Sunday, December 23, 2012


                                                Dignitaries at the Event  

I appreciate the position of some readers of this column who felt I should respond to the latest piece by Adamu Adamu Re: Hajj and the Saudis. To my mind, the writer has failed to address any of the issues I raised in my ample rejoinder concerning his three part series on the subject matter. What he succeeded in doing, our respected readers can discern, was to expose the source of his aspersion against the Saudi Hajj authorities – non-Muslim writers and other armchair critics, and even zanaadiqah who have not performed a single Hajj in their life, or the last time they took part in the ritual was decades ago. Hence, Adamu Adamu does not deserve another response. But I take a solemn oath of prompt response to any piece of shi’atic disposition clothed in the raiment of intellectualism!

The Tony Blair Faith Foundation states that it ‘promotes respect and understanding about the world’s religions through education and multi-faith action.’ It shows ‘how faith can be a powerful force for good in the modern world.’ 

Transcorp Hilton was the venue for the official launch, on Thursday 22, November 2012, ‘of Tony Blair Faith Foundation-led work in Nigeria to encourage reconciliation between Christian and Muslim communities.’ In attendance were: Mr Tony Blair, Founder and Patron of the Foundation, Bishop Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury Designate, and His Royal Highness Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan via video-message. Also present were President Goodluck Jonathan, represented by the Minister of Housing, Ms Pepple, His Eminence Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar III, Sultan of Sokoto, His Royal Highness, Estu Nupe, Alhaji Yahaya Abubakar, Most Reverend Josiah Idowu-Fearon, the Anglican Archbishop of the Province of Kaduna and Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, President, Christian Association of Nigeria among others.

This launch was preceded by a video conference which, on the one hand, had the dignitaries mentioned above and some Muslim and Christian secondary students from Nigeria, and on the other, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim and Christian secondary students from the United Kingdom. This was with a view to encouraging ‘greater dialogue and understanding between faiths.’ It also ‘aimed to break down barriers, and give the students the knowledge to resist extremist voices and ideology – working towards a longer term peace for the next generation in Nigeria.’

On his video-message played during the launch, His Royal Highness Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan said that Nigeria is the best and happiest country in the world, thus all should work towards making it peaceful. He spoke about the visit of the World Council of Churches and The Royal Jordanian Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought to Nigeria, between 22nd–26th May 2012 (1st-5th Rajab, 1433 AH). The visit was proposed in reaction to the numerous incidents of fierce inter-communal strife which have affected the lives of Nigerians during 2000-2012, and the awareness that—at least since the Bosnian war of 1993-1995—Nigeria is the country in the world where the most severe inter-communal violence between Christians and Muslims has been experienced. The delegation sought to understand the reasons behind this violence. The objectives of the visit were to: (a) fact-find and investigate first-hand, impartially and credibly, the situation on the ground in Nigeria, and the various factors that have led to the present tensions; (b) express clearly to both the political and religious leadership in Nigeria the concern and anxiety of the international community about the current situation; (c) demonstrate an international model of Muslims and Christians working together in an inter-religious engagement aimed at fostering peace and harmony between people of different religions; (d) identify areas or projects where religious institutes, persons, texts, or messages can help ameliorate the situation in Nigeria. According to His Royal Highness, Prince Ghazi, every religious text could be quoted out of context to justify violence and killing of innocents, heinous acts not sanctioned by any divine authority.

                                                   Bishop Justin Welby

When it was his turn to speak, Bishop Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury Designate, informed the gathering of his oft-repeated visits to Nigeria. ‘I think,’ he said, ‘this is about my seventy-fifth trip to Nigeria. So, you see, I’m a bit addicted to the place.’ (Laughter from the audience) ‘The situation in Nigeria,’ he continued, ‘is always complicated. I started a lecture some years ago, in Washington where they asked me to speak about the country, by saying whatever you say about Nigeria, however complicated you may sound, you have to end by saying: it’s not as simple as that! Because this is one of the most wonderful, diverse, impressive countries on earth, and almost anything you say in any place, is contradicted somewhere else in Nigeria. There is, above all, an energy, and a capacity……it has all the abilities needed and the skills needed to be the great regional power….and, because I suspect there are no South Africans here….’ (He paused for effect, and slowly scanned the meeting room in a dramatic way, and then said) ‘Clearly when they expand the permanent members of the Security Council, I’ve no doubt; we should be the African member. But I’m not saying that publicly.’ (More laughter and applause from the audience)

