7 December 2012

Nigeria: No 'Religious War' in Nigeria

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently launched his Faith Foundation's initiative in Abuja aimed at playing a role in fostering tolerance and peaceful co-existence between adherents of Islam and Christianity in Nigeria. In attendance were the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan; the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa'ad Abubakar, and Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) president, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor.

At the launch of the initiative, the Foundation set its main focus, as "work in Nigeria to facilitate truce between Christians and Muslim communities," thereby giving the impression that Tony Blair and his NGO believe that there is a raging war between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria that needed their intervention as mediators. That would be a grossly mistaken notion, a fact that he must have realized by now. While Blair was in the country, he would have observed that the fellow-feeling and mutual goodwill between adherents of Islam and Christianity in Nigeria is generally healthy and strong, and this is so largely because of the many formal and informal organizations, including the Nigeria Interreligious Council (NIREC) under the joint-stewardship of the Sultan and the CAN president, that have continued to build and forge understanding between the two religions and the necessity for everyone to imbibe tolerance and peaceful co-existence.

It is likely that from the outside, many may think that because of recent attacks on churches and mosques-and the tit-for-tat retaliation that sometimes follow- that a war of the religions could be on-going. Nothing can be further from the truth. The bombing acts are the handiwork of a fringe group bent on sowing distrust between the religions. Mercifully, the cord that binds Nigerians together has proved to be strong and resilient.

This should not however suggest that the basis for Tony Blair's foundation or any other ones for that matter, to lend a hand in strengthening interfaith understanding in Nigeria is not welcome. A complex and multi-ethnic country like Nigeria would always profit from genuine attempts to build bridges across its many social divides.

But are Tony Blair's intentions entirely altruistic? His antecedent as prime minister cast him in ill-fitting clothes of a peacemaker. The hasty-but poor judgement he exercised- and the sexed-up intelligence he spuriously put out as fact lent United Kingdom's considerable weight in support of U.S. President George W. Bush's plan to go to war with Iraq. A commission indicted Blair after his tenure as Prime Minister. By joining Bush to invade Iraq on made-up charges that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and the capacity to deliver them, Mr Blair is complicit in many of the global upheavals that are direct consequences of that terribly costly and misguided mission, the so-called war on terror. It was an ignoble role that overnight wiped off, perhaps forever, all the sentiments about his illustrious tenure as prime minister. Today, some influential organisations regard Blair and Bush as war criminals, and the pair have been indicted in a symbolic court session by a group of international jurists who opposed the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is therefore hard, short of a dramatic Damascene Conversion, to reconcile this sabre-rattling, quick-on-the-draw character with the image he now appears to be cultivating as a benevolent champion of peace and interfaith dialogue in other countries.

After leaving office as prime minister, Blair was appointed peace envoy by the Middle East Quartet (U.S., Russia, Britain and United Nations) to facilitate peace between Israel and Palestine, and prepare the ground for a two-state solution to end the conflict. The frequent outbreak of violence between the parties is a mark of Blair's success.

Though Blair's newfound role as peacemaker in these shores may elicit reservations, his message on the necessity for harmonious co-existence between people of different faiths is well worth imbibing. For Mr Blair however, it would be far more useful if he concentrated his considerable energy-and time-to the Africa Governance Initiative, which heads. As he points out in its introduction: "The evidence is clear: Africa needs better governance. None of the other issues it faces will be overcome without it".

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