Two men create bridge over Nigeria's troubled waters

In a conflict zone between the Muslim north and the Christian south, two former enemies find common ground and share a peacemaking mission.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

James Wuye was once a self-described militant Christian youth, and Muhammad Ashafa a radical Muslim activist - unlikely partners in efforts to bring peace to Kaduna, the ground zero of religious conflict in Nigeria.

But instead of battling when violence breaks out, Reverend Wuye, a Pentecostal preacher, and Imam Ashafa, who leads a local mosque, go to the frontlines to try to calm tempers and find solutions.

Some of the worst communal clashes since democracy returned to Nigeria four years ago have taken place in Kaduna. The city marks the ostensible border between the Muslim north and the Christian south and is home to migrants from all over the country. With religion expected to be a key issue when Nigeria holds national elections in April, the flash point of Kaduna is under close watch.

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"Kaduna is like dynamite, and everybody is treading carefully, because conflict of any form can have a devastating effect on both communities," says Wuye.

An estimated 2,500 people died in violence triggered when Kaduna state introduced sharia, a strict form of Islamic law, in early 2000.

The city made headlines internationally last November, when protests over a newspaper article linking the prophet Muhammed to the Miss World beauty pageant sparked clashes. But in August 2002, Wuye and Ashafa had persuaded 10 senior religious leaders from each faith in Kaduna to sign a peace declaration that mitigated the Miss World violence, says Judith Asuni, director of Academic Associates PeaceWorks, a think tank and mediation center in Abuja, the capital. "If the peace declaration had not been done before, it would have been a lot worse," she says. "James and Ashafa have done some good work on the ground. They need government to kick in and do its part."

Observers have criticized the Nigerian government for responding to communal conflict by simply sending in the often heavy-handed security forces and not addressing the root causes of the turmoil, such as poverty and joblessness. Asuni herself has been trying to persuade President Olusegun Obasanjo to take a more active role in conflict resolution.

Wuye and Ashafa share duties in the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Forum and the Inter-Faith Mediation Center, organizations they jointly founded to create better understanding between the communities and to mediate when violence occurs. They hold workshops on conflict resolution with vigilante groups and sharia police in Kaduna and nearby states. They've produced a weekly series on local television, quoting passages of the Koran and the Bible showing common ground between Islam and Christianity. They've written a book called "The Pastor and The Imam: Responding to Conflict." And they meet with both sides in simmering disputes to try to prevent violence. If clashes do break out, they rush to the scene to try to quell tensions, at times putting themselves in danger. During the Miss World clashes, they drove religious leaders around affected neighborhoods on a bus, and arranged to have them appear on television to appeal for calm.

The two weren't always peacemakers. Wuye and Ashafa freely admit not only to taking part in violence in their younger days but also to fueling it. Each disdained followers of the other faith.

"I didn't want to have anything to do with Muslims," says Wuye. "The concepts of forgiveness and mercy were far, far away from my conviction," says Ashafa.

During clashes in the town of Zango in 1992, Wuye lost his right hand and Ashafa saw his spiritual mentor killed, incidents that prompted a period of soul-searching. Both began to question the cost of the violence and turned to the Bible and the Koran, where they found passages showing commonalities between Islam and Christianity and calling on believers to be peacemakers.

"I started feeling there was a need for me to change my approach," says Ashafa.

Yet when the pair first met face to face in 1995, distrust lingered. At the urging of a civil-society leader, they agreed to try to work out some sort of understanding, and they say the resulting dialogue helped them overcome stereotypes and misconceptions and gain respect for each other.

Ashafa proposed a public debate, which evolved into a forum on the concepts of salvation in Christianity and Islam. It took a year to arrange the event and find a venue willing to host two militant youth groups from different religions. "People came with daggers in their pockets that day," says Wuye. "Both parties came prepared for the worst."

But the debate went off peacefully - helped by a decision to take only written questions from the floor and discard those deemed inflammatory - and a tentative friendship was born between the two men. Today, they consider themselves twin brothers. The harshest test of their collaboration came in 2000, when the riots effectively partitioned the city and the pair couldn't communicate for three days. Each credits the other for doing what he could.

"Ashafa's life was put in great danger," says Wuye. "He protected some Christian women in his home, and some militant Muslim groups wanted to kill him." Wuye himself saved a Muslim woman, despite insults from some Christians that he wasn't "fighting like a man."

The pair agrees that religious differences are not at the root of Nigeria's crises, but that leaders whip up religious fervor for political gain. Meanwhile, the large numbers of unemployed youth use any opportunity to loot. Ashafa says the Miss World violence was fueled by local rivalries in the ruling People's Democratic Party and "was much more political than religious."

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