Bishop Welby then asked: ‘So, what is this project about, and why do we, eh… Tony Blair principally, I and Prince Ghazi, why do we have the honour and privilege to have any role in it? It is not to say we bring answers, but as I said to someone this morning in one of our meetings, in the UK over the years, particularly by Tony Blair during the Northern Ireland peace process, we discovered that sometime as a country, when there is conflict, it is hopeful to have people involved who are not part of the story – who have not been in the story since the beginning…not to bring answers, but be able to listen, observe, and by the Grace of God, contribute something useful to help those to have the answers, who are Nigerians.’

                                                    Mr Tony Blair

Next to speak was Mr Tony Blair, Founder and Patron of the Foundation. When you listen to Mr Blair any time, he reminds you of the saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), that ‘there is an element of wizardry in oratory.’ Mr Blair is indeed a wizard in the art of public speaking and elucidation and clear exposition of his opinion on any matter. If you get carried away listening to Mr Blair, you shall be carried away! Through this element of wizardry in Mr Blair’s oratory truth could be seen as falsehood and vice-versa, it all depends on what side he chooses to support. Is there any wonder then how the United Nations was rendered useless, the world confused, and many a rational voce muted at the face of well-articulated presentation of a false dossier on Iraq’s possession of WMDs?  

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, "I am only a human being, and you people have disputes. May be someone amongst you can present his case in a more eloquent and convincing manner than the other, and I give my judgment in his favour according to what I hear. Beware! If ever I give (by error) somebody something of his brother's right then he should not take it as I have only given him a piece of Fire." (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Hadeeth No. 638. Vol. 3)

And so it was; the fire that was ignited in Iraq is still burning; so, it was a wise way of penance of some sort for people like Tony Blair who, not only fanned the embers of the inferno, but who actually provided fuel, by word and deed, of such crises as Iraq, to now spearhead any movement that would ensure peace and harmony among diverse communities and show how ‘faith can be a powerful force for good in the modern world.’

Mr Tony Blair started by stating his desire of being an oft-repeated visitor to Nigeria, to come here 75 times just as Bishop Welby had done. Because, according to him, ‘Nigeria is the most unique country in the world, it astonishes, astounds me.’ He went further to support Bishop Welby’s assertion of Nigerians being the ones to solve their own issues. ‘The problems of Nigerian,’ he said, ‘would be sorted out by Nigerians….

Something that is important to clarify; sometimes people think that when we talk about the difficulties of religious conflicts or strife, and they say the sole issue is to do with religion, and interfaith relation and so on. No, there are many issues. Many issues that are economic, and social and political that need to be resolved. However, the purpose of my Foundation, why I began it, is that I do think not all of the answers, but part of the answer lies on people of faith coming together, being together, learning from each other, working with each other, speaking with each other, acting with each other. And part of the difficulty from my profession, politics, is that sometimes politics finds the religious dimension too difficult, so it kind of wants to ignore that dimension, and only treads simply on the political or the economic. My view is we need to deal with everything including the issues of how different faiths work together and live together. So, I began my Foundation with a very peculiar objective in mind, and that is to create a situation in which alongside a very high level dialogue between the very eminent persons in the faith community, alongside that we would try to have some practical programmes that bring people together. And bring them together in two ways: first, young people. We just had a video conference between a school in Darby in England, and school students here in Nigeria. Unless we get to the youth of the country, then we are never going to be able to make progress. And here is the most exciting thing, most young people, instinctively, want to be open with each other and to love each other. But it is important at an early age that we introduce them to each other so that is made more easy. Because often what happens is, that later in life other influences come in and turn them in a direction. What we want to do through the school exchange programme that we now run in 19 different countries in the world, where we join up students in dialogue with each other, is to help them understand each other, know each other better. And as I just said to the children there, where there is knowledge, there is more likely to be understanding; and where there is understanding we are more likely to get along. Where there is ignorance there is often fear, where there is fear, there is more likely to be conflict. So, the idea is to replace the ignorance with knowledge, and the fear with understanding.’

