RESTORING PEACE IN CRISIS

A PEACEBUILDING STORY

Reconciliation efforts rely on trust. The legitimacy of that trust requires testing to establish resilience as communities work together to heal trauma and restore social cohesion. Without trust between the disparate members of a fractured community healing cannot come locally, regionally or nationally because the communities have no foundation for peace. This is well understood in Christian Faith Ministries (CFM) peacebuilding experiences in the aftermath of brutal conflict in northern Nigeria.

Over Christmas 2009 Bukuru, Jos South, Plateau erupted into deadly violence, with hundreds killed on each side. Nominally between indigenous church-going and mosque-going communities, not locally indigenous, the perpetrators were mostly under employed, undereducated, impoverished, marginalised, weaponised youth. Once their ammunition was exhausted Muslims on one hill shouted, “Allahu Akbar!”: Christians on the opposing hill shouted, “Hallelujah!” as they rushed down to battle in clashes of cutlasses and knives.

CFM’s team live and work in an area of Bukuru (shared at this time by Muslims and Christians) in buildings rented from a Muslim landlord. Three times in those weeks “Christian” youth threatened to burn down the buildings because they were owned by a Muslim, although occupied by Christians running a bible school. Each time CFM staff engaged in long discussions with angry young men, slightly drunk, “high” on one thing or another. The staff calmly reasoned and gently persuaded, resulting in the youth not destroying the buildings. Every night during the troubles a Muslim widow and her children took shelter inside, protected by the CFM team.

When the violence was at its height, Gabriel, a CFM team member, hid his neighbour Abdul, a Muslim barrister and community elder, in his house when the angry lawless youth mob came searching for him. Gabe concealed Abdul’s whereabouts, sending the youth away and later, just before dawn, took Abdul to safety in the Muslim zone at the risk of his own life.

Three months later, March 2010, in retaliation for Muslim deaths over the Christmas period, Fulani (traditionally semi-nomadic Muslim cattle herders) attacked the near-by Berom village of Dogon-Nahawa slaughtering 501 men, women and children in one night. This sparked retaliation which was stopped in Bukuru only by rapid military intervention.

The communities segregated, with army patrolling the streets. After their withdrawal, youth militia on each side patrolled their zones of Bukuru as the whole city rigidly divided into Christian and Muslim areas. Rumours of truckloads of Fulani about to arrive to purge the town of non-Muslims spread quickly through Christian Bukuru, fear paralysing the community. This did not significantly dissipate as months passed. Segregation became entrenched. Distrust and suspicion ruled, and months of anxiety intensified into years of terror as terrorist Islamist group Boko Haram declared Jihad against Jos and began their deadly onslaught on the city in 2011.

CFM had just one line of trust, one flimsy cord of relationship connecting them to the Muslim community. Without waiting to consult anyone, Gabe acted to sure up that connection.

In 2012, when no Christian dared enter the Muslim zone, Gabe dressed in baban-riga (Muslim clothes) and walked deep into the Muslim neighbourhood, to a house behind Bukuru’s main mosque to greet Barrister Abdul and his family at Saleh. They ate together in a traditional and well-established gesture of friendship from friendlier times. The flimsy rope between communities grew a little stronger. A few phone calls, occasional visits, and the trust structure firmed up a little more.

In 2013 Prof Kent, CFM’s international director, and the CFM team formally invited fifteen of Muslim elders from that Bukuru community to his office through the contact forged between Abdul and Gabe. The elders considered carefully: would the trust hold, or was this a trap? They decided to risk it.

The CFM team in Bukuru were positioned for this tentative approach. Professor Kent Hodge, an Australian, had lived and worked in Nigeria since 1986, working with indigenous training organisations and growing a relational network of trusted friends all over Nigeria’s north. With international help and backing, he spent years assisting young men and women to develop skills. Among the CFM team trained in those early years were Emmanuel Tajudeen Razack, son of an Imam, trained in Arabic and formerly a malam; and Paul Shettima, of Fulani ethnic origin, and Gabriel Aiso, brought up as a Muslim.  All the staff carried a non-judgmental respect for the Islamic community and an understanding of the ways of the “other side”.

