Of its 60 years of existence as an independent state, Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, has known religious violence for nearly 40 years. That includes the emergence of the terrorist group, Boko Haram, which has killed over 30,000 people in the country’s northeastern region since 2009.
But while several Nigerian states – mostly up north –seemed immune to this problem, until Boko Haram, the northwest’s state of Kaduna held the highest record of deaths associated with religious violence – 20,000 since the 1980s, according to Nasir el-Rufai, the state governor.
And stories about such destruction remain incomplete without two men being mentioned: Imam Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa and Pastor James Movel Wuye, who both led opposing religious groups (between 1987 and 1992) that spread faith-based hatred that further inspired violent attacks and reprisals.
But after a 1992 conflict that left them with deep personal injuries – through encouragement they received from others around them – they found inner healing to forgive each other. Since then, they have been about preaching religious tolerance and helping religiously-divided groups and communities coexist peacefully.
This report details more than what the impact of their humanitarian effort has been. It digs into how their roots combined with their experiences to fan their motivation for hate and violence and how they eventually found freedom for humanitarianism.
The Imam (Muhammad Ashafa)
From the fourteenth to the nineteenth century, Zaria, an emirate city in Kaduna was one of the major trade hubs in Africa to which trans-Sahara caravans traveled and exchanged articles – including clothes, shoes, and salt – for slaves with the local people.
Yet, its bustling economy was not its biggest pride. Its strong defense structure against external aggression was rather most talked of.
Exemplifying this was high mud-made walls that rounded one of its most important areas, an old town that served as its administrative headquarters.
It was within the confines of this walled town that, on October 1, 1959, Imam Ashafa gave his first cry, announcing his birth.
But the walls served more than just a military barrier.
They also protected its conservative Muslim population against religious influences. Entry into and exit from the town were tightly controlled through its eight gates.
This was because outside the fenced enclave, Zaria had three other communities dominated by people of mixed religions, especially Christians who embraced Christianity through colonialism. These areas were (and still are) Tudun Wada, Sabon Gari, and a township called Government Reserved Area where non-Africans, including colonial administrators, lived.
So as walls-bound kids like Ashafa grew older, they were taught to preserve the values of Islam and to never allow themselves to be converted to Christianity.
The first son of Abdul-Yakeen Ashafa, a spiritual leader within the Sufi order (Muslim practice of relating directly with God via prayer and meditation), Ashafa was below the age of 10 when his father started preparing him for spiritual leadership. He spent most part of his early years at a madrasa (a school for Quranic recitation) attached to his father’s mosque.
Part of his preparation for spirituality included restricting his education to Qur’anic schools. The older Ashafa feared that his son could be converted if allowed to attend secular schools, most of which were owned and run by Christian missionaries.
His father, now in his late 90s, was one of many Muslims who saw missionaries as the “Whiteman” (or his extension) who used colonial forces to disrupt the once-cherished systems that were rooted in Islam across northern Nigeria.
“Our family used to tell us the stories [that] once upon a time, [we had] a Muslim-dominated government. A Muslim setting in the northern part of Nigeria where Islam was the political system, Islam was the economic system, Islam was the basis for the judicial system, and Islam was the basis for social construct and public discourse. All were around Islam,” Ashafa said.
Such stories were intended to help young kids know their common “enemy”.
“So the pains were transferred from generation to generation,” Ashafa said. “We were taught not to trust the Whiteman, nor anyone who has faith in the Whiteman’s religion because of the evil of colonization.”
He soon found himself growing with a strong passion “to work to revive my tradition,” something he started doing nonviolently as a kid by selling Islamic books and other printed materials on the streets of Kaduna, often teaching his peers the values of Islam.
Meanwhile, his father’s no-secular-school-rule was broken just after Ashafa clocked 16. Thanks to an old friend of his father’s – named Amao Sanni – who managed to convince the senior Ashafa to allow his son attend secular schools, citing the need for a broad-based education.
Ashafa then traveled for the first time to meet his extended family in southwest Nigeria’s Oyo State where he attended primary and secondary schools owned by the Methodist Church.
At the missionaries-run schools where Christian Religious Knowledge was the only faith-related (and compulsory) subject taught, Ashafa’s Bible knowledge grew quickly. “I could memorize almost 70 percent of the Bible in my brain,” he claims.
It did not end there.
His first time experience with a different religious knowledge other than Islam surprisingly sparked within him a new hunger for comparative religion. So when he returned to Kaduna after his secondary education in the south, Ashafa combined studying under his father’s higher cadre madrasa with shuttling between libraries, reading about Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto, Taoist, and African traditional systems.
In the end, however, unlike what his father had feared, Ashafa’s knowledge of other religions only strengthened his belief in Islam. At this point, all he desired was to become an imam like his father, a reason he later traveled to Sudan where he did Arabic studies at the International University of Africa.
He is now the imam of the Ashafa Central Mosque in Kaduna. “I’m the 13th generation of imams in my family”, he boasts.