                                                  Ms Ama Pepple

President Goodluck Jonathan’s address was read by his representative, the Minister of Housing, Ms Ama Pepple. ‘I commend you’, said the President, ‘for this singular and timely joint initiative. The idea is not only creative; it is also consistent with our effort to promote inter-religious dialogue and harmony.

‘Our country, Nigeria, is blessed by God with two of the world’s great religions who honour Him in their different ways. For generations, the two religions have coexisted and their proponents have lived side by side in peace and harmony knowing that both religions expose the universal values of peace, freedom, human rights, dignity and the oneness of humanity.

Our young people can easily be seduced by false prophets who take them to the path of violence and hatred. It is very important that religion is neither misused nor abused to justify violence.

Inter religious dialogue is already playing an important role in our society. The Federal Government continues to promote religious harmony by constantly engaging the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council, jointly chaired by the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Sultan of Sokoto. While progress on this front is satisfactory, it must be pointed out that some of the religious tensions in the country are politically motivated.

We must now use both platforms to call on all believers to reject religiously anchored violence, advance tolerance and promote mutual understanding. We must emphasize the imperative of dialogue as part of our effort to create peace and advance development.’

After listening to the President’s speech, I kept wondering what he actually meant by ‘satisfactory’ in Government’s engagement with the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC)to promote religious harmony’. Can there be ‘satisfactory’ interfaith ‘harmony’ under the current leadership of CAN?  Other inter-religious efforts are succeeding with many Christian-Muslim peace initiatives in many parts of this country. Christian leaders like Most Reverend Josiah Idowu-Fearon, the Anglican Archbishop of the Province of Kaduna and John Cardinal Onaiyekan are doing a lot towards Christian-Muslim mutual understanding. The recent nomination for 2012 Nobel Peace Prize award of Cardinal John Onaiyekan and His Eminence, the Sultan of Sokoto is enough to buttress the point that the incompatibility in NIREC’s co-chairmanship is not concealed to the world. The normal thing was for the nomination of the peace award to encompass the current President of CAN, and His Eminence, the Sultan. But the nomination committee was diligent enough to recommend real peace makers for the award; hence it disregarded NIREC joint chairmanship and settled for a former President of CAN (John Onaiyekan) rather than the current (Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor)!

                                                 John Cardinal Onaiyekan

The above sentiment was shared by LEADERSHIP Board of Editors and its top management as it ‘voted Sultan Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar III, Sultan of Sokoto, and John Cardinal Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, Archbishop of the Catholic Diocese of Abuja, as LEADERSHIP Persons of the Year 2012.’ On the front page of its Monday, December 3, 2012 edition, LEADERSHIP wrote: ‘In a year when religious turmoil deteriorated to a frighteningly new level and a number of religious leaders lost their heads, Sultan Abubakar III and John Cardinal Onaiyekan emerged as powerful moderating voices that fundamentally prevented the country from toppling over. By their words, actions, gestures and comportment, they reminded us of what leadership really means. For deploying their voices of restraint at crucial moments to keep the country’s fragile peace, these soldiers of faith are LEADERSHIP Persons of the Year 2012.’ Though he is the current co-chair of NIREC and President of CAN, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor did not have the honour of either the nomination for 2012 Nobel Peace Prize or LEADERSHIP Persons of the Year 2012 award!

                                                   Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor

It was the turn of Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, the CAN President to make his remarks at the 
Tony Blair Faith Foundation meeting. ‘We must talk;’ he commenced, ‘but what I’ve always said is, I believe in the progressive dialogue. Dialogue where we can set goals, timelines; we can look at the things we want to achieve and be able to say, within this time we can achieve this, we can achieve that. Honestly, to find great people coming from around the world to support us in this, is incredible. I want to thank you, Mr Tony Blair, for this move. May God do for you what you cannot do for yourself.

Nigeria is a great nation, but greatness can only come out when there is understanding, there is oneness, and we are focused on the same thing. Because as at now it’s like the greatness is being swallowed up by distractions. A lot of things are taking us away from what we ought to concentrate on….

