The need for good governance and peacebuilding in the time of COVID-19: Lessons from Northeast Nigeria

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As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread to fragile and conflict-affected contexts, there has been an impulse among some donors to focus on public health and humanitarian assistance, while cutting back on peacebuilding and governance programs that are not viewed as producing immediate, tangible impacts on the spread of the disease. However, when strained state-society relations are part of ongoing conflict dynamics, responses to COVID-19 that fail to incorporate governance and peacebuilding approaches run the risk of undermining their intended public health goals and further exacerbating cycles of violence.

In such contexts, long-standing political grievances and mistrust inform the narratives through which communities understand the spread of the disease and responses by international actors and the government. These perceptions can simultaneously limit the willingness of communities to comply with public health regulations and can amplify other drivers of violent conflict, including increased resource scarcity, opportunistic behavior by armed groups, fraying social cohesion, and rapidly proliferating misinformation and disinformation. This interaction between the pandemic and pre-existing sources of fragility is a threat multiplier, magnifying existing grievances and posing lasting challenges to disease containment, resilience, and peace.

To prevent this vicious cycle, donors and implementers with programs focused on the link between governance and conflict should make any needed adaptations to safely continue programs focused on strengthening state-society interactions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, donors and implementing partners focused on the health response should layer and integrate conflict sensitivity and good governance principles into the public health and humanitarian responses to the pandemic to ensure that aid builds resilience rather than unintentionally exacerbating conflict drivers and accelerating the spread of the virus.

This report presents a close analysis of the ongoing crisis in Borno State, Northeast Nigeria and a set of broader lessons about why and how donors should invest in governance and conflict prevention programming as part of the COVID-19 response.

This report proceeds as follows. We first provide an overview of the ongoing conflict and humanitarian crisis in Northeast Nigeria. Next, we briefly outline existing theory and evidence about the connections between governance, peace, and public health crises. We then illustrate these dynamics using a case study of the COVID-19 response in Borno State. This case study draws on qualitative observations from Mercy Corps' conflict analysis workshops (Box 1), program monitoring data, and reports and analysis from other organizations active in the region.

The case study highlights how pre-existing tensions in state-society relationships have interacted with the spread of COVID-19 and the public health and humanitarian responses to the pandemic. Throughout the case study, the text boxes highlight examples of how Mercy Corps' programs in Northeast Nigeria have attempted to address the linkage between governance, conflict, and COVID-19. The purpose of these boxes is to highlight a core set of promising programming approaches that merit further rigorous evaluation and scale-up. We conclude by articulating a set of broader recommendations for how donors and their implementing partners can help ensure that the pandemic response supports goals of building peace by strengthening state-society relations and vice versa.