Recent activities of the Boko Haram Sect in Nigeria have heightened sectarian tension and created an environment of fear and suspicion amongst the various religious groups. It is reported that there are mass movements of Muslim Northerners from the South of the Country and Christian Southerners from the North. This exodus is premised on fear of sectarian violence and degenerating security conditions. Government has not done enough to assure Nigerians of their safety. Many religious and traditional rulers have not helped much with their silence in some cases and fiery rhetoric capable of inciting violence in others. The current violence in the country has been erroneously perceived in some quarter as a conflict between Christians and Muslims. This is a wrong interpretation capable of further inflaming the situation. There is need for dialogue between religious leaders who are committed to peace and non-violence to identify ways of addressing the potentials for religious crisis and also develop a common front to work against the interest of groups committed to destabilising the country in the name of religion.
Religion is a touchy issue in Nigeria and religious conflicts have triggered deadly clashes in the country. The recent Boko Haram (deliberate) attacks on churches in the North and targeted killings of some southerners in the North-east have been used as examples of a major conflict between Muslims and Christians. Nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, a complete understanding of the intensity and locations of violent inter-religious conflicts in Nigeria would be impossible without a full accounting for the role of high youth unemployment, large-scale acts of corruption by public office-holders, non-accountable politics (including the mobilization of religious sentiments and structures for electoral politics), and grinding poverty across the Nigerian landscape.
The fact that various attacks by BH had been targeted at Muslim population is yet to become widely accepted and appreciated. The international press and the international community seem also to be fixated in explaining away the Boko Haram crisis as a Christian/Muslim crisis. The danger of this narrative is that it takes away attention from what the real problem is and creates a very volatile environment that can lead to reprisals.
Some religious leaders have not been very helpful in addressing this challenge. Various Muslim leaders have been surprisingly silent while some Christian leaders have been very militant in their approach, especially in instances where Christians are encouraged to take up arms to defend themselves. The toxic speeches emanating from those quarters are fuelling the tension in the land.
A great need exists in Nigeria today for stemming the rapid deterioration in inter-religious relations in ways that would help to reposition these relations as channels for mobilizing faith communities for the greater challenge of responding to the country’s long-running crises of mis-governance and underdevelopment. Part of the problem is the lack of a viable structured communication between the major religious groups (Christians/Muslims), mutual distrust and ignorance. Some Christians are not able to understand the danger that Boko Haram poses to Muslims or the environment of fear that some Muslim leaders live in. Many Muslim leaders are not aware that the Christian community is running out of patience and that it is difficult for some Christians to distinguish between Boko Haram and Islam.
Existing platforms for communication between religious groups are often government initiatives whose approach is often not bottom up, hence the lack of ownership by the people in the grassroots. Furthermore, the confidentiality needed for frank discussions are often not there. Added to this is that the composition of the membership of these government initiatives are sometimes not reflective of their real (theological/ideological) influences at the grassroots. Traditional rulers without any religious constituencies are often nominated as representatives of religious interest. Like everything that is government, the toxic influence of politics cannot be totally ruled out in the proceedings of such bodies hence the question about their credibility. Perhaps most instructive is that the existence of bodies like National Inter Religious Committee (NIREC) has not played any appreciable calming role in the current crisis.
With support from Open Society Initiative of West Africa (OSIWA), the Lux Terra Leadership Foundation (LTLF) is proposing to work in collaboration with the Islamic Education Trust to facilitate a high level interfaith dialogue, reinforced with peace-promoting activities, amongst the two major religious groups in Nigeria, to enable constructive engagement towards ensuring peaceful coexistence of these religious groups in the country. The dialogue is aimed to be a periodic forum dedicated to identifying ways and means of addressing the religious tension in country, information sharing and developing strategies for ensuring peace and an end to religious violence. This would be complemented by an integrated set of educational and advocacy activities to concretely foster improvements in mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence among Nigerians of different faiths.
The goal of IFAPP is the emergence of a critical national mass of adherents of both faiths dedicated to peaceful coexistence through the facilitation and capacitating of an alternative communication and interactive platform that is owned by the people. It is informed by the urgent need to initiate constructive engagement and communication between faiths to stem the growing tension and discord in the country. Clerics in particular would be assisted to better use their influence at the pulpit to educate their followers and preach the message of peace and coexistence.
The Initiative is expected to achieve the following:
- Provide a credible and trusted platform for dialogue between Christian and Muslim clerics.
- Provide opportunity for information sharing between religious leaders on major governance and development challenges confronting Nigeria and how to better respond to these collectively.
- Identify strategies and means of strengthening Muslim-Christian relations at the community, state, regional and national levels.
- Work out modalities for stemming the rising tension between Christians and Muslims.
- Identify strategies for combating the Boko Haram challenge.
Planned Interventions and Activities:
- Plan and hold an inaugural consultative meeting to discuss and reach consensus on the objectives, programmes, and management of the Initiative.
- Document, show-case and bring to national prominence exemplary on-the-ground interfaith structures, activities and projects that are fostering peaceful coexistence within religiously plural communities across Nigeria. This could become the basis for the preparation and issuing of Annual State of Interfaith Relations Reports.
- Commission, publish and strategically disseminated findings from research that demonstrate opportunities for social progress and economic development provided by Nigeria’s religious diversity, the role of faith-based institutions in national integration, and the falsehoods that underpin common religious stereotypes.
- Advocacy visits to political, community, business and opinion leaders to engender their commitment to and engagement in interfaith peace-building, conflict resolution and conflict prevention education efforts.
- Convene regular knowledge sharing forums and strategy sessions to discuss experiences and strategies for peace-building and conflict resolution/management among clerics and community leaders from conflict-prone and conflict-impacted communities, especially those that are dealing with the Boko Haram challenge.
- Issue well-informed position papers and press releases on major new developments or events bordering on interfaith relations.
- Engage in a sustained interfaith peace education aimed at the larger public through web-based platforms (including facebook and moderated electronic discussion forums), newspaper articles, leaflets, briefing notes, advertorials, and research briefs (regularly inserted in a selection of national newspapers).
- Youth-focused interfaith activities that leverage upon existing faith-based youth structures and programmes (such as youth camps), inter-school quiz and essay competitions, and exchange visits/internships.