A Discussion with Father Anthony Fom of Justice Development & Peace/Caritas (JDPC), Catholic Archdiocese of Jos
Background: As part of the Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding Fellowship, Christopher O'Connor interviewed Rev Fr. Anthony Fom, the Justice Development & Peace/Caritas’s (JDPC) Coordinator for the Catholic Archdiocese of Jos, Plateau state, Nigeria. Plateau state has been the epicenter of recent ethno-religious flare-ups over the past several years. JDPC is an agent of the Catholic Church engaged in socio-political outreach, such as development and Church-state relations. In this interview Fom discusses ethno-political religious violence in Nigeria, explaining the demographic and economic changes that have exacerbated tensions and his work in conflict resolution and post-conflict reconciliation.
Interview Conducted on July 1, 2010
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In your own words, could you tell me what is Justice Development & Peace/Caritas’s mission, and what are your responsibilities at JDPC?
I am the Coordinator for JDPC in the Catholic Archdiocese of Jos. JDPC is an arm of the Catholic Church that deals with social issues, Church-state relations, and generally speaking, the Church’s interactions with the broader society. JDPC’s early efforts in Nigeria focused on improving agriculture skills and water supply because of the extreme poverty and need for economic assistance and education in many states. We placed a lot of emphasis on development programs like well drilling and proper farming techniques. Since 2001 however, our emphasis has largely changed.
With the outbreak of violence that followed the restoration of democracy in Nigeria, we have shifted our focus to peacebuilding issues, working to bring Christians and Muslims together to promote tolerance and cooperation through dialogue. While religion was not originally an issue linked to conflict in Nigeria, it has since risen to the fore.
What are the forces that have traditionally driven conflict in Jos, and why is it that religion has become a factor?
The issues that originally catalyzed conflict in Jos were politics, economics, and ethnicity. Violence today is complex. It is ethno-political religious violence. All these factors come into play at one level or another. But let us look at the dynamics, at how religion has come into play.
People in Nigeria have very strong views on religion. There is a lot of division even within the Christian community, and within the Muslim community. We have very strong views and opinions about beliefs. Meanwhile, politicians play the religious card to guarantee their power, as religion is often an overriding factor, a prominent identity. It is a passion, a commitment. Many Nigerians have a protective mentality about their religion. It is the easiest identity to mobilize, and the easiest identity to explain.
You mention economics. How does this factor come into play, and how does it relate to religion?
Nigeria is a poor country. Jos stands almost in the center of Nigeria. If you move north the population grows increasingly Muslim. If you move south the population grows increasingly Christian. In the early 1920s, and even before, tin mining started in Plateau state. This industry attracted a lot of immigrants from both the North and the South into the region. The construction of the railroad helped to facilitate this immigration, this mobility. Initially, these settlers were welcomed in Jos, because the mining companies needed the labor. The local population preferred to continue with farming. Things started to change in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the mining industry started to die down. Despite the collapse of tin mining, settlers and their children remained, and many of the children born in Jos viewed it as their home. The number of Hausa Muslim settlers from the North started to increase. They began to outnumber the largely Christian indigenes. Mining was gone and these people needed new economic activities, new opportunities. So, the settlers started buying land, and this fueled increased competition for a limited and diminishing resource. Farming plots decreased in size. The indigenes started to view the settlers as outsiders, as competitors who had no right to be challenging the indigenes in Jos. Again however, the children of these settlers did not view themselves as settlers. A conflict between indigenes and settlers emerged over economic opportunities. Who owns Jos?
Most of the former miners entered economic professions other than farming. Over time they grew wealthier than the local farmers, who were essentially peasant farmers, subsistence farmers. The settlers started looking down on the poorer indigenes. To complicate matters, there is also another dimension. Environmental degradation has forced pastoralists from the North farther and farther south. Many have moved into Plateau state, increasing the pressure on local indigenes farmers to an even greater extent.
You said that people from both the North and the South moved to Jos for tin mining. Why is it that a conflict emerged between the indigenes and the settlers from the North, but not the settlers from the South?
Generally, the indigenes in Jos have been more accepting of Christians from the South as opposed to Muslims from the North. This has a lot to do with ethnic identity and subsequently with the burial practices of ethnic groups. Those groups that have come from the South tend to identify with their place of origin, where their families are from, where their ethnic group is originally from. They bury their dead in their ancestral homeland. The Muslims on the other hand who are predominately Hausa, they identify with the region in which they live, and they bury their dead where they die. In Jos the Hausa are Muslims and the Muslims are Hausa. Ethnicity and religion become one and the same to an extent. The Hausa therefore identify with Jos, viewing it is their home. With this perspective in mind, they have started challenging the indigenes for political power, whereas the Igbo and Yoruba are content letting others govern.
