How war and COVID-19 feed on one another

Woman in Borno in a precarious clinic Woman in Borno in a precarious clinic © Alyona Synenko/ICRC

This article is a brief presentation of Mercy Corps' report on the importance of state-community relations in the fight against COVID-19

In September 2020, Mercy Corps presented the report "The need for good governance and peacebuilding in the time of COVID-19. Lessons from Northeast Nigeria". The spread of the virus in conflict scenarios has led donors to steer their efforts towards the health sector. While this choice is well-founded, the need to sustain peacebuilding and governance programmes remains paramount in the fight against the virus. A stable trust-based relationship between the state and the community underpins the implementation of health policies. In fact, a programme can be completely vain if mistrusted by people, regardless of its worthiness. Moreover, the absence of a cooperative dialogue leads to greater disinformation and polarisation which, by creating a distorted perception, intensifies tensions. The non-governmental organization has therefore analysed the main factors linking the pre-existing conflict dynamics and the management of the current pandemic. The research was carried out through a comparative study of over 40 countries, exemplifying this relationship with a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the current crisis in the Nigerian state of Borno.

The report outlines three factors which link the conflicts to the fight against COVID-19. The first one is the limited presence and legitimacy of the state, which leads to distrust and hostility towards it. The second is the actual or perceived marginalisation of a sector of society. And the third is linked to the inactivity or absence of civil society and the subsequent increase of disinformation and decline of civic spaces for debate and interaction with state institutions. As a result, people increasingly rely on non-state actors - usually armed ones - to settle disputes. Looking at the pandemic, the need to enforce restrictive measures was perceived as a marginalising attack by the state, reducing its legitimacy and making it even harder to implement effective measures. People are, therefore, inclined to disregard lockdown measures, to refrain from turning to public facilities and to avoid using tracking technologies. This leads to a vicious circle in which the already reduced presence of the state prevents it from acting effectively and legitimately. Thus, these regions become the most affected by the pandemic and people rely on other actors for their needs, further increasing friction with the state. 

This circle finds a climax in Nigeria, where the clashes in Borno between Boko Haram and the government led to more than 1.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 1.2 million people unreachable by humanitarian assistance. The region has always been characterised by high tensions, nepotism and corruption - Boko Haram itself has exploited and exacerbated these strains to gain consensus. Thus, the virus hit an environment already marked by fragmentation, polarisation and ten years of conflict. Today, the government in Borno finds itself fighting the virus without actually having access to certain areas and with increasing tensions for the measures implemented so far. Initially, people regarded the virus as a scam that politicians were running to obtain international funds. During the lockdown, three imams were threatened for holding the Friday pray, food supplies were of poor quality and their distribution favoured government affiliates, elections were postponed and there were no means of direct dialogue with local authorities. Looking at the main actors, the government in the region is in fact represented by the army, which, seeing the locals as possible affiliates of armed groups, has been perpetuating extortions and violence. Local and religious leaders traditionally act as intermediaries, but the favouritism they demonstrated during the lockdown delegitimised them. Armed groups have exploited the causes and effects of the virus for their own benefit, increasing distrust and misinformation in the region. And lastly, humanitarian action, limited by various intermediaries, is perceived as biased towards the IDPs, increasing internal tensions and acting as a push factor towards the camps - considered well served and safe. Therefore, Nigeria exemplifies how the pre-existence of social tensions has severely undermined the fight against COVID-19, which in turn exacerbated the causes of the conflict itself.

Mercy Corps calls on key players to be more sensitive to the conflict environment in which they operate. This must be translated into programmes that integrate good practices or create new ones that, besides tackling the virus, strengthen the relationship of trust between the state and society. In a broader sense, the community must be involved, not only in the understanding of their needs but in all phases of design and implementation. This integration is the foundation of in-depth knowledge of the dynamics of conflict and the effects of proposed solutions. In addition, the engaged participation of communities creates a sense of ownership of the programme that ensures its effective implementation. However, to achieve this result, it is first and foremost necessary to break the vicious circle of distrust by creating spaces for dialogue and feedback mechanisms for implementation. Thus, it is essential to establish a context-aware peacebuilding process that can eliminate power inequalities and information asymmetries, allowing, in turn, an effective response to COVID-19.


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Author: Matteo Consiglio; Editor: Margherita Curti

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