Although now 35 years old, having been founded in 1982, Search for Common Ground (just known as Search) is certainly not a household name in Nigeria, not withstanding its involvement in conflict transformation and peacebuilding in the Niger Delta, herdsmen violence in the Middle Belt and a range of interventions in the North east. Nevertheless, it has just pulled through what passes as a landmark intervention as the implementer of “Building Consensus on Protection of Holy Sites” which the Norwegian Ministry for Foreign Affairs is funding. It turned out to be two days of pedagogical vista worth reflecting upon through an extended reporting that offers more details than the conventional news items.
Let’s start with how they handle opening or closing prayers at functions in which they are involved. They simply ask everyone to pray silently for a minute. That way, they remove having to say the Christian and Muslim prayers separately, a practice with the inherent checkmating import and a reminder to people of their religious differences just as it is a discrimination against those who do not worship God in either of such ways. For, as Cardinal John Onaiyekan pointed out at the conference under review, it matters to accept and respect what the other person calls his or her religion, be it Sango in Yoruba or whatever.
As the conference moved further, Search brought out another dimension. Dr Sani Suleiman, the moderator, posed a quiz with a prize: he wanted to see Christians who knew the 7 verses of the Quran and any Muslim who knows the first seven books of the Holy Bible. Many tried but nobody got it, a very sad commentary on how much faithfuls of the two most dominant religions in Nigeria know of each other. Very little if anything at all, although the enemy images of each other is indescribable! With such enemy images of each other comes the readiness to destroy each other’s places of worship as well as the worshippers, ostensibly in defence of each’s religion.
Each of the above instances comes from each of the two days that the just concluded National Conference on Protection of Holy Sites lasted. Each of the two instances reinforces the evangelical and performative specificity of the theory and practice of Peace and Conflict Studies, the evangelical and performative dimension which its students embody, put into practice and by which they, comparatively, stand distinguished from others. Hence the claim that there must be something wrong somewhere if frequency of violent conflict is so high in a society such as Nigeria that has simultaneously witnessed a steep rise in the number of schools, centres, institutes, faculties and departments offering formal, academic engagement with Peace Conflict Studies.
This was one question Intervention tried to tackle very early in its life, (September 5th, 2016). A decade or so ago, concepts such as peace and conflict came up in passing in social science subjects such as Sociology, Political Science and International Relations, each of which arose to study conflicts though. Today, that is different in the sense that Peace and Conflict Studies is a formal, academic degree or diploma or so offered in many Nigerian institutions, with theories and methods that have been adapted to it. The three or so scholars interviewed on the question had many interesting things to say. Two other academics who read the story later had completely different things to say on the same issue. Their counter-argument is such as to have made a return to the story an on-going project for Intervention.
As the organiser and moderating force of the two day National Conference on Protection of Holy Sites in Nigeria earlier this week, the credit for that performative value added to Peace and Conflict Studies is given to the conflict transformation and peacebuilding international NGO, Search for Common Ground, otherwise simply called Search.
More so that beyond the two instructive instances above, the pilot project has got a rather holistic radius far beyond imagination. The testimonies of all the six members of the advisory board support this claim. That of Chom Bagu, Sharon Rosen and Dr Nurudeen Lemu, (the Wazirin Katsina forbids us from calling him Sheikh until his father is no more) were absolutely inviting.
According to Lemu who presented who summed the outcomes of the project on behalf of the team, the notion of securing holy sites with a universal code automatically entails securing the worshippers because, according to him, it is the human beings or the worshippers that are the most valuable. He told the conference of the following outcomes.
First is the growth of the individual members in relation to the wisdom and better understanding of the differences and nuances about inter-religious dynamics in Nigeria as they went to different geopolitical units in northern Nigeria to which the project is restricted yet in this pilot phase. He described the meetings and network in the states they visited as wonderful and inspiring.
Second is the logic of while few may be guilty in the habit of destroying holy sites or exacerbating religious relations, all are responsible. In other words, managing inter-religious relations require society to ask after what might have made the individual to become what they became as terrorists, gangster or warlord. This logic of “nothing about us without us” makes the inclusion of everyone an imperative in the project of protecting holy sites as well as peaceful co-existence. It means that parents, mothers in particular, the media, traditional institution, security agencies, the family, the neighbourhood, the community are bonafide members of the process. The implication is the idea of including and engaging even people who feel irritated and are, therefore, easily recruited by charismatic individuals posing as providing listening ears to hidden grievances. Comparing the situation to what musician MC Hammer represented in his lyric “Too hot to handle, too cold to hold”, he asked society to position itself to listening to and discussing grievances, issues irritating to it, following up by setting up early warning/early response mechanisms and building resilience.
