Tanenbaum Peacemakers Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye Prepare Nigerians for Upcoming Elections

On February 7, 2015, exactly one week before Nigerians were set to head to the polls, Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission postponed the Presidential and legislative elections for seven weeks (until March 28th). Concerned that Boko Haram’s violent insurgency in the North would jeopardize the safety of voters around the country, the Commission’s Chairman, Attahiru Jega, heeded the advice of national security officials – delaying the election and announcing a “major” multinational military operation against the terrorist organization. This decision has been widely criticized both in Nigeria and abroad; some worry the postponement will delegitimize the elections and others fear an increased likelihood of election-related violence.

Despite the danger posed by Boko Haram and the challenges posed by this politically charged environment, Tanenbaum’s Peacemakers – Imam Muhammad Ashafa and Pastor James Wuye, Co-Executive Directors of the Interfaith Mediation Center – remain undeterred in their work. Much like their efforts prior to the 2011 elections, these Nigerian Peacemakers are tirelessly preparing Nigerian communities around the country for the election and for conducting it in a peaceful manner.

Interviewed before the elections were postponed, Pastor James discussed the unique challenges posed by Boko Haram, as well as by national ethnic tensions.

Rather than targeting Christians and pitting Muslims against Christians, Boko Haram targets “everyone,” not a specific religious group. Also, many Nigerians are unwillingly being “conscripted, and some are abducted from their families” to become members of the group. As a result, Pastor James believes the insurgents have actually mitigated religious tensions in the country.

Pastor James says that if the opportunity arises he would sit down and talk with the insurgents about their demands. He noted that, prior to the recent offensive, the government’s response to Boko Haram included “soft diplomacy,” which involved an effort “to reintegrate the young men and women who are involved in this insurgency.”

As the elections approach, Pastor James is also concerned about ethnic tensions. Nigeria’s population of more than 149 million people is made up of over 250 ethnic groups. He and Imam Ashafa are urging their fellow Nigerians to respect the election results and refrain from violence as a means of voicing any displeasure. They are focused on the role of religious leaders in the country and believe it will be critical – and, indeed, many of them have been “calling on the populace not to make provocative statements and to play by the rules of the game.”

Pastor James is proud of his homeland and remains hopeful for its future. Yet he understands the challenges that lie ahead and the great need for Nigeria’s “religious leaders to come together as they have before.”

Tanenbaum Joins “Partners for a New Beginning”

While attending the Partners for a New Beginning (PNB) summit run by the U.S. State Department earlier this month, I spoke with Nell, a woman whose non-profit aids refugees in Nablis, Palestine. She shared her heartbreaking observation: that many of the people with whom she works – people who have lived their entire lives as refugees – live without some of the simple joys I take for granted.  She found that many parents don’t get on the floor and play with their children or teach them how to count blocks!

Nell started by working with kids in an early childhood program and is now instituting parenting programs. Her view on the education that kids need is remarkably similar to Tanenbaum’s, a fact that was not lost on either of us. Naturally, that meant meeting back in New York to explore collaborations that reinforce our shared vision for learning: a shared vision that prepares students to thrive in a diverse world.
Our conversation embodies the potential of PNB, an alliance whose goal is to facilitate and create partnerships among the United States Government and private sector and civil society leaders to foster a broader and deeper engagement between the United States and local communities and Muslim majority countries abroad.
I am proud that Tanenbaum is a partner in this groundbreaking initiative along with Cisco, Coca-Cola, Intel, the Interfaith Youth Core, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, among others. Of all the takeaways from this month’s summit, though, I am most excited to again find that our work is urgently needed and immediately applicable.
I look forward to keeping you all informed as our work with PNB flourishes and opportunities to work with Nell are identified.
Joyce S. Dubensky
Executive Vice President & CEO, Tanenbaum