On Easter Sunday this year a car drove into a celebratory procession led by a local Boys Brigade in Gombe State, northern Nigeria. Despite the appalling nature of this tragedy it received little media attention outside of Nigeria. Eight members of the Christian youth group were killed. In the aftermath the driver, an off-duty security agent, and his passenger were lynched by the crowd. It has since been suggested that the driver had been unhappy that the Easter Day procession had blocked the road. The following weekend members of the Boys Brigade were reportedly stoned when they went to collect the bodies of their friends from the hospital. This incident led to rising tension with the potential for further violence had a curfew not been imposed by the state government. It is to prevent incidents like those on Easter Sunday, that have become increasingly commonplace in Nigeria, that the Tony Blair Institute works with Christian and Muslim religious leaders to foster intra- and inter-religious understanding and cooperation.
Last month, we celebrated the final inter-religious training session for the Christian and Muslim leaders participating in our ongoing Supporting Leaders Nigeria project. Incidents such as that on Easter Sunday are clearly a grave concern for our partners and participants who are working to build trust between religions across northern Nigeria. It is a sombre reminder of how easily underlying religious tensions can lead to outbreaks of violence.
We have found that in Nigeria, where harmful religious ideologies drive conflict and extremism, the importance of developing policy and practice for working with religious leaders should not be under-estimated. For good or ill, religious leaders have significant reach and power in communities and are widely respected by all members of society. Their influence can cause or ease increased religious tensions and violence within communities. Our findings have shown that many leaders recognise that they are often ill equipped to prevent outbreaks of religiously inspired violence. To respond to this challenge and ensure that religious leaders are part of the solution, our programme equips, empowers and supports them to counter extremist narratives and to help build social cohesion in their local communities. We do this in partnership with two Nigerian organisations, the Development Initiative of West Africa and the Kukah Centre, to reach community level leaders across northern Nigeria.
We have found that in Nigeria, where harmful religious ideologies drive conflict and extremism, the importance of developing policy and practice for working with religious leaders should not be under-estimated
When I spoke with those attending the inter-religious training sessions, some told me that this was the first time they had properly engaged with a leader from a different faith. Through attending the Supporting Leaders programme the participants learned first-hand about the other religion through asking questions to gain a better understanding of different creeds and doctrines. Through this dialogue, stereotypes are challenged and the foundations for better relationships are established. Previous participants have learned the value of this approach and continue to host each other in their mosques and churches to celebrate festivals such as Christmas and Eid. This year the inclusion of female Christian and Muslim leaders added a new perspective to the training. The women have different experiences and roles within their local communities, often working as teachers, counsellors and informal mediators. This training will help support them and enable male participants to recognise their importance in creating strong communities and building a better future.
At the final training session, it was heartening to see everyone engaged and supported to develop their inter-religious action plans to take to their communities. This will ensure that the everyone in their communities will benefit as a result of this training and that inter-religious tensions can be addressed. It will clearly be harder for some religious leaders to work together in the future, but this training along with the open-minded approach it promotes and seeks to foster, will at least put them on the right path for that journey. The experience of our partners has shown that even those who are most reluctant to engage can over time becomes its greatest advocate.
During the closing ceremony speeches, it became clear that this training makes an immediate impact on those involved and there were requests for more training programmes to reach a greater number of people across more states. Many of the religious leaders spoke about the importance of bridge building and what they had learnt from speaking to each other. For others there was recognition of the responsibility which they hold in communities. Everyone spoke about this training as being the springboard for them to build stronger and more resilient communities.
Our work has already shown that supporting religious leaders in this way can prevent and counter violent extremism. Incidents such as the one in Gombe on Easter Sunday must not be repeated. And in a country where violence has been normalised, networks of religious leaders who work together with communities can do a great deal more to build a more peaceful and cohesive society.