The way forward is with us. And I’m sure; I’m convinced that we will get there. I’m convinced that there is no religion that encourages violence. (This is the first time I’ve heard him speak of this conviction). I know that for a start, myself and my co-chair, we have understanding. (Really? I wonder). But it is how we can take this to everybody else, and I’m sure, by the Grace of God, we will be there.

The challenges we are facing as a nation today, in my opinion, is temporal.’ (Don’t ask me about the grammar… I’m only quoting verbatim…). ‘Because, somehow, we would be able to locate the way to deal with some of these problems; not just for us to sit and talk, but talk, about how we can actually deal with the problems.’

                                                 His Eminence, The Sultan

His Eminence, the Sultan of Sokoto said: ‘I want to personally thank Mr Tony Blair for his concern, for his love, for his commitment to peace and stability in Nigeria. If the level of concern and commitment is used to judge what will give somebody a citizenship of a country, minus the number of times he visits that country,’ (Laughter from the audience), ‘I think Mr Tony Blair is most certainly, and honourably qualified to be a Nigerian.’ (More laughter)

What you don’t know,’ His Eminence continued, ‘is that Mr Tony Blair just lost his father of 89 years old, in spite of that, he didn’t cancel his trip to Nigeria, he still came down here, to be with us. So, I want everybody to condole with him for this loss.’

Turning to Mr Blair, His Eminence said: ‘I urge you to continue the good work you are doing, and insha Allah, as my co-chair said, we will not disappoint you.’
On the video conference between school children from Nigeria and their counterparts in UK, the Sultan was of the view that the pupils ‘captured exactly what we have been trying to do. I’m very happy and contented that our own youth are thinking in that direction, because the youth are definitely the future of any country. And if these young men and women think the way they are talking this morning, we are sure to achieve what we set to achieve.’

The Sultan also spoke about a similar programme, two years ago, in Mina, Niger State, where 250 Christian and Muslim youth were brought together in a conference. His Eminence said: ‘We are trying to stage a second one.’ What is most important according to the Sultan is to disseminate the proceedings of meetings ‘as the one we are having this morning to a larger audience. It not enough for me and my co-chair to understand one another, but as he said, and I concur, we have to take this message down to those we lead. And we have to do that with all sincerity, with all honesty, believing in our religions as being the religions of peace, understanding one another, and not fighting one another.

During question time I made the following comment and asked two questions: ‘Mr Chairman,’ I began, ‘my name is Abubakr Siddeeq. I hope Bishop Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury Designate, will call to mind our long trip to Niger, Yobe, Maiduguri, Kano and Zamfara states, which we (I and Imam Sani Isah of Waff Road Mosque, Kaduna) undertook with a team that he (Bishop Welby) led from the Coventry Cathedral with the purpose of learning, first-hand, reasons for religious crises in Nigeria, and how to bring all the contending parties to participate in an international peace conference to be convened in Nigeria under the auspices of the International Centre for Reconciliation.

I’m happy His Royal Highness, Estu Nupe, Alhaji Yahaya Abubakar is here. Let me remind Bishop Welby of Darul Islam, a peaceful community in the outskirts of Niger state that hosted us during our fact-finding trip, and allowed us to dialogue with its members in their mosque. It will interest the Archbishop of Canterbury Designate to know that the peaceful community he visited no longer exist today. It has been wiped out, its men, women and children banished and their dwellings levelled to the ground.

I will end with these questions: I want to know from Bishop Welby what happened to the report written by his team after our trip. Either that report was never studied by the recipients or the addressees have refused to do the right thing. If since 2004 a report was submitted by a team of experts headed by the current Archbishop of Canterbury Designate, on a way forward in tackling religious crises in Nigeria, at a time when Taliban had not yet transmuted to Boko Haram, then somebody has not been doing their job. Bishop Welby, you have done a lot for peace in Nigeria, apart from your incessant visits, you even threw caution to the wind when you and members of your team stayed for three days and three nights between Yobe and Maiduguri trying to make members of the Taliban, now Boko Haram key into the idea of the international peace conference. I would not go into how your proposed conference was killed at NIREC level through the influence of the then head of the Aso Villa Chapel. But the point has been made: you’ve been talking; your audience was not listening, or members of that audience chose to do nothing.