Prof Kent began the meeting with an apology. “We call ourselves Christ-followers,” Prof said, “but Jesus said to love your enemies and we have not loved you. We have separated from you, we have not greeted you, we have not mourned with you, we have not celebrated with you. Please forgive us. We want to change. How can we help you?”

The Muslim elders were shocked, but they listened carefully, growing hesitantly hopeful. “What do you have in mind?” they asked.

“We share the same problem”, Prof answered, “Our youth. Could we come together to start a computer training centre, free for the users, to give our youth skills to help them?”

The Muslim elders were extremely receptive to this idea and began to grow very cautiously excited. Planning began.

A committee was set up and organisation got underway: venue, equipment, staffing. Prof Kent proposed a name: Salama (Peace) Computer Institute. “No,” said the Muslim elders. “Any Arabic name will scare away Christians. This project is to restore unity.” They decided to call it Kent Computer Institute (KCI), so that the name would tell the story behind the centre.

Organisation took time, and funds were very scarce. With severe suffering on both sides of the divide the humanitarian needs were almost overwhelming.

Boko Haram attacks had started in Jos in 2011 and continued sporadically through to late 2014, with suicide bombings and machine gun attacks on churches, schools, and market places. Attacks killed many hundreds, but thousands died, because incidents were followed by retaliation on both sides, with youth the main drivers of the violence. It was not until tenuous bridges between communities, like the one in Bukuru, began to form that Christians realised how thoroughly the local Muslim community rejected the terrorists and how sincerely they hated them for stealing some of their disillusioned children to swell the terrorist ranks. Retaliation began to wane. Organisations like Tear Fund were busy organising peace treaties between main community groups. Suspicion held sway, particularly among the youth, with attitudes of distrust entrenched at the grassroots, but desperation, as institutions and infrastructure collapsed around them, was forcing community elders to consider reconciliation.

Boko Haram activities further in the north east filled Jos with thousands of internally displaced people. A campaign against the city of Mubi, Adamawa State in 2012 filled schools, churches and homes with IDPs seeking refuge. One was Ezekiel, Gabe’s younger brother, an engineering student at Mubi University, there to present his final dissertation when his dormitory was attacked. He was hit across the forehead with a hatchet, left unconscious, but woke as the terrorists were shooting the bodies. He jumped up and escaped over the compound wall, grazed by one of the bullets flying after him. He spent 6 months recuperating from his horrific injuries with Gabe’s family. He later came back to work with CFM as construction engineer.

The parents of another CFM team member from rural Borno State narrowly escaped death in an attack, walking through the bush all night with their 14-year-old grand-daughter, afraid to go near the roads. Grandfather, a retired army Sargent, was a target, and their grand-daughter would have been kidnapped as a Boko Haram bride if they did not flee. They made their way to Jos and stayed with their daughter’s family in Bukuru for months until eventually grandmother, in her late 60’s returned to farm in the rainy season.

The older women, many of them widows now, were the only ones not much threatened by death or kidnap, being of little value to Boko Haram. They slept together in grass shelters in the shells of their burned-out homes in destroyed villages, using hoes to plant, weed and harvest low-growing crops: beans, groundnuts or rice. The army restricted planting of tall-standing maize, millet or guinea-corn, potentially providing cover for insurgents. CFM helped some women with seed, tools and fertilizer. Meanwhile the surviving men, younger women and children stayed with relatives or in camps elsewhere.

