Nigerian peacemakers bring ‘an African answer’ to Britain

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Two former rival militia leaders turned peacemakers from Nigeria brought their message of reconciliation and forgiveness to London yesterday. Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye from Kaduna, who in the early 1990s were sworn enemies out to kill each other, spoke at the UK launch of An African Answer, a new film which captures their peacebuilding work in Kenya.

Sir Richard Jolly (Photo: Louise Jefferson)They told their audience of 180 at the Royal Society of Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce (RSA) how they had been involved in violent communal clashes which had killed several of Imam Ashafa’s relatives and left Pastor James with a severed hand. They had, in the words of the evening’s chairman Sir Richard Jolly, ‘vowed to avenge the deaths of their relatives by killing each other’. But their own religious leaders had urged them to surrender their hatred. Now they run the Christian Muslim Interfaith Mediation Centre in Kaduna, in northern Nigeria, founded following their reconciliation in 1995.

RSA Chief Executive, Matthew Taylor (Photo: Louise Jefferson)Introducing them, Sir Richard, former Assistant General Secretary of the United Nations, said that the two Nigerians are now ‘both concerned with economic and social justice, and encourage people to “be the change you want to see”.’ They had been welcomed to the RSA by its Chief Executive, Matthew Taylor, in the hallowed ‘Great Room’ auditorium of the RSA House.

Alan Channer (Photo: Louise Jefferson)Trained in mediation skills, they were invited to make two visits to Kenya in May and September 2008, following post-election violence there earlier that year. A film crew travelled with them to make the fly-on-the-wall documentary film. ‘We at FLTfilms decided to follow them,’ explained the film’s director, Dr Alan Channer. ‘We had no idea how they would get on or how their mediation would work. But as we made the film, something of their work slid off into our own lives between us on the film crew.’

In the film, Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General, urges the need for reconciliation at the grass roots level in villages across Kenya, as much as at the political level. The film shows the two Nigerians mediating between groups of the Kikuyu and Kalenjin people in Burnt Forest near Eldoret, in the Kenya Rift Valley, the area worst hit by the violence. Some 1,000 people Front cover of An African Answer DVDwere killed in Kenya and tens of thousands displaced from their homes and farms. The film shows a process of trust being built between the two ethnic groups. One outcome, reported in the film, is the decision of the Kikuyu and Kalenjin to combine their market stalls in Burnt Forest instead of running them separately.

Kofi Annan has since said that ‘we need to learn, indeed, from Imam Ashafa and Pastor James and multiply in a thousand places their experiences of healing and reconciliation’.

Vernon Ellis, Chair of the British Council, says, ‘This film underlines the importance of dialogue in reconciliation; in particular the importance of listening and seeking to understand. It is inspiring to see this process at work led by leaders from different faiths working together.’

Pastor James Wuye, left, and Imam Muhammad Ashafa, right, with Wanjiku Kibunja from Kenya (Photo: Louise Jefferson)During comments from the audience after the London film premiere, a diplomat from the Kenya High Commission commented that An African Answer is ‘an example of transnational intervention – Nigerians and Kenyans working together as sisters and brothers’. He said that, from a holistic point of view, there had been a lot of progress in Kenya since the violence of early 2008. The film is now being shown across Kenya and Imam Ashafa and Pastor James are being invited to other African countries, including Sudan where they recently met with the Vice-President of South Sudan in Juba.

‘Never underestimate your power to create a change in the world,’ urged Imam Ashafa at the London premiere. ‘I came out of a slum in Nigeria. I needed to break the chain of hate. I needed to pray for purity of heart, meaning sanity and decency. I didn’t have any O level in Western education; now I have two honorary degrees. Just start with yourselves to change the world.’ Last year, the imam and the pastor were awarded the inaugural Jacques Chirac Prize for conflict prevention in Paris.

Members of the audience at the Royal Society of Arts (Photo: Louise Jefferson)Earlier during their UK visit, the two Nigerians met with prison chaplains and a group of young offenders at Rochester Prison last Monday. They were interviewed by The World Today on the BBC’s World Service and by the BBC’s Swahili and Hausa language services. They are visiting the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University today, at the invitation of Sir Richard Jolly, and being received by the All-Party Kenya Group in parliament this evening. A public launch of the film will take place at Friends Meeting House, Euston, in London on Friday evening 12 November, to be chaired by the BBC’s world affairs correspondent Mike Wooldridge.

Royal Society of Arts, Manufacturing and Commerce (RSA) website>>