Building Coexistence in Nigeria
In 2008, Darren Kew of University of Massachusetts’ Conflict Resolution, Human Security and Global Governance program asked if Public Conversations would lead a dialogue workshop for 20 Nigerian leaders visiting the United States through a state-sponsored cultural exchange program. Through the same program a year later, Darren and Public Conversations practitioner Dave Joseph traveled to Nigeria, where they met two men who would change their lives, and the work of their organizations: Imam Mohammed Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, cofounders of the Interfaith Mediation Centre (IMC).
In Nigeria, where more than 20,000 lives have been lost over the past decade to outbreaks of religiously-connected violence, glimpses of peace and coexistence can seem hard to find. To quote our practitioner Dave Joseph, who has traveled to Nigeria seven times in the last several years, “extending religious tolerance and interfaith understanding is an acute humanitarian need in this country and elsewhere – and key to political stability and development.”
Hope is being steadily sown through the surprising and impressive partnership of the pastor and imam, whose story has achieved global visibility over the last several years. The two men have been working in partnership with Public Conversations Project and UMass-Boston since fall of 2012 to prevent violence and help communities in Nigeria find ways to coexist across differences. Dave published an op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor in 2013 on their work, and recently penned a blog post in the wake of the delayed elections in Nigeria.
The pastor and imam exemplify how different religious backgrounds need not divide, but rather lay a foundation of mutual respect for one another’s faiths. Over the course of more than three years, the cross-cultural partners have created a hybrid dialogue model that supports IMC’s work to empower religious and national leaders to bridge ethnic and religious divides. The hybrid model grounds the dialogue process in its cultural context – creating a design that is essentially Nigerian, and uses tenets from the Koran and the Bible to articulate interfaith values of preparation, interdependence, and coexistence. The 70-page dialogue guide is uniquely suited to strengthen local relationships and build resilient communities in the face of sporadic outbreaks of religious violence. The partners have also worked to strengthen the leadership and facilitation skills of emerging leaders at IMC.
Through our partnership and the dialogue model that has emerged, IMC has engaged Christians and Muslims in workshops in nine states across northeastern Nigeria to build peace. Nearly 2,000 community members have been trained with the hybrid dialogue model, and these participants have shared their learning with countless other fellow Nigerians. In the words of IMC’s Director of Intervention, Imam Sani Isah, “Through this training, we will have more people in the stream of work that we do and become better equipped with the know-how, skills and techniques. But most important, together we will sow a seed that will germinate and become a source of the antidote to terrorism, fanaticism, bigotry and extremism.”
The impact of this work was evident recently in Sokoto in the wake of a traffic accident that threatened to explode into violence. Muslim youth quickly gathered after a Christian man accidentally crashed his car into the house of a Muslim family. Tempers flared and threatening words flew. But one young man standing nearby who had received IMC training from a village elder was able to calm the crowd, contact the police, and restore peace. In the past few years, the imam and the pastor have also become increasingly well- known for their peace-building work.
In April of 2015, the two keynoted the Mediators Beyond Borders Congress in Bucharest, Romania.
When I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger 40 years ago, I learned a local proverb: “Patience is the medicine for living in the world.” Patience, coupled with persistence and divine inspiration, are among the remarkable qualities that support Imam Ashafa and Pastor Wuye (and all of the Interfaith Mediation Centre) as they continue in their work.
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Through this training, we will have more people in the stream of work that we do and become better equipped with the know-how, skills and techniques. But most important, together we will sow a seed that will germinate and become a source of the antidote to terrorism, fanaticism, bigotry and extremism.