While economic and political tensions started to arise in the 1970s with the demise of the mining industry in Jos, the political contest was greatly exacerbated by developments in the mid-1980s. During this time the federal government divided Jos into two districts giving the Muslim Hausa a majority in the northern half of the city. The Hausa viewed this redistricting as a mandate to use the government for their own benefit, while the indigenes throughout Plateau state viewed it as a slight and injustice. Military rule prevented the indigenes from expressing their grievances. Over the course of the 1990s tension continued to build, especially with the Muslims increasingly monopolizing political power. Hateful speech emerged in the streets, and tensions reach a boiling point in Plateau state in 1994 with the first outbreak of violence occurring in the Jos area. The violence died down for several years, yet tensions continued to simmer.
Violence reemerged in 2001, but this time conflict was not confined simply to Jos. Rather, it spread engulfing Plateau state. This violence resulted in massive internal displacement.
How did this outbreak of violence affect you, and how did it affect JDPC’s programs and policies?
During this clash, I personally lost all my possessions when my house and car were torched. More importantly however, the 2001 conflict motivated me to take a proactive approach to end this mindless killing. In the aftermath, I helped to push JDPC to engage in conflict resolution and peacebuilding work, going outside the traditional developmental focus. We sought Catholic Relief Service’s support for these efforts, yet this conflict continued from 2001 to 2004. Attacks, bombings, and killings were met with reprisal counterattacks. In 2001 violence displaced the Yelwa community. By 2004 the Christian youth were mobilizing into militias perpetrating their own attacks. Militant youth on both sides killed hundreds, destroyed property, and caused massive displacement. With this escalation, the government finally took notice. President Obasanjo recognized the gravity of the situation and deployed the military. Military intervention helped to put the lid back on the violence, but it resolved little. Political jostling continued to exacerbate tensions, and in 2008 Jos witnessed renewed violence.
How have JDPC’s peacebuilding efforts evolved over the past decade?
Whereas conflict resolution was the goal after the violence in 2001, we quickly started to realize that conflict prevention and post-conflict reconciliation were more important and cost effective. In the wake of the 2004 violence, JDPC initiated the Conflict Resolution and Management Program, now known as the Peacebuilding Program. I contacted some of the leaders I knew in the Muslim community and we started a peace initiative that especially focused on the youth. We wanted to bring youth from the two sides together, to transform agents of destruction into agents of peace. Our aim is to work with the entire Plateau state. We started training peace councils consisting of 30 peace agents (ten men, ten women, and ten young adults) in each of Plateau’s local 17 governments. They in turn initiated peer programs to expand their ranks and influence. Some even started community workshops. Additionally, we initiated training programs for emergency response with various other organizations. We have been trying to create an environment wherein the response to conflict is coordinated across gender, across age, across religion. These efforts are only made viable by their interreligious focus.
What are some of the greatest challenges that you face in your work?
The scale of our programs is too limited to have a transformational impact, and our resources are limited as well. JDPC is committed to promoting peace and tolerance, but our efforts are still small in scale compared to the magnitude of the problem.
What lessons have you learned from your work at JDPC that you think would be useful for others working to build peace in Nigeria and elsewhere?
Many of the lessons I have learned deal directly with many of the other challenges we face at JDPC in trying to build peace. First, the government officials, the politicians in this country, they are not doing enough to promote peace. We spend so much on the military, on preparing for war, but rarely do we invest in peace. Unless the Nigerian government, and all governments for that matter, realize the necessity of investing in peace, conflicts will continue to ravage us all. If only we invested ten percent of our military spending in peace, then the world would be a different place. As long as our leaders continue to fail to commit time, energy, resources, and will power to a peaceful agenda, conflict will remain a constant. It is a sad state of affairs when the responsibility of ensuring peace is left to civil society. Civil society has to force governments to do their fair share of the work, but we also need government coordination.
Second, I often hear governments and international agencies complain about workshops, about investing in training for peacemakers. These governments and agencies have lost their way. They do not understand the transformation that these efforts have on society. They refuse to acknowledge that one of the biggest issues is one of scale. What is the ratio for investment in soldiers in comparison to peacebuilders? Why aren’t we teaching students tolerance? Why aren’t our universities graduating agents of peace?
Third, even some of our religious leaders are failing to preach peace and tolerance. Sure, many are preaching peace, but some pastors, priests, and imams would rather preach violence. We must open people’s minds to a broader world view, to the possibility of a better future, and right now we are refusing to do just that.