Did you know that Gombe is the second safest state in Nigeria?
This Northeastern state of Nigeria, crippled under the Boko Haram insurgency, is where OMNIA started Interfaith Peacemaker (IP) Teams in 2017. Many, including Nigerians from other parts of the country, thought we were crazy to go there. But Dr. Isaac Laudarji (then, SCUPE faculty, now our board member), our wise guide in all things Nigerian, encouraged us. And since our mission is to “equip religious leaders to counter religious extremism,” there was no better place in the world to start. It is unbelievable that Gombe has become the second safest state in the country!
I just returned from spending nine good days in Gombe. We did an Advanced Training for 28 IP Team leaders, a Training of Trainers for 30 of our best and brightest, and 18 senior leaders who had done the training in 2017/18 came to learn what’s new, and to recommit themselves to the work of building peace. We also visited several IP Teams to help them strategize, agitate, and encourage them in their work.
Can the 106 Interfaith Peacemaker (IP) Teams in Gombe take any credit for this phenomenal increase in safety?
My colleague, Abare Kallah insisted that the IP Teams played a major role. In the past several years, anytime there was a major interreligious or inter-tribal conflict or violent protest in the state, the IP Teams intervened. Here are some of the many examples:
The public mood has shifted. I can tell. Although there are still some people with extreme views, most Christians and Muslims, including pastors and imams, appreciate the opportunity to get to know each other and work together. It’s truly a new day!
Yet, I was reluctant to acknowledge it. There could be a variety of other reasons why violence is down, I argued, such as the pandemic. Abare’s claim, however, was vindicated when the Governor of Gombe state, Muhammadu Inuwa Yahaya, gave OMNIA a special award. The violence level in the state is down, he said, primarily because of the Interfaith Peacemaker Teams!
A highlight of this visit was the Waja tribe’s cultural day of celebration for peace. The event drew upwards of 5000 people to a football stadium. This is Abare’s tribe, and his Traditional Ruler is HRH Muhammad Danjuma Muhammad or the Balah Waja who has now become my friend and calls me every time I go to Gombe. I was very pleased to see many of our IP Team leaders, Muslims and Christians with significant leadership roles in the program. The Balah Waja invited me to speak to the large gathering. I congratulated him on the achievement of peace in the state, and reminded him that when we began this work, I said to him that we are not bringing peace from outside to Nigeria, but that the seeds of peace are right here in the Nigerian soil. We are just here to help re-plant them in a way that they will grow and flourish. I assured him that because the IP Teams are rooted in the local communities, they are here to stay and continue to work for peace.
Today’s struggle is not with Boko Haram. It is caused by the migration of large numbers of cattle herds southwards, from the areas of rapidly expanding Sahara Desert. The herders are primarily from the Fulani tribe and Muslim. Crop farmers in the south are from other tribes and are mostly Christian. Therefore, this is seen as a Muslim-Christian conflict, although it is strictly a fight over resources. There is also the problem that much of the land that was available for grazing is now taken over by agriculture, and trails that were available for the cattle are now developed into highways and housing. As a result, the cattle devour the crops as they go past the farms setting up a conflict between herders and crop farmers. To add to the problem the herders carry automatic guns (some say imported from Libya) and aren’t afraid to use them on the farmers.
In our visit to the village of Lapan in the foothills of the majestic Kilang Peak, Fulani herders (Muslims) and crop farmers (Christians) came together -- a remarkable achievement. At a recent training, a Fulani leader said that the tension had significantly intensified, and he did not see a way to resolve the problem, so his herder community were considering moving out of the village. But once they came together in the IP Team it was an entirely different story, he said. The herders and farmers have legitimate concerns -- the cattle need to be fed, and the vegetables and yams must be given a chance to grow. Now they are working to resolve the issues. The tension has abated; they don’t have to move out of the village, thanks to OMNIA, he said.
These stories from Gombe reinforce OMNIA’s theory and method. First, religious communities are among the most under-utilized entities for peacebuilding. They are organized people, and organized money, all of whom have theologies that affirm peacebuilding. Second, IP Teams actually succeed. When religious leaders and people of faith come together across their differences, collaborate, build power, act strategically on issues that arise from the ground undertaking only those issues that are urgent, relevant and winnable and thereby win, communities change. As violence is reduced, their public perceptions shift; pluralism is affirmed, social cohesion is built, and democracy is strengthened.
If it can happen in Gombe of all places, I am confident, it can happen anywhere.
There are alternatives to war. The political leaders have no interst in trying them. Religious leaders must step up and lead.Learn More