Ask to Learn: On Dialogue and Democracy in Nigeria

February 18, 2015

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris last month, we heard a lot of outrage about terrorism, radical Islam, and the sanctity of free speech. What we heard considerably less about was the brutal attack by Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria that resulted in the deaths of between 150 to 2,000 community members (reports vary widely) and the simultaneous devastation to their village. Atrocious violence was followed by relative silence in the international community, the attack positioned as just another example of “oh ain’t it awful again in Africa?”

Since fall 2009, I have traveled to Nigeria seven times as part of Public Conversations Project’s partnership with the Kaduna-based Interfaith Mediation Centre (IMC). IMC works to promote coexistence between Muslims and Christians in northern Nigeria. Pastor James Wuye and Imam Mohammed Ashafa, who co-founded IMC, have shared their remarkable story of partnership as they have worked in Sudan, Lebanon, Croatia Chad, Iraq, Northern Ireland and many other countries. Together, we have created a hybrid dialogue model that supports IMC’s work to empower religious and national leaders to bridge ethnic and religious divides. Over the course of the past five years, I have been inspired by the courage and perseverance of so many Nigerians, who are working together to strengthen relationships and build resilient communities in the face of sporadic outbreaks of violence.

Currently IMC and other community leaders in Nigeria are faced with the challenges of how to cope with an ongoing series of violent attacks, while fostering hope, and promoting peaceful elections. Over the weekend, the Nigerian government responded to security concerns by postponing presidential and congressional elections for six weeks. Many Nigerians are questioning the extent to which the postponement was influenced by low polling numbers for the ruling party. People with whom I’ve spoken are upset and frustrated by the postponing of elections and concerned about the possibility of a military “intervention” or outbreaks of anti-government violence.

Public Conversations Project focuses on building understanding through generative questions, the kinds of questions that one doesn’t often hear in response to controversial and polarized situations. Our focus is to help people ask questions that surface new information, develop new perspectives and see complexity where things previously seemed simple and straightforward. American culture and media tend to support the kinds of questions that can be easily answered and lend themselves to soundbites and simple explanations.

Having heard the stories from my friends and colleagues of dialogue has made a difference, I propose to reopen and reframe the prevailing conversation. Seeing the violence in Nigeria as emblematic of the entire situation, or forgetting that even amidst this tragedy the country continues to exist in all its complexity, denies us the opportunity for a more accurate and nuanced understanding Africa’s largest and most prosperous country.

To support a more multidimensional conversation about Nigeria, I have outlined some PCP-style questions and answers for a more nuanced understanding of the Nigerian landscape:

What is Boko Haram and how serious a threat does this insurgency present?

The name of the group means “Western education is sinful.” In the past two years BH has killed an estimated 7000 people and contributed to the displacement of between 500,000-600,000 more. It began in 2002 as a group of Muslims who believed that politics in northern Nigeria had been seized by a group of corrupt, false Muslims. It decided to wage war against them and the federal government, to create a “pure” Islamic state, ruled by sharia law.

What many people do not know is that Boko Haram first had a social service component, providing food, shelter, and welfare, as well as religious services and religious police. In 2009, it came into conflict with Nigerian authorities, which led police to crack down and to a series of violent incidents. Since that time, BH has heightened its brutality and employed kidnappings, bank robberies, extortion, bombings and violent attacks toward the federal and state governments, police and innocent people. There is a common misconception that BH attacks Christians; in reality, they have killed far more Muslims than Christians. The vast majority of Nigerian Muslims are offended and angered by the actions of BH, which they deplore as both inhuman and inconsistent with the teachings of Islam.

What challenges and concerns arise from next month’s elections?

In this oil and gas-rich country, more than 60% of the population survives on less than $1 per day, due to corruption, misgovernance and lack of economic opportunity. The country is split almost evenly between Muslims (who live primarily in the North) and Christians (who live primarily in the South). Northerners are apprehensive that the current president (Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian and Southerner) will be reelected and the North will continue to suffer as a result. Some observers worry that the violence that is often associated with elections could flare up and become widespread, possibly even leading to threats of division or civil war. IMC is currently involved in a campaign to address this concern and encourage peaceable elections.

How has the government responded to Boko Haram?

