Fellow Since 2001
Human Right Commision
This description of Austin Onuoha's work was prepared when Austin Onuoha was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2001.
Austin is resolving land conflict in rural Nigeria by strengthening existing civic institutions as agents for nonviolent conflict resolution and community development.
The New Idea
Understanding that violence often results from the conditions of poverty, Austin uses conflict situations as the entry point into communities to improve existing institutions' capacity for economic and social development. Where police and courts have failed to resolve conflict, Austin restructures and formalizes local, democratic institutions to serve as dispute mediators and foster community-building. The end result is a stronger sense of solidarity and a mobilized corps of engaged citizens, ready to advocate for positive change and implement new systems toward a better future.
Unemployment, poverty, and a lack of real leadership have lead to a deterioration in living conditions in Nigeria, especially in the rural areas. Property disputes are increasing as people who migrated to urban areas in search of better lives years ago are now returning to their villages to claim ancestral lands, which, in some cases, have already been developed by another family member. Because ownership of land is based on lineage rather than documented evidence, determining land ownership sometimes results in bloody conflict. The government and police intervene, but without success. The chief councils, which would ordinarily be responsible for resolving disputes at the local level, have also become ineffective because the populace often sees them as corrupt and as having little moral ground on which to mediate conflict. Moreover, the police and local chiefs fail to identify or deal with the poverty that is at the root of these conflicts. In some communities, this has led to anarchy, resulting in violence and death.
In order to ensure effectiveness and sustainability, Austin channels his idea through already existing local institutions called Community Development Associations, or CDAs. The CDAs were originally designed for implementing community-based projects, but have failed because of ineffective management. Austin builds on the existing infrastructure of these dormant CDAs so that they can act as the formal local agencies for conflict resolution. By strengthening CDAs, Austin helps communities resolve their own conflicts, satisfied that the mediating officials, who are democratically elected and from the locality, understand them and can be seen as impartial in their judgment.Upon gaining entry into a community as a mediator, Austin sets about formalizing, standardizing, and restructuring the local institutions or establishing new ones if none already exist. He helps draft a constitution, develops a democratic succession procedure for officials, assesses and prioritizes development needs, and links with government authorities at the local level. He trains the CDAs to implement the resolutions reached through peace conventions and agreements, monitor the peace process, and provide early warning signals for future conflicts. Building on the CDAs' new capacity, Austin registers each as a legal nonprofit organization and extends his network of government and civil society agencies so that they are widely recognized as consensus bodies for conflict resolution and local development initiatives.Through the CDA meetings, Austin is able to direct the people's attention towards strategies for community development, rather than fighting over land and other sources of tension. The people spend their time planning, lobbying government and development agencies for funds, and implementing projects. Austin also spreads his program through formal media channels but believes that the best medium for selling his idea is the success of the projects implemented.
With a Bachelors degree in history and a Masters in mass communication, Austin started his career in 1980 as a clerk with the Federal Ministry of Education and later became an Education Officer. In 1986, he joined the Guardian newspaper as a freelance journalist. From there, he entered the business world as the district manager in one of Rank Xerox's Nigerian branches. Austin's life focus changed when he met the founder of the Human Rights Commission and decided to leave his lucrative job to join the commission in the remote community of Abakilili in Ebonyi State. Through his conflict mediation work, Austin found he spent enormous amounts of time and energy on similar problems over and over again. His office became a substitute for the local district court as desperate villagers consulted him on most cases, big or small. Austin realized this situation was unsustainable both for him and the communities and replaced his services with internal arbitration structures to find a way to use conflict resolution as the entry point for organizing the people towards planning, lobbying, and implementing development projects.He has attended various peace and conflict resolution courses including the West African Network for Peace Building. He is also a member of the Rotary Club of Eziukwu Community, a founding member of the Non-Violence and Peace Project, and the first editor of Ebonyi State's Human Rights News.