On the 17th of June, 2015, I delivered a lecture titled 'Strategic communication for countering extremist narratives in Nigeria' at the Public Service Institute of Nigeria (PSIN), Abuja. My audience comprised middle and high level cadres of public officers from the civil service of Nigeria. They were undergoing an intensive one week course which would enable them utilize SC techniques for countering violent extremism (CVE) in the course of their duties. The head trainer, Terri Judd (Consultant to Albany Associates, UK), invited me to give a Nigerian perspective.
The one week courses commenced last year, and it is the initiative of the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA). It is instructive that the pool of trained public officers constituted those who critiqued the draft National Strategy for Strategic Communications (NSSC) at the validation workshop organized by ONSA in partnership with European Union Technical Assistance to Nigeria's Evolving Security Challenges (EUTANS) team. Paul Bell, EUTANS expert, gave a good account of himself as facilitator for the two-day workshop (23rd-24th June, 2015).
Now to the salient points in my presentation at the PSIN.
*Narratives help provide 'an alternative way of thinking about the world. Whereas rationality is seen as dependent on facts and logic, narrative rationality depends on audiences' desire to align their own values to a depiction of an event. The implication of this is that people often believe a version of events they want to.
*Counter extremists (CEs) often overlook this reality and operate in the hope that they will be able to present the audience with the 'right' information, capable of convincing them that extremist arguments are false.
*Meanwhile, extremists skillfully exploit narratives to provide messages that the intended audiences would want to believe.
*SC efforts against extremism need to move away from crafting the 'right message' from the practitioner's viewpoint and move toward focusing on emotionally engaging the audience.
*All such effort should be long-term and Nigeria-led, with the capacity to involve state and private entities. In this regard, the commendable effort of ONSA needs to be mentioned. The soft approach to countering terrorism is three-pronged (http://www.persecondnews.com/index.php/business).
1) Counter-radicalization (CR) focuses on education-based projects. It is positioned to stem the flow of recruits and reduce the potential for radicalization.
2) De-radicalization (DR), integrates violent extremists and their families back into the society through a number of activities, including prison interventions and vocational training.
3) Strategic communication (SC), seeks to provide a counter-narrative, presenting moderate Islamic views as a stark contrast to violent extremism (VE) and promoting core national values. This is a non-military approach involving all levels of government. It is this third stream of the soft approach that is most relevant to our discourse here...
*Any strategy toward counter-terrorism communications should draw on Nigeria's existing narratives and its sense of itself.
*Unlike extremist communication efforts, SC efforts to counter extremism in Nigeria typically do not deploy messages built on Nigeria's narratives. This needs to change.
*People process events around narratives that resonate on an emotional level. Effective SC efforts understand this and ground messages within existing well known and accepted concepts.
What then is to be done by counter-extremists (CEs)?
*CEs need to move away from simply presenting the 'facts' and hoping that this would persuade the populace to stop believing extremist narratives.
*All such messages should be well-coordinated by ONSA and should involve all levels of government, CBOs, NGOs and other stakeholders.
*There should be effective CE slogans that could be reeled off at the touch of a button.
*Such CE narratives should be embedded in the curriculum at the Primary and Secondary school levels.
*Engagement of traditional and social media is imperative.
*SC should be tailored for counter-radicalization (CR) in schools, mosques, prisons, etc, through which young Nigerians at risk could be reached.
*CEs should take cognizance of a myriad of factors - historical, tribal, cultural, educational, sociological, etc that promote terrorism.
*There should be training for development of SC for counter-terrorism communication.
*The essence of the Presidential Victims' Support Fund (PVSF) should be publicized as regards compensation for victims of violence, who are mostly women and children.
*Always present moderate religious views.
*Empirical data should be employed to refute radical world views. A lot can be achieved through counter-radicalization discourses.
*The importance of peace cannot be over-emphasized.
In conclusion, empirical data in conjunction with existing Nigeria narratives would constitute effective counter-terrorism SC in the Nigerian context. Besides, it may be useful for CEs to also have mediation/negotiation skills juxtaposed with a high level of emotional intelligence (EI).
NOTE: This version of my paper has been heavily edited to exclude highly sensitive information, not fit for the internet.