Civil-military relations are essential for maintaining peace and stability in any society. However, there are challenges to these relations, especially in areas where there are existing conflicts or tensions. One way to address these challenges is through deliberate community engagement by military and security forces. Engaging with the local communities to discuss and understand the protection issues they face is crucial. It is conducive not only to develop relationships between civilians and the military but also helps build trust, understand local dynamics, promote local agency as well as hold security forces accountable to prioritize the protection of civilians (POC).
Across its programs, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) has facilitated engagement between conflict-affected communities and military actors so that civilian protection risks can be more effectively addressed.
This type of engagement has been a critical part of our work in Northeast Nigeria, which has been the epicenter of fighting between non-state armed groups and the Nigerian military for more than 12 years, resulting in several thousand civilian casualties and mass displacement.
While there are challenges to establishing civil-military relations, there are also methods to overcome them as we have learned through our approach to community engagement in the Northeast.
Engagement with conflict-affected communities can be challenging, especially in areas where there is a history of conflict or mistrust between the military and civilians. Some of the challenges include:
- Lack of trust: Building trust between the security forces and the community can be difficult, especially in areas where the military is seen as an occupying force or where the security forces are the perpetrators of harm to civilians.
- Cultural barriers: Understanding local culture and customs is essential for effective community engagement. However, cultural differences including language can create barriers to communication and collaboration. This can be the case during foreign interventions of military forces as well as when military officers are deployed to different parts of their own country where culture and customs are different from their own.
- Security concerns: In conflict-affected areas, security can be a major concern for both the military and civilians. This can make it difficult to engage with the community and build relationships. For instance, this might be the case in time of intense hostilities during which military actors are considered legitimate targets for the other warring party(ies). Bringing civilians and military together may result inadvertently in harm to the communities.
- The misperception that community engagement takes a lot of resources: Some might think that engaging with the community requires too many resources, including personnel, time, and funding. However, the risks that may arise from not engaging with communities far outweigh the costs and resources.
What are some solutions to mitigate these challenges?
They are not unsurmountable and can be overcome. Here are some strategies for navigating these challenges:
- Building trust: Building trust requires open and transparent communication, honesty, and a willingness to listen. Military and civilian leaders can engage with the community by attending community meetings, holding town halls, and partnering with local organizations to create these opportunities of dialogue.
- Increasing cultural awareness: Understanding local culture and customs is essential for effective community engagement. Military and civilian leaders can work with local leaders and community members to learn about local customs and values.
- Addressing security concerns: Addressing security concerns requires a balance between protecting the safety of both the military and civilians while also engaging with the community. Military and civilian leaders can work with local law enforcement and security forces to ensure that community engagement activities are safe and secure. Engaging communities should never cause more harm than good and/or further escalate conflict. Besides, if communities prefer not to engage, this must be accepted too. In many instances, civilians have refused to engage with the military by fear of being associating with them and therefore suffering retaliation by the other warring party(ies). Finally, a community’s refusal to engage with the military should never be perceived as taking sides with any other parties.
- Optimizing resources: While engaging with the community requires resources, including personnel, time, and funding, military and civilian leaders should prioritize it because its benefits can outweigh its costs by far. Resources should be allocated strategically, including by partnering with local organizations and leveraging technology to reach a wider audience.
CIVIC recognizes that civilians and their communities are experts of their own experiences and are best placed to advocate for their protection. Hence, it is important to establish a dialogue with the communities and listen to what they have to say. This is also known as the Community-Based Protection (CBP) approach. However, because it’s unrealistic to engage with every single member of the community, CIVIC has supported the creation of groups to represent the needs and experiences of the community. These groups are called Community Protection Committees (CPCs).
This community-based approach has showed some success.
For example, in Moguno, Borno state, where residents rely on farming as a means of sustenance and livelihood, the presence of non-state armed actors and the military operations have hindered their safe access to their farmlands. Through a dialogue based on mutual understanding and trust, the CPCs in Monguno managed to convince the military to extend their trenches to allow members of the community to access larger swathes of farmlands and provide patrols to ensure the safety of the community at all times. This led to a reduction in the number of civilians attacked and killed when they went beyond the trench lines to farm.
Similarly, the CPCs in Dikwa convinced the military to provide firewood patrols to reduce the incidents of civilian harm that arose from civilians traveling far from their community to seek firewood. Similar initiatives were replicated successfully across other Local Government Area (LGA) garrison towns like Damboa, Gwoza, and Konduga.
The interventions of CPCs show that when communities are organized and equipped with knowledge and information on their rights and obligations, they can be the best advocates for their protection.
Community engagement strengthens civil-military relations and is crucial for more effective protection of civilians against conflict-related harm. Despite the challenges, military and civilian leaders can overcome them and create an environment conducive to a reduction in civilian harm, and ultimately lay out the foundations for lasting peace and stability.