By Linda Espenshade
AKRON, Pa. – When Mugu Zakka Bako arrived at the scene of twin bomb blasts Tuesday at a busy market in the city of Jos, Nigeria, he saw more than the destruction, billowing smoke, injured people and charred remains.
Bako saw Muslims and Christians working shoulder to shoulder, helping to rescue people from the debris. They consoled and talked with each other – a reality that would not have happened in the past, said Bako, peace coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Nigeria.
“If not for the peace work that has been taking place in Plateau State [Jos is its capital] over the last number of years, this kind of incident could easily have erupted into religious violence,” agreed Matthew Tangbuin, MCC Nigeria program advisor and business manager.
Tangbuin is referring to intensive peacebuilding work that many groups in Jos, including MCC’s partners, are doing to diffuse violence and encourage connections between Muslims and Christians. MCC has supported the work of its Christian and Muslim partners by providing peacebuilding training and supporting their efforts to stop religious and ethnic violence during the past 12 years.
Plateau State lies in an area between Nigeria’s largely Muslim north and its predominantly Christian south and is, therefore, home to diverse religious and ethnic groups. The attack on May 20, which killed 122 people, was the first large-scale incident of violence in Jos during the past two years.
MCC staff and its partners are safe, although several witnessed the explosion. Others were close enough for debris to fall on them outside the MCC office, which is about 650 yards from the explosion. Many people connected with MCC knew someone killed or injured in the blasts, some spending hours searching through charred bodies to find loved ones. Seven volunteers working for MCC’s partner, Faith Alive Clinic, were killed or are presumed dead.
Although no group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, people in Jos commonly attribute it to Boko Haram. This group of Islamist militants, who oppose education for girls and other Western influences, got worldwide attention in April after abducting and threatening to sell more than 270 school girls in northeast Nigeria.
For the past 20 years, however, the periodic violence that plagued Plateau State was not commonly tied to Boko Haram but to a complex set of factors based on the way people polarize religious and ethnic groups to advance their political purposes in Nigeria, said Mary Lou Klassen, peace theology teacher from Kitchener, Ont.
“Over the years, reprisal attacks were an expected response to events such as yesterday’s bomb blast,” said Bako. “Whenever there was an attack in a particular place, people from other areas started killing innocent ones without verifying the cause of the conflicts.”
If Tuesday’s attack would have happened just three years ago, he said, “the whole city would have been in flames for the rest of the days of this week and there would be bloodshed everywhere.”
The response to Tuesday’s bombings could be attributed to a variety of reasons, said Dave Klassen, MCC representative in Nigeria, from Kitchener, Ont.
“People have a united front against Boko Haram,” he said, which could have unified Christians and Muslims in response to this attack. People also are tired of the violence, he said, which may make them more determined to work for peace and more open to listening to their friends who discourage a violent response.
One of MCC’s largest partners, Emergency Preparedness Response Teams (EPRT), has created a web of volunteers across Plateau State who are trained to recognize growing tensions and diffuse them. “The volunteers jump into conflict situations, either to resolve differences or to contain the conflict that is often charged with religion or ethnicity and can spread like wildfire,” Klassen said.
Each of the 17 local governments in Plateau State has 15 volunteers who are mediators or peacebuilders in their communities. At the bombings on Tuesday, EPRT volunteers were there, many in official capacity as first responders, Klassen said. Yet even as they worked to save lives or direct traffic, they were alert for signs of follow-up violence.
MCC’s peacebuilding work has been a priority in Nigeria since 2001. Primarily, MCC works behind the scenes, training and accompanying people who work for peace. In the past 12 years, MCC has sent over 35 Nigerians to the one-month-long African Peacebuilding Institute in Zambia or the West Africa Peacebuilding Institute in Ghana, where they learn about topics such as conflict prevention, trauma healing, restorative justice and advocacy.
“Many have come back dramatically transformed,” Klassen said. He sees them at work for other organizations, where they intentionally develop and strengthen connections between Christians and Muslims.
No one can draw a definitive line between the ongoing peacebuilding work of many organizations, including MCC partners, and the lack of violence following the bombings, Klassen said. Yet the peaceful response is hopeful for Nigerian peacemakers.