How do you preach love when blood-thirsty men are lurking around, looking for their next victim - in the name of God? But how do you preach hate when peace-loving men and women from the big religious divides gather to celebrate Sallah and Christmas together? Paradox has no better home than Nigeria. Evidence: on Christmas day in Piri, Yobe State, suspected Boko Haram militants attacked a church, killing a pastor and six others in a predawn assault; same day in Kaduna, Christians and Muslims gathered to celebrate Christmas together, a follow-up to a similar gesture between the two "combatants" during the last Eid-el-Kabir celebration. In Nigeria, all the ingredients for conflict and recipe for peace are ever with us.
Last month in Abuja, the Tony Blair Faith Foundation launched an initiative to encourage dialogue and reconciliation between Christian and Muslim communities in Nigeria. The general idea is to provide a platform for adherents of these two faiths - which are the biggest in Nigeria - to constantly dialogue with mutual respect. The prospects for peace, in the midst of the bloodshed, are undeniable. In our midst, there are preachers of love and preachers of hate, but the impression one easily gets is that the preachers of hate are having the upper hand. For all you care, they may only be a tiny but vocal minority. After all, one mad man can set a city of sane people on fire.
I have argued on this page a million times that our problem is not so much our ethno-religious differences but how we manage the negative symptoms of these differences. In any society, there will always be room for conflict. Even in a family that speaks the same language and practises the same religion, there will always be cause for conflict. The key issue is: how do we manage the conflict? Many societies around the world are managing their racial, cultural, ethnic, religious, regional, gender and clannish differences in a way that minimises conflict. But most Nigerian extremists are adept at professing that we cannot live together. But how many are these hardliners?
I have also argued before that the time has come for us to isolate these extremists and treat them as a different group of people. I would rather see Boko Haram, for instance, as a threat to both Muslims and Christians. Anyone who has taken time to study the activities of these militants will realise that whereas they profess to be fighting the cause of Islam, they have probably killed more Muslims than Christians. Anybody who does not subscribe to their narrow philosophy is termed an enemy of Islam. I have come across many Muslims who are genuinely embarrassed by the activities of this sect. But they are helpless because they could be in the line of fire if they dare talk! Indeed, all religions have their lunatic fringes. The luck some religions have is that their own lunatics do not carry guns or bombs and are still somehow within check.
Going forward, therefore, any meaningful attempt at promoting tolerance, peace and unity in our diversity must be built on genuine dialogue. I have been impressed with the activities of former British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, in promoting interfaith dialogue in Nigeria. Sometimes I wonder why it takes outsiders to lead a campaign in our country, as Bill Gates is doing with polio. Whatever it is, we need a catalyst. Since Blair left office as British prime minister, he has devoted a lot of his energy to African issues. He has been a regular visitor to Nigeria and has worked closely with another Tony - Tony Elumelu - to promote his ideals.
The two Tonys have had interesting career trajectories. The one is a global political figure who led one of the world's oldest democratic nations and is now focusing his post-retirement work on Africa. The other is an African business leader who went into early retirement as GMD/CEO of UBA Plc and is now concentrating his energies on promoting entrepreneurship and governance on the African continent. After leaving 10 Downing Street, Blair is promoting the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI) as well as the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Through the AGI, Blair is using his experience alongside experts-on-the-ground teams to support transformational governments in Africa.
Blair is also using the Faith Foundation to promote respect and understanding about the world's religions through education and multi-faith actions. He believes faith can be a powerful force for good in the modern world. On the other hand, the Nigerian Tony, after leaving UBA, set up Heirs Holding, which has investments in agriculture, banking, hospitality oil and gas, power, and the Tony Elumelu Foundation, a not-for profit institution dedicated to promoting business excellence. Elumelu was recently named African Business Leader of the year 2012 by Stephen Hayes' Corporate Council on Africa "on account of his track record of value creation across key sectors that are transforming the private sector across the continent".
Through the AGI, Blair Faith Foundation and TEF, the two Tonys seem to have formed strategic alliances working positively on Nigeria and Africa. First, it is the AGI, following the inauguration of the Blair Elumelu Fellowship Programme (BEFP), that is providing the government of President Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone with international experts to enhance competitiveness, attract and nurture private investments and generally help the country move beyond aid. Back in Nigeria, these collaborative efforts have also seen the Faith Foundation promote harmony and peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians.
The attendance at the Abuja event was impressive: Blair, Founder and Patron of the Foundation; Bishop Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury Designate; and His Royal Highness Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan via video-message. President Goodluck Jonathan was represented by the Minister of Housing, Ms Ama Pepple; Alhaji Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar III, Sultan of Sokoto; Estu Nupe, Alhaji Yahaya Abubakar; Most Reverend Josiah Idowu-Fearon, the Anglican Archbishop of the Province of Kaduna; and Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, President, Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN).
The way forward for Nigeria, I am convinced, is for genuine dialogue and tolerance. I'm not sure the Kaduna interfaith Christmas party had anything to do with the efforts of the foundation, but we certainly need more of the same in the conflict zones in the interest of peace and development. Muslims will remain Muslims and Christians will remain Christians, but our Nigerianness should bind us together and make us see that though we are different, it should not be a licence to shed blood. Together, we must unite to push the tiny tribe of extremists among us back to the fringes - where they belong.
And Four Other Things...
SET THEM FREE!
As I write, two journalists working for Al-Mizan, a Hausa newspaper, are still in detention, days after they were whisked away from their homes by those we understand to be security agents. Musa Mohamed Awwal and Aliyu Saleh were taken to undisclosed destinations. No security agency has yet made any pronouncement on their whereabouts. This reminds me of the dark days of military rule when journalists were the easy targets. No matter their offences, we deserve the right to know their whereabouts. And there is a place called court of law where they can be taken if they have committed any offences...
THE KANO BUDGET
I have been hearing so much about the development-oriented activities of Governor Rabiu Kwankwaso of Kano State in the last one year. I first heard from a foreigner who spoke glowingly of his performance. I have also been reading positive media reports. His 2013 budget proposal devotes 75 per cent to capital projects and only 25 per cent to recurrent expenditure - despite the security challenges in the state. I also understand the vote for education meets the UN recommendation. I am happy to highlight this because if our governors don't do well, I am also one of their biggest critics.
Officials of the Lagos State Traffic Management Authority (LASTMA) are among the crudest you can find. In Nigeria, anybody who has some form of state power tends to use it to oppress others. I have seen LASTMA officials struggle with drivers on the wheel like common touts, simply because they want to arrest the vehicle. On Christmas Eve, according to reports, they finally succeeded in killing a 54-year-old bus driver, Isaac Popoola. LASTMA officials allegedly beat him to death on the wheel. Is there no saner way of arresting an offender? I hope they are very proud of themselves now.
ADIEU, COMRADE KOLAWOLE
The year was 1987. I had gone to register for my two-year A Level course at the Kwara State Polytechnic, Ilorin. The guy saw my admission letter and exclaimed: "You are also Simon Kolawole? I am Simon Kolawole too! But I'm better known as Abiodun." We shook hands and became friends. We would later proceed to the University of Lagos for our first degrees. Abiodun was a cool guy, too cool to be a unionist. But that was his life. He was once general secretary of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS). He and his wife died last Monday in a road accident, leaving four young children behind. This life!