Finally, to Mr Blair; do you see your Faith Foundation resuscitating the peace conference that Bishop Welby’s team was not allowed to convene?’

Unfortunately, I did not get any meaningful response from both Mr Blair and Bishop Welby, as they understandably chose to tread carefully due to the sensitive nature of the issues raised in my comment and questions. I was however pleased with the fact that the message was conveyed; Bishop Welby was visibly troubled when I mentioned the banishment by the Niger state government of the Darul Islam peaceful community.
This is what I wrote on this column in 2010 concerning Bishop Welby’s visit to Darul Islam:

Darul Islam was more than a mere group; it was a community on the outskirts of Niger State. This was a peace-loving community. Members of the LOC for the Peaceful Coexistence Conference of the Coventry Cathedral were welcomed; with a few introductory remarks to the leader of Darul Islam on the purpose of our visit, we (Muslims and Christians) were ushered into the masjid (mosque) without discrimination. I want to see another group of Muslims in this country that will admit Christian clergy into its mosque for the purposes of dialogue and interfaith discourse! I am saying this because whenever we take Christian (foreign) visitors for the tour of the National Mosque the ignorant among the people would look at us with disapproval, and suspicion.

The leader directed a crier to summon people in Darul Islam to the mosque for ‘an urgent and important matter.’ And within 15 minutes there were no rooms for the faithful to seat in the mosque; every available space was occupied. Many leaned on the walls, and many more stood outside behind the windows. Women in complete Islamic attire, and children were at the rear of the masjid; you could not hear even the slightest din. Everything was calm, peaceful. Nobody uttered a word without the consent of the leader (Ameerul Mu’mineen).

With the permission of the leader, I briefly introduced the LOC members to the Darul Isalam community, and stated our mission. Later, The Reverend Canon Justin Welby, Co-Director of International Centre for Reconciliation, directed a number of questions to the leader of the community. ‘Sheikh,’ he began, ‘we wonder what will make you choose to stay here, far away from civilization, and basic amenities of modern life.’

You are right Reverend,’ started the leader of Darul Islam, ‘we chose to be here because we want to be governed by Allah’s Laws. Darul Isalam means the abode of peace, Islam; whoever comes here will be in peace. We don’t belong to any sect be it Izala, Tariqah, Shia or what not. We are Muslims for that is what Allah calls the adherents of Islaam in the Qur’an. We don’t fight anybody, kill or destroy property. Darul Isalam has its market, ‘health centre’, a school for our children where they are taught Islaam and what will not harm their faith of the so-called Western Education, and even abattoir. We farm what we eat; we need nothing from anywhere. We are content with what Allah has provided for us here. Our wells are overflowing with water, these Lister engines you see around our mud-built houses are the source of energy that illumines our homes; we are not in need of NEPA. Ours is a modest life. The Governor (Abdulkadir Kure of the time) personally came here to plead with us to leave, that he has earmarked a large plot of land for us within the city. We showed our gratitude to, and prayed for him; we made him understand that we prefer to stay here. He conceded, and left us alone. It may be that he had seen that we pose no threat to anybody; we are peaceful.

Unfortunately, this peaceful community of Darul Isalam was banished from its home after the Boko Haram uprising in November 2009. It was the outcome of an AIT Kakaaki Programme that featured two Abuja based Imams: Fuad Adeyemi of Alhabibiya Academy and Nurudeen Khalid of NASS Mosque. During the programme Imam Nurudeen spoke about ‘another dangerous group called Darul Isalaam in Niger State.’ The group, he said, does not recognise the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. AIT used this part of Imam Nurudeen’s intervention as a clip in its news for almost 2 days running. Of course that drew the attention of the authorities, and the Niger State Government in particular. The next thing we heard was the banishment of Darul Isalam from Niger State.

Just before I wrote this piece one of the Project Officers attached with the Coventry Cathedral, and member of the LOC of the Peaceful Coexistence Conference visited me in my office. I asked him about Darul Isalam and what his reaction was when he heard that they were driven away from their community. His response was succinct: ‘It was a shame that such peace-loving folks were expelled from their dwellings...’