In West Africa, people have been relatively free of religious conflicts except in Nigeria. Why is Nigeria the exception? Since the 1980s one can count more than twenty major crises. These crises often begin as a result of some social, ethnic or political misunderstanding and soon assume a religious dimension. It should be noted that most of the so-called religious conflicts originate from tussles over control of land, claims to be settlers or political issues. Of course, poverty, unemployment, insensitive governance that leads to massive corruption and social injustice play very significant factors. Unfortunately, these tensions are often baptized as conflicts between Christians and Muslims.
The Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC) came into being in order to help deal with the unhealthy recurring crises that often are attributed to religion. The Council is made up of the Sultan of Sokoto, who is the head of the Muslims in Nigeria, and the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria, with well respected Christian and Muslim religious and traditional leaders as members. They meet often and rotate their meetings in different parts of the country and try dousing tension where crises occur. This body has the potential to inspire a new kind of relationship between Muslims and Christians. The establishment of the Nigeria inter faith Action Association against malaria is a significant step by both religions to improve the lives of Nigerians. NIREC can help Muslims and Christians to use religion for peaceful purposes and remedy the social situation caused by corruption, bad governance, illiteracy, poverty and superstition.
There is increasing efforts of many Muslim/Christian NGOs in peace building and conflict resolution. I know well of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria which has a special Committee on Christian/Muslim relations and it uses the apparatus of the Justice, Peace and Development Commission to foster greater collaboration with Muslims. Recently, the Conference of Women Religious held seminars and workshops on inter-religious issues, just as Islam is now part of the curriculum in seminaries and many religious houses of formation. The Interfaith Mediation Centre in Kaduna jointly founded and directed by Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa – who were both leaders of religious militant groups – offer a faith based approach to peace building through the use of non-violent methods. We need many trained peace makers of whom the Bible says are blessed.
Although some people still view inter-religious dialogue as a watering down of the Christian belief or compromise on the mandate of Christ to evangelize the world, dialogue for me is a Christian obligation. It is either we learn to accept and appreciate our differences or we mutually extinct one another. My approach to dialogue is basically practical. I do not engage in doctrinal analysis or debates. I advocate the dialogue of life by working with Muslims in the promotion of common social goals. I see that we have no alternative to dialogue if we must remain true Christians in our pluralistic society.
Dialogue is a very tedious mission and at times risky, especially in a country like Nigeria where the history of Christian-Muslim relations have been very turbulent. The spirit of distrust and suspicion poses a great obstacle. The Emir of Wase, Alhaji Dr Haruna Abudullahi, and I have been associates in the search for permanent peace between Muslims and Christians in Plateau State since 2004. We have since then worked on several peace initiatives and programmes, appeared on TV and spoken on radio programmes and have been seen together in mosques and churches so that people now refer to us as brothers.
There are many sceptics on both sides about the genuineness of our relationship. A prominent Christian leader told me to be careful as I was dealing with “snakes”. The Emir of Wase has been accused as being a sell-out and perhaps a possible candidate for conversion to Christianity. We continue to do what we are doing: promoting dialogue and peace. The Emir of Kanam, Alhaji Mohammadu Muazu Babangida, impressed by the positive and constructive engagement by the Emir and I asked if he could join us, and now he is our partner in the search for peace. It is very encouraging to hear of efforts by my colleagues, Bishops of northern cities such as Kano, Zaria, Maiduguri, Sokoto and Kaduna. The wind of inter religious dialogue is blowing. We need patience, humility and courage. It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
Ignatius A. Kaigama
Archbishop of Jos