“It’s a new day in Gombe State.” Those words, by the Hon Hassan A. Haruna, a leading representative of the Governor of the State of Gombe, Nigeria, summed up the tone of the opening ceremony of the OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership training for reconciliation and peace held in Gombe, in Northeast Nigeria, February 28-March 3.
Haruna was joined by traditional (tribal) rulers, government officials, a representative of the Emir (the chief Muslim leader) of Gombe, and more than 400 guests to kick off a long-awaited training event aimed at equipping religious leaders to stem the atrocities of Boko Haram. Since 2009, Northeast Nigeria has been ravaged by the terrorist organization, often cited as one of the world’s most brutal, adding to an already tense and sometimes violent relationship between Christians and Muslims.
Two Religions, One Goal
Following the ceremony, seventy Muslim and Christian leaders got down to business in a 3½ day training on interreligious engagement and strategies to build a powerful movement for peace. The pastors, imams and lay leaders reflected the religious, gender and tribal diversity of the community.
“There is a deep yearning for peace and non-violent co-existence,” said Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, president of OMNIA, who led the training. “Both Muslims and Christians want to change the common narrative that extremist religion is more authentic, when in fact, it is pluralistic religion, based on a commitment to love God, and love your neighbor that is the core of authentic religion,” he said.
OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership brought together an outstanding teaching team comprising two Muslim leaders: Ms. Soraya Deen, Dr. Mohamed Elsanousi, and two Christian theologians: Rev. Dr. Isaac Laudarji and Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana. The program was sponsored and organized by Community Peace, Dialogue and Interfaith Initiative, an organization founded and directed by Rev. Abare Kallah.
“This was the first time that residents of Gombe came together as Muslims and Christians to address the common issues that are faced by our society,” said Rev. Kallah, summing up the program.
Two important challenges emerged as OMNIA’s leadership engaged the group in its unique method of contextual learning: Poverty and Education.
Participants identified that with the rate of unemployment of Gombe’s youth estimated to be over 55%, and lack of economic opportunity due to decades of political and economic neglect of the Northeast, poverty levels of the Northeast and Gombe state are a staggering 76%.
Poverty also leads to lack of education, since poor parents cannot afford to send their children to school. The group observed that a key problem leading to radicalization of young people is the system of al-majri. In this practice, parents unable to afford traditional schools send their children, sometimes as young as 3 or 4, to an Islamic teacher to learn the Qur’an, who often keeps the children as servants, forcing them to beg for food during the day, and teaching them extremist ideologies at morning and night. This system, which distorts Islam for its own gain, serves as a conduit for radical terror organizations such as Boko Haram.
Following the process of identifying the issues through contextual learning, the OMNIA team taught participants the strategies of praxis (effective action) and building power. Through a process of power analysis, participants learned to create clear and focused outcomes that are relevant, urgent and winnable. The many shared stories of activists such as Nobel prize winner Leymah Gbowee, who organized a powerful Muslim and Christian women's movement in Liberia, inspired participants with the knowledge that they are not alone in working for peace.
Over the next several months OMNIA will continue its involvement as Rev. Kallah guides and oversees the leaders’ next steps. “If there is a perfect time to engage the world from exclusivity to inclusiveness in pluralism and contextual knowledge and leadership for peaceful coexistence, that time is now," says Kallah. "What OMNIA is doing in Nigeria and the world is timely, contextual, and worth embracing by all. It’s a rewarding work with resounding success, giving healing to our communities that are for long been ravaged by colonial ideologies and violence that we were partly architect of. OMNIA has come to stay in Nigeria.”