Case Study: Interfaith Peacebuilding

Between February and May 2004, over 700 people were killed, and 45,000 displaced, in conflicts between Christians and Muslims in and around the town of Yelwa in the Shendam local government area of Plateau State.[1]The crisis in Yelwa sparked violent riots elsewhere in the region, ultimately leading the government to declare a state of emergency in Plateau State in spring 2004.[2] During the state of emergency, the interim administrator, retired General Chris Alli, launched an ambitious six- month peacemaking initiative, which culminated in the signing of a peace agreement negotiated by Imam Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye in November 2004.

Administrator Alli’s peacemaking initiative, known as the Plateau Peace Program, included plans for dialogue among religious and community leaders, a statewide peace conference, and a truth and reconciliation commission.[3] The peace conference convened in August 2004, with the purpose of reviewing causes of the conflict that had been submitted by the community and proposing solutions to the government. The resolutions it produced, however, consisted primarily of policy recommendations for the national and state governments and seemed to favor Christian groups.[4]

During July 2004, the Interfaith Mediation Centre spent at least twelve days working on a variety of peacemaking projects in Plateau State, which took a very different approach. These included a five‐day, faith‐based workshop for youths in Jos. The workshop drew 100 participants from each of the local government areas of Plateau State and provided training in mediation and reconciliation. Perhaps more significantly, the Interfaith Mediation Centre also convened a three‐day interfaith workshop for forty women and fifty community/religious leaders from Yelwa, which addressed both conflict resolution and trauma counseling. As a result of this meeting, participants created an Inter-Faith Group for the Shendam local government area, tasked with sustaining peace in the area by working with both governmental and non-governmental organizations.[5]

In November 2004, Administrator Alli invited Wuye and Ashafa to help address ongoing tensions between Christians and Muslims in Yelwa.[6] Wuye and Ashafa brought together leaders from the local Christian and Muslim communities for a five-day meeting, during which they combined Western conflict resolution techniques with religious preaching. Although the meeting was initially confrontational, by the third day the participants were able to agree on some of the core causes of the conflict, including Christian accusations that Muslim non-indigenes failed to respect local leaders and traditions. In a surprising turn of events, the Muslim leaders not only accepted the accusations of the Christian participants, but agreed that the behavior of local Muslim groups needed to change, made a formal apology, and requested forgiveness.[7]

Astonished by the Muslims’ actions, the Christians also requested forgiveness for their part in the violent conflict. On the last day of the meeting, participants in the negotiation formulated a peace agreement which recognized and strove to address several of the underlying causes of ongoing conflict. In contrast to the government-oriented perspective of the August peace conference resolutions, the Yelwa Peace Agreement focused on local concerns and made recommendations for actions that could be implemented by local leaders and community members. Among other statements, those who signed the Peace Agreement affirmed the need to refer to His Royal Highness the Long Goemai of Shendam by his formal title and grant him respect, condemned the use of derogatory language to refer to groups and locations, and pledged to avoid using the media to spread incorrect information or inflammatory messages.[8] On February 19, 2005, Yelwa held a gathering to celebrate the peace agreement. Several thousand people attended the celebration, including many people who had felt compelled to leave their homes when violence broke out the previous year.[9]

As of September 2013, Yelwa remained peaceful, despite a lack of governmental aid in the years after the crisis and ongoing conflicts in the surrounding areas.[10] A group of individuals known as the Inter‐ Faith Peace Committee, which may be the same as or evolved from the Inter-Faith Group formed in 2004, has played a key role in maintaining the peace. Along with organizing ongoing dialogues and events, the Inter-Faith Peace Committee also oversees a peace vigilante group, which includes Muslim and Christian youths from the area who monitor the town to help prevent small crimes and diffuse potential conflicts.[11]

What is notable about the successful peace‐keeping initiatives in Yelwa is the grassroots nature of the work and the local focus. While the government’s programs worked with state leaders and representatives from religious umbrella groups, the work of Ashafa and Wuye in 2004 and that of the Inter-Faith Peace Committee more recently focused on local actors and issues. By grounding their work in the religious, psychological, and social needs of the local community, Ashafa and Wuye seem to have created a foundation for the Yelwa community to continue the work of maintaining peace on their own.

[1] Uthman Abubakar, "Yelwan Shendam—Five Years After," Daily Trust, 3 July 2009, http://allafrica.com/stories/200907030151.html, accessed November 6, 2013.

[2] Lami Sadiq, “Yelwa-Shendam—Rising from Ashes, Nine Years After Bloodbath," Daily Trust, 7 September 2013, http://allafrica.com/stories/201309070163.html, accessed November 6, 2013.

[3] "Revenge in the Name of Religion: The Cycle of Violence in Plateau and Kano States," Human Rights Watch, 2005, p. 49–51.

[4] Ibid., 50–51; According to the U.S. Institute of Peace, the Muslim community rejected the proposals. ”Conflict in Plateau State," United States Institute of Peace: Certificate  Course  in  Interreligious  Conflict  Resolution.

[5] Jibril Daudu, "Muslim-­‐Christian Groups Parley for Peace in Plateau," Daily Trust, 7 July 2005, http://allafrica.com/stories/200507070551.html, November 2, 2013.

[6] David R. Smock, "Mediating Between Christians and Muslims in Plateau State, Nigeria", Peaceworks, Vol. 17, No. 55 (2006).

[7] Ibid., p. 18.

[8] Ibid., p. 18–19 .

[9] Ibid., p.20.

[10] Sadiq, " Yelwa-Shendam—Rising from Ashes;” Nasir Imam, "Yelwa: Stock Taking a Year After," Daily Trust, 27 June 2005, http://allafrica.com/stories/200506271343.html, accessed November 2, 2013; Abubakar, "Yelwan Shendam.”

[11] Sadiq, "Yelwa-Shendam—Rising from Ashes.”