Two Men Create Bridge over Nigeria's Troubled Waters ; in a Conflict Zone between the Muslim North and the Christian South, Two Former Enemies Find Common Ground and Share a Peacemaking Mission

Article excerpt

James Wuye was once a self-described militant Christian youth, and Muhammad Ashafa a radical Muslim activist - unlikely partners in efforts to bring peace to Kaduna, the ground zero of religious conflict in Nigeria.

But instead of battling when violence breaks out, Reverend Wuye, a Pentecostal preacher, and Imam Ashafa, who leads a local mosque, go to the frontlines to try to calm tempers and find solutions.

Some of the worst communal clashes since democracy returned to Nigeria four years ago have taken place in Kaduna. The city marks the ostensible border between the Muslim north and the Christian south and is home to migrants from all over the country. With religion expected to be a key issue when Nigeria holds national elections in April, the flash point of Kaduna is under close watch.

"Kaduna is like dynamite, and everybody is treading carefully, because conflict of any form can have a devastating effect on both communities," says Wuye.

An estimated 2,500 people died in violence triggered when Kaduna state introduced sharia, a strict form of Islamic law, in early 2000.

The city made headlines internationally last November, when protests over a newspaper article linking the prophet Muhammed to the Miss World beauty pageant sparked clashes. But in August 2002, Wuye and Ashafa had persuaded 10 senior religious leaders from each faith in Kaduna to sign a peace declaration that mitigated the Miss World violence, says Judith Asuni, director of Academic Associates PeaceWorks, a think tank and mediation center in Abuja, the capital. "If the peace declaration had not been done before, it would have been a lot worse," she says. "James and Ashafa have done some good work on the ground. They need government to kick in and do its part."

Observers have criticized the Nigerian government for responding to communal conflict by simply sending in the often heavy-handed security forces and not addressing the root causes of the turmoil, such as poverty and joblessness. Asuni herself has been trying to persuade President Olusegun Obasanjo to take a more active role in conflict resolution.

Wuye and Ashafa share duties in the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Forum and the Inter-Faith Mediation Center, organizations they jointly founded to create better understanding between the communities and to mediate when violence occurs. They hold workshops on conflict resolution with vigilante groups and sharia police in Kaduna and nearby states. They've produced a weekly series on local television, quoting passages of the Koran and the Bible showing common ground between Islam and Christianity. They've written a book called "The Pastor and The Imam: Responding to Conflict." And they meet with both sides in simmering disputes to try to prevent violence. If clashes do break out, they rush to the scene to try to quell tensions, at times putting themselves in danger. …