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.”