The Pastor (James Wuye)
Sixty-year-old Pastor Wuye was born in Tudun Wada town in Kaduna city (not in Zaria), the state capital. His parents later moved to Tudun Nupawa, another town in the city, where he grew up.
Though, as a kid, he followed his parents – who were moderate Christians – to the Baptist Church, the sturdily-built pastor wanted a future that was nowhere close to spiritual leadership.
Instead, he wanted to become a soldier like his father, Wuye Movel, who fought on the side of the Nigeria Army during the country’s 1967-1970 civil war.
But that was never to be.
His movement towards spiritual leadership started at age 13 when his visits to his uncle at Kakuri, a suburb in southern Kaduna, became frequent. Almost every time he visited, he attended the Assemblies of God (AG) Church with his uncle’s family. Soon, his love for the church and the fellowship he enjoyed spiked; so he stopped attending his parents’ church and got really committed at AG.
By 1987, his allegiance to the church had landed him a responsibility as a young interpreter in his local church where he simultaneously translated live sermons from either Hausa (a major language in northern Nigeria) to English, or the other way round.
This skill soon sailed him to the position of assistant secretary of the Kaduna State chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), which comprises a legion of Christian denominations across the county.
In 1989, Reinhard Bonnke, the late German-American Christian evangelist, held a crusade in Kaduna. Bonnke’s forerunners who came two weeks before his arrival needed interpreters as they visited local churches sensitizing Christians.
Wuye was an easy pick attached to a German lady in Bonnkes’ network. Her name was Suzanne, he recalls. One day, after they left a church they had gone to for sensitization, Suzanne announced that she had a “divine” message for him.
“James Movel, I can see the call of God on your life. God wants to call you into full-time ministry”, he recalls her exact words.
As though it was a death sentence passed on him, Wuye blurted: “Common, Madam, the fact that I translate does not make me a full-time pastor. I don’t want that at all!”
But Suzanne was calmly insistent, claiming that as proof, God also had informed her that Wuye was in need of 60 naira (about eight dollars then) to solve a problem. She then offered him the cash gift.
Though he accepted the money and denied having any pressing need, deep down, he knew his first son was in primary school and his school fees was exactly the amount – a burden he had carried for days.
“That convinced me that what she heard was the sign,” he said, “because all the time we were moving around, I never asked for a dime.”
This event inspired Wuye to attend AG’s Northern Theological Seminary in Kaduna where he obtained a diploma in theology. He later received undergraduate and master’s degrees in theology from US-based Vision University (via its Kaduna satellite campus) and from the West Africa Christian University respectively. He became a pastor afterward.
Meanwhile, unlike Ashafa’s conservative walled town in northern Kaduna’s Zaria, Tudun Nupawa where Wuye grew up and most other places in southern and central Kaduna State were liberal communities with friendly Muslims-Christians relationships.
Then something changed
Nigeria is evenly divided between Muslims mainly in the north and Christians in the south. This divide naturally makes most northern Nigeria states to be Muslim-dominated. But 8.9 million-populated Kaduna State, sometimes referred to as the capital of northern Nigeria, proves a special case with its near 50-50 Christian-Muslim population.
From around mid-1980s, two major factors began pushing these groups to extreme positions.
On the one hand were Christian communities who claimed to be aborigines, marking their Muslim counterparts as settlers who stole their economic and political opportunities.
Then on the other hand were religious teachers who encouraged hatred with sentiments about how northern Nigeria needed to be reformed back to its pure Islamic roots.
“Some of them (religious leaders) motivated us to action, including me,” Ashafa said. “They quote scripture out of context to justify violence.”
By 1987, these claims had created a ready space for violence, leading to a bloody state-wide conflict that killed 1,295 people. It arose from an argument among Muslim and Christian students at a college in Kafanchan town (Southern Kaduna) about whether or not a Christian preacher misquoted a verse of the Quran.
It was the first major religious crisis in Kaduna, and given the heavy casualties each groups suffered, each left with the feeling that had it prepared better for the fight, it would have suffered less causalities. The most sensible thing to do, they thought, was to be better prepared for any possible future crisis. This feeling led to the creation of special militias.
For example, CAN had a youth wing called the Youth Christian Association of Nigeria or YCAN, with Wuye as the secretary in Kaduna. From Kaduna YCAN, a militia was formed under Wuye’s leadership to fight and protect churches and Christians during religious rifts in the state.
The other extreme had the National Council of Muslim Youths Organization (NACOMYO), which was founded in 1987 to protect Muslims’ interests. Ashafa was the executive secretary of NACOMYO in Kaduna where a “Defense League”, still under his leadership, was set up as NACOMYO’s arm to fight Christians and protect Muslims.
In 1992, the Christian community in Zango Kataf (a Christian-majority town in southern Kaduna) demanded that a Muslim-dominated market in the town be relocated to a spacious site so they (Christians) can have more stalls. This triggered a fight that became state-wide; Christians –under Wuye’s leadership – against Muslims – led by Ashafa.