From 2014 CFM began to house child victims of conflict whom extended family were unable to help. Over 180 children of widows and orphans from Borno and from Yobe States slept in rooms built in CFM’s chapel, near Jos. The children received medical care for hepatitis B, trachoma, typhoid, malaria and malnutrition, and injuries, with trauma counselling from psychologists and pastoral trainees from CFM’s training college. Many of these trainees spoke the tribal languages of the children and shared similar experiences at the hands of Boko Haram. Their stories are horrific. For months the children stayed close to the buildings, fearing open spaces. They had forgotten how to play. When sufficiently recovered they resumed education, disrupted for at least 2 years, although some had never been to school before. 73 have returned home now. 116 still stay with CFM to complete their education as many schools are still not open in their villages. These children are motivated to change their future. While the “home-school”, as CFM’s team call them, make up 1/3 of CFM’s children’s school population, they take 2/3 of the prizes at annual prize giving day, making remarkable progress. The local Muslim community know about the children and see indiscriminate action to help the weakest as evidence of trustworthiness.

In 2012 the secondary school across the road from CFM’s Bukuru offices became a temporary IDP camp. CFM built and furnished temporary classrooms and employed teachers for over 400 camp children for almost 3 years, before the camp finally emptied. Other IDPs staying with family, also impoverished by the years of conflict, needed help. CFM gave out emergency food and clothing for Muslim families in crisis as well as Christian, paid hospital bills for the injured, helped older children pay exam fees and gave scholarships to many in CFM’s primary and secondary school and in other local schools and also sponsored the university fees of some of those orphaned.

During this period life became harder for the poorest in the Muslim communities, who were increasingly marginalised. Families who had supplemented their meagre incomes by farming land rented off local Christians were denied access to that land. Christians feared helping them was empowering their enemies. Many locals were determined to drive the Muslims out. CFM, with newly strengthened links with Muslim elders, began to help desperate widows and orphans within the Muslim communities. They needed food and medical aid. Paying school fees for their children kept hundreds of youngsters off the streets and out of trouble, cementing the bridge of trust with the Muslim community.

With so many challenges it took until 2014 to have things ready to open the computer centre. Prof Kent Hodge had been away fundraising in Australia and was arriving back for the opening. Meeting a flight arriving early morning, CFM local team leader Emmanuel Razack and team member Josie Nweke collected Kent and a visitor from Australia at Abuja airport for the 5 hour drive up to the Plateau.

Two hours into the drive, on a quiet stretch of road, they were ambushed, in front and behind, by Fulani bandits dressed in imitation military fatigues. The bandits sprayed their vehicle with bullets from powerful semi-automatic weapons. Razack, who was driving, was killed instantly, shot in the head. The car slowly crashed into roadside scrub, and the other occupants, uninjured, were ordered out at gunpoint. Their possessions were rifled, valuables stolen, with verbal abuse, interspersed with threats to kill them. The thieves were dissatisfied with their haul and threatened to kidnap the foreigners for ransom. At this point, considering that they were about to die, Kent told the bandits they were missionaries with no money, so ransom would not come. The Fulani bandits who were nominally Muslim were very, very angry. Torrents of insults were spat at them and guns held at their heads until finally they were ordered to turn their backs and walk into the bush. They fully expected to be shot in the back and walked silently praying for wives and children left behind. They kept walking. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes. They were still alive and had not reached any village. They stopped, and hearing traffic flowing on the road behind them realised the bandits had fled. They headed back to the road, reaching the damaged car with Emmanuel’s body shortly before the police arrived.

After filling out a police report and placing Emmanuel’s body in the local morgue, by late afternoon they made it back to Abuja in public transport. The Australian visitor, a doctor from NSW, was thoroughly traumatised and booked a flight out that night.  He had his passport and a credit card not stolen, hidden on his body. The next morning Kent and CFM team members brought the body of Emmanuel back to Jos for burial, deep in shock but amazed and thankful to be alive.

Among the first mourners arriving to console the team were the Bukuru Muslim elders. They knew Prof Kent and Emmanuel had worked together for 25 years and were as close as brothers. They feared that because the bandits were “Muslims”, bitterness would consume Kent and the team, and the project of the computer centre and the humanitarian work would be abandoned. Instead Prof Kent asked the Muslim elders to escort him and Gabe through the Muslim community, to greet their people and thank them for their sincerity and kindness in mourning with us. There they saw at least 800 burnt out shells of homes destroyed in the 2009 conflict, with widows sheltering under rusted roofing iron propped up on sticks, trying to prepare a meagre meal for their children. More than ever the CFM team was determined to work with these worthy elders who laboured so hard to help their people and were reaching out across the divide for peace, risking trusting “Christians”, who had wreaked such havoc in their community.

