Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana
Northeastern Nigeria is lush and green this time of year. August is rainy season. The encroaching desert that was leading to a fresh conflict between Fulani herdsmen and Hausa farmers seemed to have given way to a lush green landscape with the promise of abundance for all.
A team from OMNIA arrived in the city of Gombe on July 30th. Two Muslim leaders (Soraya Deen from Los Angeles and Taslim Hammed from the University of Ibadan in Nigeria,) and two Christian leaders (Isaac Laudarji from Kaduna area in Nigeria) and me, together with my wife Dhilanthi Fernando, joined Abare Kallah, the OMNIA leader in Gombe, to begin a week-long series of leadership workshops aimed at community transformation through contextual leadership training. This was our second time training in Gombe.
In March, 70 Muslim and Christian leaders participated in a 3½ day training. The opening ceremony brought together more than 400 people and included four tribal rulers (chiefs), a representative of the governor of Gombe State, two members of the State Parliament, and numerous senior Muslim and Christian leaders. They came together to learn ways in which Muslims and Christians can work together in a context in which religious tensions have given way to some of the deadliest extremist violence in the world. The violence unleashed by Boko Haram since 2009 has resulted in the deaths of more than 15,000 people and the displacement of millions from their homes due to burning and looting in villages, and the capturing of 276 Chibok girls. While Christians are their prime target, Muslims who don’t subscribe to their deadly ideology are not exempt from their violence.
These leaders came to demonstrate to the world the fallacy of Boko Haram’s predominant narrative: extremist religion is more authentic because people are willing to kill or die for it. Instead, they came to demonstrate that pluralistic religion, which demands that we love our neighbor, is indeed, the more authentic religion.
Since March, some 30 small groups of Christians and Muslims have gathered in villages around the city of Gombe, to work together on projects with measurable impact. In the city of Jalingo, two young Christian women bought sewing machines, got a tailor to teach them how to sew, and set up a sewing shop. They came to the training wearing the clothes they made in their shop! They are planning to hire Muslim women to help them in their new business.
Two Muslim young men who escaped from Boko Haram last year at great peril to themselves, have set up a barber shop, and under Abare Kallah’s mentorship are going to college. This example of youth leadership is particularly important, as most of the recruits to Boko Haram are teens. They plan to hire Christian young men to help them grow their business. (For their safety, we were cautioned not to use their pictures.)
A group of more than 20 women who have met regularly over a few years decided that it was now time to stop talking and do something together. The OMNIA contextual leadership training gave them tools for building power. In June, following a mini training given by Abare Kallah at a Christian pastors’ wives conference, 347 women attendees committed to a new action agenda. They are now working to build relationships with the imams’ wives in their communities.
Poverty, Polygamy and Education: the Critical Challenges
With over 65% youth unemployment in Gombe State, the level of poverty is staggering. Polygamy, which is standard practice in many, particularly Muslim families, results in large numbers of children which a family cannot support. “Men here marry 2, 3, 4 times. We have no choice in the matter. It is the Sharia. It is in the Quran,” complained some women who attended the Women’s Summit. These parents cannot afford to send children to school, so they send children as young as 4 or 5 to teachers (mallams) in a system called Almajiri. The mallams have them memorize the Quran in the morning and night, and during the day, the children are sent into the streets begging for the mallam. While in the past, the Emirs (Muslim rulers) had a stricter control of the Almajiri system, the control has now broken down. As a result, these children, radicalized by the mallams are easy prey for Boko Haram.
The week began with OMNIA’s Advanced training in building powerful leaders for community transformation. Forty of the 70 leaders who participated in the previous training participated in the advanced training that taught them how to teach, preach and lead using the methods and principles of contextual learning. If the movement is to grow, imams, pastors and lay leaders must accomplish two things. First, they must understand how to break down their theologies of exclusivity and superiority that they have received from their colonial ancestors, and to build up theologies of pluralism and love of neighbor. Second, they must know how to teach it to others. This difficult shift in paradigm takes time and effort for many, but their effort is bearing fruit as participants learn how to become powerful leaders.
Two government officials, recognizing that the problem cannot be solved by government alone, participated in the entire training. The Commissioner for Housing and Rural Development of Gombe State representing the Governor and a Member of the State Parliament who heads the Committee on Education worked alongside religious clergy and lay leaders. The latter recommended that OMNIA create a curriculum for school children, and that we should train teachers in how to teach this curriculum.
On Tuesday afternoon, we held a Women’s Summit, initiated and led by OMNIA leader Soraya Deen. More than 150 women attended, including the wife of the Deputy Governor. She was overjoyed to see the gathering and that we were giving women an opportunity to raise difficult questions like polygamy, child marriage, FGM etc. Some of the participants were in senior positions in government and NGOs, including lawyers and accountants. Several women remarked that OMNIA created a safe space where their voices could be articulated, heard, and respected.
From Wednesday through Friday we held our basic leadership training. Although I had asked that we limit this to 70 people, about 140 attended! Abare said he couldn’t stop them from coming! Many committed to build Muslim-Christian partnerships and planned projects that they would carry out in their congregations or communities. On Friday night we were featured on Nigerian national television, a satisfying conclusion to a successful week.
OMNIA’s Purpose in Northeast Nigeria
OMNIA’s purpose remains to help create a just world by working to reduce recruitment to Boko Haram in the next five years, through a strategy of “winning hearts and minds.” Tools available to governments such as military options simply do not work well against religious extremism because most Boko Haram members are embedded in local communities. State diplomacy does not work with non-state actors such as terrorist organizations. “Winning hearts and minds” is a strategy in which religious leaders are expert, having done that for centuries. Yet, such religious leadership requires a massive training effort to deconstruct received theologies of exclusivity and superiority and to reconstruct a contextual theology of solidarity.
- OMNIA is building on its early success in Nigeria and plans to train 450 leaders per year for the next three years, and provide 120 of them, advanced training so they can teach, preach and lead in their congregations using principles of contextual leadership.
- It hopes to create opportunities for public media, billboards, radio and TV ads and to influence commercial media with messages that say “Better Together."
- OMNIA also seeks entrepreneurial opportunities that will provide jobs for the vast numbers of unemployed young people who fall prey to Boko Haram’s false economic opportunity promises.
OMNIA’s next training event in Nigeria is scheduled for the week of December 10, 2017. From now until then we will encourage and nurture small groups of Muslims and Christians to come together and engage in projects that have effective, measurable impact.