After the violence following the April 2011 elections many felt moved to do something about the relations between Christians and Muslims in the north of Nigeria. The stories of atrocities committed by Nigerians against each other were, to put it mildly, revolting and scary. Mass hysteria killings – borne of historical confrontations, fear and rage to defend and repel allegedly led to a rampage of selective murders based on real or imagined stereotypical factors. In the end – all of us losers, with thousands displaced from their homes and grieving the loss of family and friends. There was a strong anti Muslim sentiment on media and social platforms on the Internet and many Muslims found themselves on the defensive – having to respond and explain – the way we’ve had to since 9/11 – ‘what is the matter with you people?’ (from Christians and non-Nigerians) and ‘why can’t you influential Muslims in the North do something about those giving Islam a bad name?’ (from Muslims from the South).
The answers always seemed inadequate, not satisfying to the listener and vaguely coherent in the ears of the speaker…and it has been down hill ever since with the bombing of the Abuja UN headquarters and now the Christmas Day bombings.
After the April elections, believing that concerted communication is important, I asked a few people around the north – both Muslims and Christians what we could do to ‘help’ foster enlightenment, tolerance and maybe eventually even acceptance in the hearts of all who have claims to the North. There could be no more room for the violence and accompanying vitriolic invectives heaped on Muslims, Christians, Hausa Fulani, and other minority ethnic groups and we had four years to try to bring the frayed edges of the fabric of community together before the next elections. Finally, from asking, I stumbled onto a group of very distinguished people from the north and we started having meetings to plan our strategy. We talked and talked and talked and six months later…have done little in furtherance of the goals which bring us together.
Now, in the aftermath of our second consecutive Christmas marred with violence, I am forced to ask – why is it so hard to act? What keeps those who want to do good, pinned down in endless navel gazing discussions which go nowhere? Meanwhile communication technology continues to bring our views and fears closer, the better to divide us. Since the Christmas bombs went off, many have been inundated with blackberry blasts and email chains asking Muslims to speak out against the violence and saying that those responsible for the killings are not representing Muslims. However, along with these, there are also messages warning non-Muslims who live in the north to be wary of “wheel barrow pushers, okada operators, shoe shiners/repair men” as these are the agents of Boko Haram. How long before the messages are saying ‘every woman in a burka is a potential suicide bomber’ or ‘everyone not sporting a beard is a potential threat to a Muslim’s existence?’ Each act of violence has a ripple effect – hardening zealots on both sides, converting and/or alienating some and laying the foundation for future rampage.
In the context of the escalating violence and deepening divide between Muslims and Christians in the North and my experience in trying to do something practical to contribute to the resolution of the conflict, the answers to ‘why is it so hard to act?’ have revealed certain issues which are likely to arrest whose who feel moved to move beyond talk.
The first issue is denial or some would say difficulty in the identification of the root of the conflict. No one, without the cover of anonymity which the Internet provides, will admit that they ‘hate Christians or hate Muslims’. Many insist that having close friends and even family with a different religion precludes them from having any latent feelings of animosity or even intolerance towards others of a different faith. Instead the chief culprit for religious violence is always poverty. Poor Poverty can’t catch a break. On one hand the poor are too beaten to react to government policies with any constructive energy and on the other, the poor can afford weapons of mass destruction to tear themselves up and take as many as they can with them. As soon as poverty is fingered as the bad guy, the focus moves away from the conflict – which many see as a mere symptom. Immediately, the discussions about the magic of Agric the golden boy begins and soon we are swimming in a sea of data about fertilizer, acres of land, power and machinery to process the food crops and finally transportation to move the food products efficiently…and the discussion usually ends there or with a deferment until government can tackle the key issues of power and transportation.
The second reason why getting up from the armchair on the conflict issue is harder than prying a bone away from a dog is because the conflict between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria is always allegedly about politics and not about the fact that Muslims and Christians cannot get along. For over five years and counting Plateau State has not had peace – people are packing up and relocating with nothing but the light cover of ash from their burnt property and those who have no where to go or who don’t want to go are getting more rabidly opposed to the others and we hear it is all about representation. Again the conflict is relegated to a symptom of our fight-to-the-bitter-end-winner-takes-all politics and there does not seem to be much for those outside the political institutions to do anything about it. This position is plausible because at least in Kano, the 2011 post election violence was targeted at PDP stalwarts and supporters so there was no religious agenda – at least to begin with.
And a third issue is information – what it says or dictates, where it comes from and how it is used. The information we have or believe is often the basis for our beliefs and perceptions about the conflict and sadly, it seems we gravitate towards the information which confirms what we already believe (or want to believe). If the conflict between Muslims and Christians is going to be managed positively for all Nigerians, then the information we have about what is going on and what is happening is critical. There can be no resolution of the conflict without the painful, unpalatable truth being served up to all of us. We can collectively agree to swallow the past and move on for a better future or we can continue to skirt the issues, misinform and continue to live in mutual distrust of each other. It seems we have taken the decision to avoid any honest discussions and almost all information we have about the election violence and management of it is relegated to gossip which is beneath anyone responding to. So how do we deal with all the unsubstantiated but plausible sounding information that is out there?
For instance there is circulating information that the government in April 2011 were aware that there would be violence and could have put measures in place to prevent or reduce it. However, humiliating General Buhari and showing him up as a bad loser was more important. Then there are stories circulating about pro Christian individuals supporting the late leader of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf and engineering his bail at least on one occasion. Then there is the al-Qaeda funding angle, then the true numbers in terms of those killed and who did the killing and the real story behind those funding the terrorists and so on and so forth until one becomes so dizzy with the possibilities that one is forced back into the armchair even when they had made the move to get up.
There is no ‘come back’ for this particular issue of (mis)information, communication and the power of the truth to heal and grow….yet no-one is focused on this possible solution. Admittedly this is the harder solution because the truth will be painful and should rightly destroy individuals, political groups and comfortable perceptions which help obscure the issues. The fact that this is also the harder, less easy to immediately measure option, makes everyone shy away from this option. What happened to the Muslim-Christian dialogue forum started by Pastor James Wuye and Imam Mohammed Ashafa? Are they still talking? Have they facilitated the proliferation of other agents to promote their goals? Are they on record about the post election violence or our Eid and Christmas terrorism?
Each time a bomb goes of we all go on automatic attack and defense until the shock wears off and we go back to our lives, hoping and praying relentlessly, not that the next bomb will not go off – because we know that it will but that it will go off far away from us. Poverty and politics are definitely factors but so is how we communicate, what information we have and how we change perceptions. 99% of Nigerians cannot do much that is sustainable about poverty and politics, but we can do a lot about changing the perception and beliefs that Muslims and Christians have about each other. We can even sit in our armchairs to do this. So why don’t we?