Three weeks after the ambush and loss of Emmanuel Razack a Boko Haram attack on the township of Attagara, in Borno State, at the foot of the Mandara Mountains rocked the bible school. Six bible college students from the town lost all their adult male relatives in the attacks, retaliation and counter retaliation. Their wives, children, mothers, little brothers and sisters and cousins were not heard from for weeks. They had fled on foot into the mountains, where at least 12 elderly and infants died of hunger and disease. Some of their families eventually made their way to Jos, some orphaned children of Attagara joining CFM’s Home School.

The grand opening of the computer centre was going ahead. The Muslim elders had permission to block the streets, hired marquees and planned to cook food for hundreds of guests when a week before the celebration Boko Haram fired a rocket propelled grenade into a Muslim secondary school one block away.

Prof Kent wanted to cancel the ceremony: it was too public, inviting trouble. “Boko Haram” means book learning using Latin (not Arabic) script is cursed for destruction. How much more a computer centre? The Muslim elders refused to halt the celebration. “No!” They declared. “We are standing together with the Christian community, together for peace and for education.”

The ceremony went ahead without incident. Kent’s inaugural address on peace, printed out and distributed to all present, was preached again in every local mosque the following Friday.

It took almost a year before Christian youth raised enough courage to enrol in free-to-user computer training 2 blocks behind Bukuru’s main Mosque, but eventually they came. The committee were forced to select from candidates who passed the entrance exam equal numbers of Muslim and Christian, male and female. Classes run for 6-month certificate and 6-month diploma courses, 3 hours daily, two sessions each day, 6 days a week. Christian youth were sitting beside Muslim youth learning computer skills together in peace. Trust was being built.

Christians entered this Muslim neighbourhood without incident, and slowly Muslims too began to walk through Christian areas without repercussion. CFM’s team made a point of buying in the Muslim market and others began to follow their example. Trust was slowly growing, trauma healing, reconciliation sprouting.

From 2011 CFM began slowly building their main site, Wurin Alheri (meaning Place of Kindness), between the church-going township of Du and Hausa Fulani mosque-attending Bisichi, 15km beyond Bukuru, where land is cheaper. It is in a conflict zone, about 6km from Dogon Nahawa, attacked so brutally in 2010. Bisichi on the next ridge and visible from CFM’s site, is a renowned flashpoint. When minor disputes over crops and cattle escalate into armed conflicts anywhere in the region, militants arrive in Bisichi handing out AK47s, gathering Fulani boy recruits.

Fulani have a strict honour code to defend which mandates revenge killings. But on the other side Du is the traditional chieftaincy of the Berom people, perhaps the Plateau’s proudest “Christian” tribe, with a warrior heritage to defend. Clashes, frequent and intense, occur between volatile youth. Tit-for-tat killings were endemic, destroying lives and livelihoods. As militants of either side conscript vulnerable youth to defend their pride, only the unscrupulous foreign weapons dealers’ profit.

In this environment CFM’s team began to make overtures towards the Muslim elders of Bisichi. In March 2015 CFM’s team met with Bisichi’s Emir (Fulani traditional ruler), the local Imam, Muslim elders and a Christian pastor of the town to discuss starting a free-to-user computer training centre for the youth. The elders had heard about the centre in Bukuru and eagerly embraced the idea. CFM agreed to source 10 computer units and 2 teachers to begin. The elders immediately offered a community building: a mosque.

Bisichi has 2 mosques close together. The original, older mosque offered has adobe – mud-brick – walls half a metre thick, concrete rendered inside and out, a concrete floor, galvanised iron roof, a ceiling and is connected to the electricity grid. They were using it as a Quranic school, which was quickly relocated to the bigger mosque. By May electrical fittings and computers were installed and classes started. At first only Muslims came: Christians were running free computer lessons in a mosque? Who would believe such a thing? But by September even Christian youth were learning computer skills in the mosque.

