet it seems to have gone largely unremarked upon. There’s not much about Dadin Kowa online, but there is a brief discussion of it in Jana Krause’s excellent working paper on the Jos conflict (which reassures me I’m not going crazy) –

Box 2 Dadin Kowa: the peaceful community

The community of Dadin Kowa—located in Jos South Local Government Area— has remained peaceful to date. Several mixed communities surround the settlement; some have seen sporadic killings (such as Rayfield) and violent clashes (such as Anglo Jos). The majority of Dadin Kowa’s population is Christian, although there is a significant Muslim minority. The population is mixed in terms of economic and social status, with large houses on the outskirts and crammed streets of poor settlements in its centre.

Krause makes an extraordinary claim for Dadin Kowa. She says that it is the only area in the city of Jos that has so far remained entirely peaceful. That’s no mean feat. And it seriously begs the question as to why.

I wondered this myself during the brief trips that I made there. I talked with teachers, school children and religious leaders about their experiences. I interviewed a pastor and an imam together, both young and keen to talk. They were great guys – bright, engaged, empathetic and open. They taught me a lot about Dadin Kowa. But I still couldn’t figure out what made it so special, and it seemed they couldn’t put their fingers on it either.

Explaining ‘peace zones’ and ‘non-war communities’ 

Fortunately there are peace scholars and practitioners who have been asking similar questions. Dadin Kowa is remarkable, but it isn’t unique. Pockets of peace have existed in other places too, with examples in Colombia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone and many more countries besides. We’ve just never really paid them that much attention. Until recently, that is.

One of the most comprehensive investigations so far has been led by Landon Hancock and Christopher Mitchell in their Zones of Peace project. They look at violent and protracted conflicts in which local communities have ‘opted out’ of violence and sought to establish themselves as zones of peace. Some demarcated themselves as spaces of sanctuary. Others went even further, seeking to tackle the root causes of conflict and pursue social justice. In their most recent edited book, Local Peacebuilding and National Peace, Hancock and Mitchell presents case studies from the Caucasus region, South Africa, Colombia and Northern Ireland, examining how local communities sometimes separate their agendas from those at national level in a bid to prevent violence and keep the peace locally.

Mary Anderson and Marshall Wallace’s recent work on non-war communities also sheds some light. Their book Opting Out of War tells the stories of thirteen communities around the world that also opted out. They argue that these communities made rational, pragmatic choices based on a calculation that only peace would enable them to protect their assets and ways of life. Crucially they were able to predict that violence was coming their way, which is often not the case. Each then created a non-war identity for themselves, one which felt natural and which distinguished them from other communities engaged in violence.

Some of Anderson and Wallace’s examples include:

  • Tuzla, a city in Bosnia that managed to maintain its multi-ethnicity despite the wider regional agenda to create ethnically exclusive states in the former Yugoslavia.
  • Columbia, where indigenous communities developed strategies to assert themselves as ‘peace villages’, avoiding conscription and other involvement in the conflict (also a focus of Hancock and Mitchell’s work).
  • Mozambique, where people in a region perceived to be under the protection of an ancestral spirit were able to maintain roads, schools and agricultural production even as other areas were destroyed.
  • The Muslim community in Rwanda, comprising of Tutsis and Hutus, who did not participate in the genocide and instead managed to rescue many who would have become victims.

Hancock and Mitchell’s ‘zones of peace’ and Anderson and Wallace’s ‘non-war communities’ both draw from the longstanding concept of sanctuary in war. The notion that some places have a special war-free status is nearly as old as war itself. Such places have historically included hospitals and places of worship, and in more recent times would also include refugee camps and places of cultural heritage. They are places to which people can retreat, in which they can take sanctuary. Both studies look at cases where people have managed to widen this notion of sanctuary to include their whole community, showing that it is amazing – but also achievable.

Which is not the same as saying that all communities could do it. Some simply aren’t in a position to, or at least they aren’t at the moment. And we have to be very careful about that, because to suggest that all communities could turn their backs on war if only they wanted to leads us to a particularly objectionable form of victim-blaming. Many don’t have the sort of governance processes and decision-making structures that Anderson and Mitchell see as vital, or for whatever reason wouldn’t apply the same logic as people in the case study areas.

All of the evidence so far suggests that there are certain characteristics  and circumstances that favour the establishment and maintenance of peace zones and non-war communities. We just don’t know very much yet about what these are. But at this stage even the recognition itself is exciting, because if we know that there are variables that make communities more likely to opt out of war, even if they are as yet unknown, then it opens up all sorts of new possibilities for conflict prevention. All this time the international community has been trying to build new conflict prevention mechanisms in to local communities. Turns out that maybe we have to start building outwards from what’s already there.

Peace zones for everyone

Which leads me to this, my Jerry Springer final thought moment.

I stumbled upon a great initiative just now (on one of my epic Google walks) called PEACE ZONE Action. The idea is to get people to designate their own private spaces as sites of peace and resistance against violence. (It comes from Jesús Palmino, in collaboration with HalfHouse, Sin Título Group Show and the Peace Studies and Conflicts Institute at Granada University).

Basically people designate a space as a peace zone, take a photo and send it to the blog. It’s a beautiful idea. And hopefully it’ll take off, because personally I think there’s something deeply satisfying about the idea of pockets of peace popping up everywhere, literally encroaching on the space afforded to war and violence, colonising conflict.

Until next time folks, take care of yourselves. And each other.


Miriam Sobrino’s contribution to PEACE ZONE Action.


Paula Jimenez's contribution to PEACE ZONE Action.

Paula Jimenez’s contribution to PEACE ZONE Action.


Cristina Campos' contribution to PEACE ZONE Action

Cristina Campos’ contribution to PEACE ZONE Action.


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