KADUNA, Nigeria — The bridge over the Kaduna River divides this city.
In many ways Kaduna stands as a microcosm of Nigeria itself, with Christians living to the south and Muslims in the north. Like all of Nigeria, it suffers from desperate poverty that cuts across both communities and shares a pervasive culture of fear as the country continues to plunge into communal strife that has claimed nearly 20,000 lives since 1999.
But Kaduna is also unique as it has shown unusual courage in taking risks for peace. Religious and political leaders have dared to reach out across the divide and try to reduce the violence between Muslims and Christians.
Among the bold steps Kaduna has taken is hosting the Forum for Cities in Transition, a peace conference which this week brought together 50 delegates from 11 cities that know conflict first hand, including Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq, Israel and Palestine and elsewhere. They have come to share what they know and help Kaduna continue its halting steps out of conflict and toward reconciliation.
Serving as hosts to the forum are two religious clerics known simply as “the pastor and the imam.” They are the Christian pastor James Wuya and Imam Muhammad Ashafa, who were once bitter enemies in the communal violence here when it first began to spike in the 1990s. Pastor James lost his right hand in the violence and Imam Ashafa saw dear friends and family killed. But now they work together for peace and reconciliation.
“We are two different people entirely, with different world views. But we share a spiritual commitment to peace and a belief that religion is about reconciliation,” said Ashafa.
“It’s good to know we’re not alone in this effort, that there are other cities who have suffered as we are now and who did what needed to be done to end violence and live together. And we hope we have both lessons to learn and some lessons of our own to share,” said James.
So what are the lessons that can be learned from these post-conflict societies about how to heal fractured communities? Are there practical strategies to learn how to live and work together again?
These questions shaped the work of the forum, which is led by Padraig O’Malley, a scholar and peace activist who is a professor at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. For decades, O’Malley has joined in on the hard work of forging conflict into a process of reconciliation in South Africa, Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere. He shaped what he learned along the way into a set of unifying principles based on the idea that “cities that are in transition in countries divided by conflict are in the best position to help other such countries.”
So unified by that underlying idea, the men and women gathered here in Kaduna are political and religious leaders who cut across the divides in their respective societies with very practical advice and strategies about how to transform their communities and find a path toward peace.
From Rwanda, delegates came to share a story of the key role women played in an inspirational story of relentless efforts toward reconciliation that have resurrected their country 20 years after the unspeakable horrors of genocide that took place there.
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“We are committed to and strongly believe that women are a strong force that we can never, ever leave behind,” said Protogene Nsengumuremyi, who is the second counselor of the Rwanda High Commission to Nigeria.
From Mitrovica, Kosovo, two delegates came to share how harnessing the energy of youth has helped their society overcome the hostility that still smolders, but is subsiding as Kosovo continues its journey to recover from ‘ethnic cleansing’ and the war it led to.
“What we are saying is very specific about empowering young people in the process of reconciliation early on. After all it is their future. But the key to this is jobs, to providing employment and that is the issue we are still struggling with and which we see as a key issue here in Kaduna,” said Ardiana Osmani, who came of age in the war in her native Kosovo and is now youth coordinator for the Forum for Cities in Transition.
From Kirkuk and Baghdad, they talked about the strategies of holding onto hope and enduring a long and continuing struggle, even as hundreds are still killed every month in bombings and firefights, as Iraq tries to forge the civil institutions of a new democracy. The key, a Kirkuk delegate said, is not to retreat into the old narratives that divided the society.
“You have to keep going forward and a forum like this help us to do this. We have a lot to share with each other and a lot to learn from each other. For us, it is about not going back into the past, which was horrible, or to the war which was also horrible, but to look forward. We think Kaduna is doing this, and that helps to remind us that we need to keep in that direction,” said Rebwar Faiq Abdulmajeed, deputy chairman of Kirkuk Provincial Council and a leader in the Kurdish community which suffered mass killings, torture and collective punishment under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
From Derry, Northern Ireland, they talked about the unique power sharing structures that lie at the heart of the Good Friday peace agreement and which has allowed the two sides to work together to build a common future.
Sean Farren, a senior negotiator in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement for the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), said, “I come here and see a country with limited resources where risks for peace are being taken by people with courage and bravery who are reaching across the divide. I hope we might have helped them think about how they can build their own governance. But most of all I am taking away inspiration and hope that our own country, with far greater resources, should be able to do more.”