Three, is the case for translating the universal code to as many languages as possible so that its domestication or communal ownership could proceed apace. So far, the code has been translated only into Hausa in Nigeria.
Four is the need for more information. For instance, how many churches or mosques have been destroyed in a particular area is important but also important is the question of how many have been rebuilt. This, he says, has remained a gap because many religious leaders do not have all the details.
This reporter’s jottings did not indicate clearly whether this point was made as a standalone point or explanatory. It is the need to ensure that no vacuum exists that makes people learn from dubious sources. The point seems to connect well with his stress on the need to train more clergy, activists and peace builders, intellectual workers capable of coming up with more texts. It is easy to blame the media for over-emphasising bad news but what if there is a problem of content deficiency?, he asked.
Fifth was his stress on the media with particular reference to good as opposed to bad news especially in the age in which the social media provide youths with over 90% of information which they digest before they ask the clergy.
Sixth by my jotting is the point about quiet, inter-faith confidential meetings during which self-interrogation and clarification could be done.
Seventh was his point about better parenting with particular reference to parenting skills of mothers whom Lemu said were usually the first to know when their children are getting radicalised.
His last outcome is the need to intensify prayers everyday, every Fridays for Muslims and every Sundays for Christians towards a more peaceful and more compassionate society, closing his reportage with the quote “To travel far, you need to go together. To travel fast, go alone”. He implied going together so that society can travel far.
His reporting in terms of outcomes for the advisory team raised the question of what next? That brought in Professor Tukur Baba of Usman Dan Fodio University who posited the two directions the policy axis needs to move. the first is government to take ownership of the project through interpretation and legislation. Government or political authority here refers to the three arms – executive, legislature and the judiciary on the one hand and the three levels – federal, state and local governments on the other hand.
His second direction is the stakeholders’. By that he meant the grassroots because there is a morality of “not doing unto others what you wouldn’t want done to you” involved in the idea of protecting holy sites. That makes the communities, the grass roots vital in the project which he argued had been tested and found that it could be done, can be domesticated and popularised. Everywhere his team went, he said, the question people asked was why the project hasn’t been in place since. This, he said, suggested a consensus against what he called the rising phenomenon of destruction of holy sites as a case of Mutual Assured Destruction, (MAD).
It all showed the dialectical way society is moving. While Boko Haram is out there killing and maiming, other human beings are working with passion to widen inter-faith understanding, to break barriers and narrow what have generally been thought to be unbridgeable differences. Through a single issue of protection of holy sites, both the religious space and Boko Haram radicalisation are being understood through revealing testimonials as in the case of a leading participant who has interviewed thousands of Boko Haram detainees. Out of 2,000 of them in one instance, only one was 41 years old. The rest fell into 13 and 17 years of age. Theoretically, all the participants are child soldiers because they have not reached the age of 18. Yet, one of them who is just 13 already has to his ‘credit’ the killing of five policemen and two soldiers at a Checkpoint in Yobe. Additionally, he can dismantle and reassemble an AK47 in exactly 15 minutes. The participant was, therefore, correct to assert that an entirely different Islam has emerged. Interestingly, a foremost Christian leader widened this by talking of the phenomenon of all manner of people posing as religious leaders, especially pastors and imams whom nobody monitor what they preach in the villages.
All these are happening at a time research is showing that more people would define themselves in religious terms by 2050. At the moment, according to a PEW Centre research survey Sharon Rosen, Search’s Global Director on Religious Engagement quoted, 85% of humanity introduce themselves in terms of their religious identity. This is a complete reversal of the trend in the immediate post Second World War when God was thought to have died. Contrary to the thinking in government and policy circles reflecting the idea of the death of God or the idea that religion is the problem, the wisdom now is that religion must be taken as part of the solution, said Sharon Rosen.
But how do we take religion as part of the solution when no religion is homogenous? Dr Mohammed Nurayni Ashafa of the Kaduna based Interfaith Mediation Centre run by an Imam and a Pastor who used to fight each other viciously in the series of violence in Kaduna says it is important for faithfuls to be able to deny atrocities committed in the name of religion. In obvious reference to the burning alive of prisoner of war in 2015, he said a Muslim ought to be able to denounce such an atrocity by saying “Not in my name” and likewise Christians when such a thing has been done by a group of Christians.
Peace between Christians and Muslims or peace in the society will not come from a talk shop alone but neither can it come without the kind of inter-subjective space the conference provided. Search for Common Ground and Rajendra Mulmi, its Nigerian Country Director as well as the staff are bound to feel accomplished as being those under whom or in whose time this was achieved. For, the conference did raise banners of hope generally. This is not only in bringing together all the high profile religious leaders, peace practitioners, academics, policy makers and sundry stakeholders from far and near for frank exchanges but also in the new areas for further works that were brought out in the course of the two day interaction.