Until conflict erupted again. The boom of tank fire in Bisichi thundered down the valley as faint whiffs of smoke were visible from CFM’s Wurin Alheri site, sending everyone scurrying into central rooms of the houses. Stray shots travel long distances.  The army was restoring the peace the way armies do.

Hungry, unemployed, under-educated and impoverished youth are easily recruited to conflict, accepting weapons, committing atrocities. Trouble always begins small: a cattle-herding Fulani boy, maybe aged 12 or 14, grows bored and is careless with the cows he guides, grazing in the rough grass between crops or on land already harvested, without fences. The cows wander onto standing crops, eating and trampling valuable produce, causing losses the small-holding farmers can ill afford. Farming youth respond disproportionally, and the cycle of revenge starts again. This time the military had to intervene.

By late September Bisichi was calm enough: computer classes resumed and at the end of November the first cohort finished the 6-month certificate course, passed their exams and were ready for the graduation. We all went to be part of that significant ceremony.

Graduations are important in Nigeria because education is accessible for too few, and every milestone achieved by those struggling to escape poverty is worthy of celebration. The community celebrates.

Of the three guests of honour, one was late. The military commander of Barkin Ladi Local Government Area, Bisichi’s district, was in Bisichi that morning well before the ceremony, investigating tit-for-tat murders, the kind that too often sparks another round of bloody conflict. That day it didn’t. Maybe it was something to do with the army officer’s speech when he eventually made it to the graduation.

It was standing room only in the mosque, and in marquees outside with loudspeakers, maybe 500 people. Speakers were set up so the whole town could hear their neighbour or relative’s name read out to collect his/ her certificate, and the commander’s speech.

A turning point for Bisichi, he called the graduation. He asked a question of the graduates and the audience. “Who loves you?” he asked. “The ones who hand out weapons and send you out to die or the ones who equip you for the 21st century with free computer training? And about the ones who give you guns,” he said, “Are their sons carrying guns? No! They are in university, maybe in UK or America, preparing for the 21st Century. So, who loves you? Those who provide a computer centre to train you for tomorrow or those who give you a weapon and send you out to finish your tomorrow today?”

Another computer training centre in Badarissa, near Yola, Adamawa State, where there are many internally displaced by Boko Haram terrorism, opened the following year, again, a team member working with local community elders. Another one opened 2017 at Wurin Alheri, with a vocational skills training centre. With separate courses each morning and twice in the afternoon, another one on the weekends. Since 2014 over 3,000 youth have been helped in the KCI centres and about 600 with vocational skills. Some graduates have gained jobs. Some have matriculated to university. Some have started their own small businesses.

The District Police chief of Bukuru sent a letter in 2016 thanking CFM for their role in peace-building, stating that no religious violence of any kind was happening in Bukuru. Definitive proof of that came in June 2018.

June 23rd in villages of Barkin Ladi and Bokos Local Government Areas, Fulani militants and cattle herders attacked unprepared farmers. The violence began at a funeral of a well-known elder where 213 were murdered. It spread to 10 or 12 more villages with at least a hundred more villagers killed before the army got control.

It had begun as always, with disputes, retaliations and counter retaliations. By the time the Fulani militants arrived with heavy weapons, the funeral was on, creating an opportunity for maximum carnage.

As the news of trouble spread to Jos, on Sunday 24th in Angode, a deprived area renown for alcoholism and drug use close to Bukuru, tribespeople of the slaughtered blocked the expressway and pulled people out of cars. Anyone wearing Muslim-style clothing was brutally slaughtered. A junior member of CFM staff was in Angode that afternoon to run a regular twice-weekly recovery workshop for drug addicts and alcoholics. Of the same tribe, the young man tried unsuccessfully to stop the slaughter and narrowly escaped being killed as a sympathiser of their enemy. He hid in a house until police arrived with more Christian youth, same tribe, from Bukuru’s Kent Computer Institute who went down on their knees begging residents to stop the slaughter. After many attempts at persuasion police reluctantly opened fire on those stopping vehicles, finally ending the slaughter.

