Abare Kallah, Isa Buba, Shanta Premawardhana
Our common understanding of the stakes of religious and ethnic conflict is inadequate, especially in complicated, populous areas like the north and northeast zones of Nigeria. Put simply, many of the stakeholders who should be investing in solutions do not fully recognise themselves in the problem. Others see how their interests are impacted by religious violence but don’t see any hope of addressing it.
Businesses in particular have a great deal to gain or lose and need to, individually or collectively, stop the slide and reverse it. To act, however, businesses must be convinced that they are investing in proven solutions, not platitudes. By accounting in detail all that is lost to religious violence, we hope to reveal how diverse and powerful these relevant stakeholders are. And to prove to these stakeholders that there is a viable avenue for change, we share firsthand success stories from deeply riven areas where a strategic interfaith peacemaking model has helped people with different religious commitments make the changes they need to thrive as a community.
In writing about religious and ethnic violence in Nigeria, we always caution readers not to oversimplify the issue at hand. It is not just Christians vs. Muslims or farmers vs. herders; Boko Haram does not limit its terrorizing to one ethnicity, religion, or community. For an exceedingly complex country like Nigeria, where each regional zone has a specific history in terms of conflict as well as specific resources and strengths, this reminder is apt. Yet the same specificity and thought must be applied as well to the impacts of that violence.
Take food security. Nigeria’s farmer-herder conflicts center on a struggle for land and water resources and have resulted in an estimated 10,000 deaths over a two-year period. In halting the harvesting of farmers’ crops and their transport to market, these conflicts have created an acute and immediate problem: community hunger. Food is not getting from where it’s produced to where it’s needed. What’s less obvious is how this violence contributes to food price inflation, which makes the food that is available out of reach for poor Nigerians. Food price inflation leads to an overreliance on imports, which harms the nation’s economy and self-sustainability. Even this last resort to imported food products may be closed off when violence threatens the food supply chain. Without reliable supply chain infrastructure, outside food producers—whose prices might be more accessible—will not enter the market. Finally, with farmers afraid to work the land, farmland is left fallow. With harsh climate conditions stripping off invaluable topsoil, leaving the land unworked can imperil its productivity for years to come.
The issue of food security links the agricultural sector to the health sector to the business sector; violence poses a financial and humanitarian threat to each of these. But what about a sector like tourism? Tourism may seem a second-order issue in comparison with food security, but it has the potential to provide critical employment opportunities and both the funds (including significant tax receipts) and the impetus to overhaul a country’s transportation infrastructure. In the European Union, for example, tourism drives 20% of all service sector jobs and one in ten non-financial businesses are part of the tourism industry. Ghana and Kenya are two examples where—before the COVID-19 pandemic—relative political and social stability yielded immense benefits in terms of employment and infrastructure investments. Security risks have made tourists steer clear of Nigeria, however, even though its natural beauty and cultural resources are on a par with those other countries’.
In hobbling the tourism sector, religious and ethnic violence may also be robbing Nigeria of its environmental future: it is often only when natural resources are understood to be a financial asset that stakeholders come together to protect them—witness the diverse conservation efforts being made in Kenya, for example.
Health, food security, and tourism are three examples of interlinked sectors being brought to their knees by violence. Indeed, such violence produces downstream damage everywhere it touches: by threatening federalism and governance, it opens the door to corruption and closes the door on outside investment. By causing the abduction and rape of children, it devastates souls but also dismantles educational standards and guts the nation’s workforce.
Because all of this destruction is connected, our response must be, too. Stakeholders have to start seeing themselves as part of a network of partners who can, in fact, stem this tide.
In over 70 villages in northeastern Nigeria, an interfaith peacemaking approach has demonstrated effective gains in both conflict prevention and community-led development. Instead of pursuing a secular solution to religious violence and sidestepping Nigerians’ profound religious commitments, this approach capitalizes on them. Interfaith Peacemaker Teams (IP Teams) enlist local religious leaders to work together across ethnic and faith-based lines to secure, support, and sustain their communities. In northern Nigeria, we believe, the way forward is not away from religion but through interfaith collective action.
This action is neither outside-in nor top-down; what sets interfaith peacemaking apart from traditional development initiatives is that it starts within the community, and targets the urgent, relevant, and winnable issues that community members identify. Two examples convey the concrete results of this model as well as the empowerment it engenders. In the village of Talasse, a Boko Haram attack led the local bank to warn of impending closure—a loss that would have meant over 75 km of travel if villagers had to do any banking. The village head pleaded with people who had left the community to deposit enough of their money in the bank to keep it afloat, but he was unsuccessful. The village’s IP Team mobilized its Muslim and Christian stakeholders to do similar outreach themselves—and their efforts were successful. Now solvent, the bank is a vital symbol of effective interfaith action in the face of ineffective government.
Over 500 kilometers from Talasse, the village of Bagadaza faced a major infrastructure problem in the form of a broken culvert. In the dry season, this was less of a problem; in the rainy season, however, the villagers knew it could spell disaster. Apparently successfully, they lobbied the government to come fix the culvert—but the government changed before any repairs were made. Deciding they couldn’t wait any longer, the IP Team organised the people to raise the money for raw materials and build the culvert themselves. This project does not just meet the immediate needs of the community but also encourages them to tackle other needs that are “urgent, relevant, and winnable” (the IP Team mantra).
So many more examples can be drawn from the IP Team approach in Nigeria and elsewhere, but each one reinforces the lasting effectiveness of interfaith action.
Scaling up the solution
Moral generalisations and mournful sentiments are valuable to a point, but the only proven solution to religious violence is the interfaith peacemaking approach. To unlock the massive, interconnected web of human capacity and talent, infrastructure, and natural resources of northern Nigeria, stakeholders need only to scale up the model that’s already working.
Rev. Abare Kallah is OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership’s National Coordinator for Nigeria. He is also the Chairman for the Northeast Zone for the Christian Association of Nigeria. Sheik Isa Buba is an imam and the Chairman of the Fitiyanu Islam of Talasse Mosque in Gombe State in Nigeria. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana is the President of OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership, based in Chicago, USA. OMNIA builds Interfaith Peacemaker Teams in Gombe State, and in other countries where religious extremism has caused social disruption.