In the end, over 2,000 people died. And neither Wuye nor Ashafa came out without deep personal injuries and losses. Wuye’s group killed Ashafa’s spiritual teacher, Sheikh Ahmed Tijani, and two cousins. Ashafa’s boys chopped off Wuye’s right hand.
Bumpy road to peace
For many months, each man sought a chance to kill the other in revenge. But they never met until 1995.
That year, UNICEF partnered with the state government to immunize children against poliomyelitis. Many rural families, however, refused to release their children for immunization. They interpreted the exercise to mean sterilization.
Government’s response was to invite opinion leaders to the government house to discuss ways to correct the misinterpretation. Wuye and Ashafa were among those invited to represent CAN and the Muslim Council respectively.
Also in attendance was one Idris Musa, a 70-year-old Muslim who was working as a technical officer at the Kaduna State Broadcasting Corporation and who was also representing Jama’atu Nasri Islam, the umbrella organisation for several Islamic groups in Nigeria. Musa had known the pair for years and their deep-seated hatred. Yet, some strange gut told him he could broker peace between them.
During a tea break at the government house, Musa grabbed each man’s hand, joined them together and walked away almost immediately, leaving them with the words: ‘Look, two of you, I want you to talk. I know you can keep this state in peace if you want to. Please talk!’
Though both men walked away after exchanging greetings casually with hearts too skeptical to trust, too bruised to forgive, and too proud to accept dialogue immediately, that hand-joining marked the first suggestion that they could bury their pains and start building bridges.
The beginning of reconciliation came several weeks after. On a certain Friday, Ashafa was at a mosque to pray. But the ministering imam began with a preaching. It was not the kind of message Ashafa wanted to hear, yet it was too pricking to ignore. In fact, it was a warning that seemed tailored for him.
In order to enter paradise (heaven), Ashafa’s longing, ‘We have to give unconditional forgiveness to those who persecute us, to those who humiliate us, and to those who have hurt us. We have to find a way to forgive them,’ Ashafa said, quoting the imam.
Those words healed his revenge instincts. Early the next morning, he visited Wuye with a heart ready for dialogue and peace. From their first successful dialogue meeting at Musa’s office, another reconciliatory meeting at the British Council in Kaduna went peacefully.
With more encouragement from others around them – including from the British Council that sponsored them to the Selly Oak College in the UK where they took a three-month course in conflict resolution and peace-building – they built their friendship strong.
They then started the Muslim-Christian Youth Dialogue Forum, a peace-building nonprofit they later renamed Interfaith Mediation Center (IMC).
With support from local and international organizations – including the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), Christian Aid, Islamic Relief UK, British High Commission, and UNDP – they now organize lectures, as well as radio and television programmes through which they teach Nigerian youths about the virtues of religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence.
Through a strategy that divides their mediation process into four parts (shuttle mediation, where the root causes/instigators of conflict are discovered; intra-mediation, where Ashafa meets the Muslims to discuss their grievances and Wuye does same with the Christians; intermediation, where both groups are brought together to dialogue; and peace declaration, where the groups commit to live in peace and to use dialogue to settle future disputes), they have been able to build peace among religiously-divided groups in several Nigerian states, including in Plateau, Bornu, Taraba, Benue and Kaduna.
In Kaduna and Plateau states, they worked with the state governments to achieve the Kaduna State Peace Declaration (2002) and the Yelwa-Shendam Peace Affirmation (2005) that saw Muslim and Christian leaders commit to promote religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence.
Across 42 universities and colleges in Nigeria, the IMC –with about 40 staff and volunteers – has also established “peace clubs” with over 10,000 members, who meet regularly to discuss issues around love, forgiveness and the advantage of co-existing peacefully.
And beyond Nigeria, working with organisations like USIP, they have worked to mitigate conflict in several countries, including Iraq, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Libya, andEthiopia.
In recognition of their effort, they have, twice, been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The Peacemaker in Action Award (2000), the Bremen Peace Award (2005), the Prize for Conflict Prevention (2009) and the Duetsche Africa-Preis (2013) are among several awards they have received.
Yet, their humanitarian effort has not been without challenges, personal sacrifices and risks. Ashafa recalls how, twice, youths within his religious circle attempted to assassinate him due to their belief that he had compromised Islamic values by working with Christians.
For Wuye, at some point, he doubted if he was doing the right thing because: “Some of my colleagues, the pastors, they would say, ‘let’s check him. Is he still a Christian? The way he is expressing his love for the Muslims (and) empathizing with them, does he still take the Holy Communion?’”
Amid such criticisms and challenges, they say they have managed to sustain their passion by holding to peace and love-supporting verses from the Bible and the Quran, and by praying regularly.
Now, they bond so strongly that Ashafa’s vision “is to see the Pastor and the Imam in every household.” And Wuye likens their relations to that of an inseparable couple in a marriage: “Till death do us part!”
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Emmanuel Innocent Eteng is a journalist fellow with the Spiritual Exemplars Project.