In Bukuru, 2 kilometres away, community elders were already on the street with Muslim and Christian youth from KCI, working with the police, patrolling, intervening in any potential act of retaliation or violence. “Not one drop of Christian blood will be shed in Bukuru,” Muslim elders affirmed. No retaliation broke out in Bukuru, while in Jos North, another Muslim area, many were killed in counter retaliation.

In Bisichi, that renown trouble-spot, militants arrived with AK47s to recruit youth. Not one joined. This has never happened before. Peace-building lessons, a compulsory part of the computer studies course, and probably even more the example of care and the hope generated by their studies, worked. The violence did not take hold in Bisichi: no lives were lost. Conflict stopped.

Eventually police got control of the situation in Jos. Killing stopped. Dusk to dawn curfews operated for 2 weeks, gradually lifting as peace stayed.

The trust mutually forged between communities passed the first major test. Christians all over the nation were claiming Jihad against Christians, aware of only part of the story.

By mid-August 2018, Alhaji Mohamed Isa, one of the Bisichi elders, a friend and major player in Bisichi’s KCI, contacted the CFM team. He works in the Local Government Department of Education in Barkin Ladi.  A group of pastors and Muslim elders from Barkin Ladi, the hub of June’s violence, had asked him if he would request on their behalf a peace-building computer centre in Barkin Ladi. The delegation arrived at CFM’s office the next day, and we began working together. They had already found a suitable building.

By October CFM and the community committee opened the fifth KCI in Barkin Ladi. Their first graduation is coming up soon.

When funding comes, CFM plans to open 4 more centres, in Miango, Tokk, Jos North and Mangu, all conflict hot-spots. The centres are free-to-user, each operating with a multi-ethic, multi-religious local community committee, overseen by Zaharadeen Muhammed, KCI director, employed by CFM. The operational understanding requires equal numbers of Christians and Muslims, of male and female students. The committee pays costs of the building, water and power. CFM pays staff and maintains over 240 computer systems in the centres we have already, frequently needing to replace old donated failing second-hand systems with new ones. The environment is tough on computers, with dust blowing from the Sahara all dry season, heavy rain and constant humidity in the wet, and fierce storms in between. And students who have never used a computer before, not experienced in owning much or caring for anything electronic, are rough on equipment. Students are on a steep learning curve, but one that hundreds every semester are successfully climbing.

Every day Muslims and Christian youth come to Wurin Alheri, Bukuru, Barkin Ladi, Bisichi and Badarissa computer centres, trusting they are safe. They are leaving the margins of society, walking across the same bridge of reconciliation to a different, less violent future. They work together in classrooms and vocational workshops for the first time in their generation, tentatively forming one social group. Girls in hijab, young men in baban-riga trust treatment at a Christian medical clinic. Youth from the Christian side make the decision to let them come without intimidation. The trauma of past conflict is not easily forgotten, but relationship requires deliberate mutual forgiveness, and this gradually brings healing.

Community cohesion is slowly but remarkably building in a very turbulent part of Northern Nigeria. Youth with no memories of peaceful co-existence are building relationships of trust across religious and ethnic barriers as they learn side by side. Courageous elders of both sides are taking risks in co-operating together and with CFM to forge training centres, determined to rescue our disenfranchised youth, healing more than two decades of destruction so that their grandchildren may have a better future. Conflict resolution and peace-building have become inextricably linked with computer skills and vocational training in the minds of thousands as youth become reconciled. The trust building practices to get to this point have been deliberate and dangerous, but the reconciliation they are building is on a solid foundation, not easily rocked. Reconciliation follows trust as communities decide to forgive the traumatic past, re-establishing a social cohesion essential for a peace-filled future.

 

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