In Northern Nigeria, where clashes between Christians and Muslims have claimed thousands of lives and torn communities apart, two prominent clergymen believe religion can also be a way toward peace.

Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye are both from Kaduna and fought on opposite sides during religious violence in 1992 that left thousands dead. Ashafa lost two cousins and a teacher in the conflict. Pastor James lost his right hand.

“Most of us as youth, we went wild for vengeance,” says Ashafa. “We took revenge on innocent Christians who were living in our own communities.”

Ashafa and Wuye came out of that experience determined not to let it happen again. Introduced several years later, they eventually began working together to bridge differences and cool tensions between Nigerian Muslims and Christians. They established the Interfaith Mediation Center and, working with USIP, mediated a lasting peace agreement in the area of Yelwa-Shendam in Plateau state in 2004-05 after more than a thousand people were killed in religious violence. With seed funding from USIP, the center grew it into an institution that has gone on to train others in their own country as well as in Kenya, Iraq, Sri Lanka and elsewhere in strategies to resolve conflict without violence.

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and largest democracy. With its oil reserves and agricultural sector, it is a crucial economic engine for the continent, and its position in the Lake Chad Basin and along Africa’s Sahel region makes it strategically valuable in the fight against global extremism.

But Northern Nigeria is riddled with political, economic, religious and social fissures that can turn deadly and destabilize the area. Interreligious and interethnic violence has erupted in Kaduna and Plateau states and elsewhere, leaving thousands dead, hundreds of thousands displaced and millions of lives changed forever.

Militancy and Radicalism

Militancy and radicalism also are on the rise in the region, most notably with the emergence of the Boko Haram terrorist group, which conducts attacks on civilians, including schools. Northern Nigeria’s crises, including the Boko Haram insurgency, have forced more than 2 million people from farms and villages. The resulting turmoil has destabilized other countries in the Lake Chad Basin and most recently triggered a famine.

Although the violence is fueled by such factors as land disputes, corruption, political inequality, and climate change that turns agricultural land into desert, the fighting is often couched in the form of religious disputes, pitting the huge Christian and Muslim communities against each other.

“Religious leaders are in especially strong positions to connect local communities and their concerns with wider political discussions and initiatives to address problems such as corrupt, ineffective, or exclusionary government,” says Susan Hayward, USIP’s senior advisor on religion and inclusive societies.

“For more than 25 years, we’ve been committed to understanding and engaging religious actors and factors in zones of conflict,” she says.

In Nigeria, USIP works with a range of Christian and Muslim leaders, including Roman Catholic Cardinal John Onaiyekan, who is the Archbishop of the capital, Abuja, and the Sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar III, Nigeria’s highest authority in mainstream Islam. The two are well-known for their Interfaith Initiative for Peace, which seeks to defuse conflict over issues ranging from elections to land use.

Female Religious Leaders

USIP also assists interfaith and peacemaking efforts by female religious leaders such as Pastor Esther Ibanga, the late Bilkisu Yusuf and Sheikha Khadija Gambo Hawajah. Ibanga, a civil society leader from Plateau state, is founder and president of the Women Without Walls initiative and recipient of the prestigious Niwano Peace Prize honoring her efforts to promote women’s empowerment and peace. USIP worked with her as part of its Women Preventing Extremist Violence project. Yusuf was a pioneering Muslim journalist, presidential advisor, and advocate of interfaith society. And Hawajah is chairperson of the Plateau State Muslim Women Peace Forum.

“These interfaith meetings build relationships between communities and security forces to prevent violence, and simultaneously help heal divisions that have resulted from decades of violence and conflict,” says Hayward.

A review of the Interfaith Mediation Center’s 2004-05 project in Plateau state found that dialogue was a critical tool in establishing the conditions that led to the signing of the peace accord. The agreement successfully ended hostilities, built trust and laid the foundation for social cohesion among the diverse ethnic and religious groups in the area.

The assessment also concluded that such efforts need to be accompanied by work to make government more effective and legitimate, to help address conflicts before they become violent.

“Grassroots dialogues are important for reducing violence, but we’ve found they need to be complemented by changes in governance,” says Oge Onubogu, a USIP senior program officer for Africa.

That’s why USIP also works with Northern Nigerian governors, who have outsized influence in pivotal areas where Boko Haram operates. Also, a year-old USIP-supported working group of eminent civic leaders has pledged to support the governors in developing strategic, long-term plans for improvements. One of the working group’s projects, for example, is to examine a new peacebuilding organization established by the governor of Plateau state to see if it’s a model that other northern states could use. The governor was speaker of the Plateau State House of Assembly, representing Shendam, in 2005 and worked with Pastor James and Imam Ashafa on their peacemaking project.

Ultimately, the aim is to build a larger community of grassroots activists and senior government officials in Nigeria with the tools and skills to effectively mediate and address grievances and disputes before they turn violence.

“We need to replicate ourselves,” says Pastor Wuye about his work with Imam Ashafa. “More imams, more pastors, more young women and community leaders to carry this banner.”

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