Unfortunately, the government’s response to Boko Haram has been heavy-handed, indiscriminate and counterproductive. Many citizens are as, if not more, afraid of the government than they are of BH. The police and army have often intimidated and alienated local citizens, complicating an effective antiterrorist response. The suspicion that elements of the government and the Army are sympathetic to BH is widespread and contributes to the government being seen as weak or unwilling to confront BH. There is widespread graft and corruption in the Nigerian Armed Forces, with reports that commanders skim off their soldiers’ pay, as well as funding that is supposed to go for arms.

In the face of Boko Haram and a corrupt government, can dialogue have any kind of meaningful impact?

IMC is currently working in nine states where interfaith relations have been most problematic. In the past two years, IMC’s dialogue workshops and interventions have directly reached 2,500 people and served as a source of inspiration and hope in the face of sporadic intercommunal violence. The partnership, has also established a unique community-state based Community Peace Action Network structure, which has helped in breaking barriers of communication and the cycle of isolation. By establishing and strengthening systems that promote transparent communication from community to state level, IMC and PCP are laying the foundation for sustainable, peaceful coexistence. Members of this network are called Community Peace Observers and receive dialogue training. Through developing this new skillset, and through their connections to one another, Community Peace Observers promote mutual understanding in their communities, reporting of violent indicators to security agencies, and collaboration with their government institutions. 

Last April, in Kachia, a small town, violence flared, 12 people lost their lives, 27 were hospitalized, numerous mosques and churches were burnt to the ground. In response, the government imposed a 24 hour curfew and the town was locked down. IMC leadership visited the town to support the local people by meeting with their religious and civil leaders. I happened to be in Kaduna just days after the incident and had an opportunity to personally witness an IMC workshop which 10 community leaders attended, to learn how dialogue could bridge divides, and contribute to building trust and community.

As the workshop came to a close, one leader from Kachia said "I am going to let you in on a secret: before we came here today, all 10 of us had agreed that we would step down from our roles as volunteer peace observers. What happened in our town was horrible, but what was more discouraging was the government's lack of response. As a result of this workshop, I can say that we have all agreed that we will continue in our roles and pass along what we have learned to others in the community."

Let me share a second story that took place around the same time: A drunk Christian man crashed into the house of a Muslim in a residential neighborhood in Sokoto. A number of Muslim youth became very upset and began to threaten the driver. A community leader had attended an IMC dialogue workshop and he had "stepped down" the workshop (he passed along what he had learned) to some neighborhood youth. Some of the Muslim youth who had attended the step-down training called upon their brothers to slow down and not become violent. In addition to doing so, they contacted the police, who came and responded to the situation. The homeowner forgave the man who had crashed into his house. Peace was restored and there was no violence.

What role can dialogue play?

What is the role of dialogue in the face of a brutal insurgency and harsh governmental response, massive corruption, poverty, inequality and what is widely perceived as an ineffective and uncaring government? I do not believe that dialogue is the primary need in Nigeria right now. Nigerians need a sense of security, safety, greater confidence in their government and more widespread economic opportunity.

But I do believe that dialogue can play a role in helping build the kind of social capital that Nigerian society desperately needs. It can help lay the foundation of trust and relationships without which long-term peace and progress will not be possible. It can help ordinary citizens feel a stronger sense of connection and commitment to each other, empowering them to make their voices heard more effectively. Youth are attracted to BH when they see no viable jobs or possibilities for themselves; perhaps dialogue can play a role in helping them to convey their hopes and aspirations for a country in which they can support their families and become contributing members of society. Dialogue could help leaders to better understand the everyday concerns of citizens and contribute to a more responsive government.

When and if, as the overwhelming majority of Nigerians hope, Boko Haram’s insurgency is defeated, there will be a need to strengthen the fabric of communities across the north of Nigeria. Dialogue can contribute to the reintegration of former fighters, where those who once fought to tear down society can become active in the creation and strengthening of more resilient communities. PCP’S work in Liberia, in partnership with the National Ex-combatants Peacebuilding Initiative and Mediators Beyond Borders proved the value of dialogue, following that country’s 14-year civil war.

Some closing thoughts

I pray that the postponement of elections is just that, a postponement, not the first step toward civil war or another bout of military rule. We at PCP and our partners IMC cannot tell the future: we don’t know what will happen in the elections or the final outcome of the insurgency. What we do know is that there is a role that dialogue can play to support the tens of millions of Nigerians who believe in a positive future. So in a land where only the tiniest spark is needed to ignite a tinderbox, dialogue offers the message of hope and community, to quench the flames. In the words of Imam Sani, our partner at IMC, “together we will sow a seed that will germinate and become a source of the antidote to terrorism, fanaticism, bigotry and extremism.”

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