AKRON, Pa. -- Nigerians fear that April elections may spike already increased violence following on the heels of December bombings in the city of Jos and the subsequent killing of more than 200 people in Plateau State, where Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) staff and most of its program is based.
Plateau State is the area of Nigeria where the predominantly Muslim north meets the predominantly Christian south. Violent conflict in this area dates back to 2001 as the two groups compete for political power and control of land.
More recently, dividing lines between religious groups have further polarized residential areas and community markets and limited travel between some communities because of potential violence. Schools, banking and other normal activities have been disrupted. Youth vigilante groups control some neighborhoods.
The elections, scheduled for April 9, 16 and 26 for the president and national and state legislators, bring with them the potential for violence because election processes are often controversial, said Brenda Hartman-Souder, an MCC representative in Nigeria with her spouse Mark Hartman-Souder.
“In much of Nigeria, the political agenda of the north is different from that of the south. In addition, achieving political power is a direct way to have access to the nation’s significant oil revenue.”
In the midst of this situation, the Hartman-Souders, from Syracuse, N.Y., and Gopar Tapkida, MCC’s regional peace advisor for Central and West Africa, met with MCC partners, staff and friends, who all are impacted by the situation. Together they processed fears and concerns, even as they discussed how they can continue to work for peace.
Tapkida, who grew up in Nigeria, encouraged those gathered to take courage from his experience with fire: “When I grew up in the village, we didn’t have matches. So overnight, we learned to preserve the fire, keeping it alive until it was time for stirring up the fire the next morning. If our fire went out, we had to go and get some embers from neighbors.
“Peace work is like that. Sometimes, while violence is raging, you can only preserve the fire burning for peace inside you or meet with others in order to borrow hope.”
The group members agreed to support, in any way possible, the communities and schools that are still integrated. They will encourage community leaders to be responsible for the flow of people in and out of their neighborhoods. Group members were encouraged to refuse to dehumanize those on the “other side” of the conflict and to seek to understand the conflict with a broader, more compassionate lens.
“As difficult as it is, we still have to preach love, not hate. This is what we must teach and preach and practice,” said the Rev. Moses Thliza, who is affiliated with MCC and a pastor with the Church of the Brethren.
Although MCC Nigeria partners have not been able to carry out or sustain all of their planned interfaith bridge building during this volatile time, partner organization Women Initiative for Sustainable Community Development (WISCOD) has peace teams in three areas of southern Plateau State. These teams have sponsored peace rallies for awareness of peaceful elections and monitored voter registration. They are also working on community awareness for peaceful elections.
In addition, youth trained by WISCOD as HIV and AIDS peer educators are volunteering to serve as peer educators for peaceful elections and also will observe the elections.
Emergency Preparedness and Response Teams (EPRT), one of MCC Nigeria’s major peace partners, continues to work with its members throughout Plateau State to be aware of early warning signs of violence, to mitigate conflict and to monitor elections where possible.
MCC also is actively involved in the formation of a network of peace practitioners from across Plateau State for the purposes of information sharing, mutual encouragement and collaboration. A collaborative effort contributes to effective and far-reaching peace strategies, said Brenda Hartman-Souder. It also strengthens the voice to government and other international stakeholders about the need to address the roots of the conflict.
“Please pray for all the citizens of Plateau State and of all of Nigeria who are hopeful but concerned as national and state elections take place throughout the country. Pray that peaceful and fair elections would prevail in order to give Nigeria the best chance possible to continue to build its young democracy,” said Brenda Hartman-Souder.