A Discussion with Rev. Sister Agatha Chikelue
Background: Sister Agatha is intensively involved in the search for peace in Northern Nigeria and especially in building a movement of women of faith who will stand up against violence and truly work to build peace. This exchange with Katherine Marshall began in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on June 18, 2012, while they were participating in a conference on religion and children, and was continued by phone and email. Sister Agatha’s deep understanding of the sources of conflict in Nigeria highlights the important role that fear plays in keeping the fires of violence alive. In confronting the nefarious role of the Boko Haram terrorists, who are, she says, criminals, courage is needed. Women must take more central roles, reaching out across divided communities and demanding action for peace, and there are women leaders in all communities, who have credibility especially in interfaith dialogue. Focusing on youth and working through practical programs that allow people to know each other better are keys to success.
Interview Conducted on June 18, 2012
Where do you come from and how do you come to be working in Abuja?
I was born in the Eastern part of Nigeria, but have lived in the north for 15 years. I became a nun with the Daughters of Mary Mother of Mercy (we are also known as the Mercy Sisters) 16 years ago and was assigned to work with the administrative offices of the Archdiocese, which covers several northern Nigerian states. That led me to studies at the University of Abuja in public administration. I studied in a school of management for three years, and then followed the programs that led to a diploma, bachelor, and a master’s degree. I especially enjoyed international relations and diplomacy. Thus when I took on the job in the liaison Department of Abuja, that involved us in relationships with many bodies including government ministries, parliament and parastatals, I became increasingly involved in interfaith work. I have been doing this for five to six years.
In the last two years I started the women of faith network. The Abuja network is part of the global Religions for Peace network, and also part of the Nigerian network, though it has grown very much influenced by the violence and tensions in northern Nigeria.
How did the network start?
Through Religions for Peace, women and men from different countries came to Nigeria for a Conference, and I realized that we had nothing comparable to the kind of network and activities that they described in their countries. I had a special interest in working with women of faith, and Archbishop John Onaiyekan was very supportive. I found one church that was especially interested and I began to ask women leaders, Christian and Muslim, their views. I began to visit the Mosques and to invite Muslim and Christian women to meet.
How did you initiate these contacts?
It was not easy. What I was painfully aware of is that there was (and still is) serious hatred, and fear, on both sides. My Christian colleagues were afraid to enter a mosque, and Muslim women, when we suggested one day meeting in a church, were hesitant and also afraid. We have had to work hard to overcome that fear. Only when they saw a sister at the front were they willing to come together. We had to overcome the wall of hatred that had been built.
I heard you say in a meeting here in Dar es Saalam: “Our men have failed us. We can’t just keep on crying. We can’t keep on complaining. No, we have to get up and do something”. What led you to be so convinced that women could and must do something about violence in Nigeria?
We have faced a time of great fear and anger and there were bombings and killings, especially in Jos and the Jos region and also, other parts of the north. It was a tribal war, but it took on religious aspects and it threatened to escalate and to get worse. Young people without jobs, all men, were the troublemakers. But they all had families and mothers. So it made sense to look to the women as peacemakers. Above all and in most cases, women are the custodians of peace by their very nature.
What motivates the violence?
There are fanatics in all religions so it is not necessary to look too far in any situation for people who are willing to make trouble. Also, there are tribal sentiments, poverty, corruption, and mis-use of politics; all these are factors that contribute to violence in Nigeria. There are victims in every community whenever there is violence, Muslims and Christians alike. What has happened is the buildup of fear, suspicion, lack of trust, bad government, corruption, and that is what we had to overcome by working together. This is why women are especially motivated and well equipped to reach out to other communities.
It was Christian and Muslim youths who were the most actively involved in the violence and other dangerous activities. Hence, the youths are a very important section in our peace building programs.
How do you see Boko Haram, a force that seems sometimes to be a mystery as to its objectives and motives?
Boko Haram are misguided fanatics. Islam is truly a religion of peace and they do not represent that religion. They also lack any well defined objectives and motives. They tell us that Islamizing the whole Country is their agenda, but before you know what is happening they say another thing. I think they are very confused and don’t really know what they want. However, Boko Haram are a tiny sect that gives Islam a bad name by their claims that they are Muslim. Many Muslim leaders in Nigeria have denounced and condemned their activities by saying “we do not know them,” “Good and true Muslims dose not kill innocent people,” and “Islam means Peace.” From all the indications we have, we have come to realize that the Boko Haram are not fighting to improve the lot of the poor in Nigeria. If that were the case, they would not have been killing poor innocent masses the way they are doing today. This is why I strongly believe that we cannot allow this Boko Haram to dictate the way we relate to each other.
Boko Haram as a group was founded by a radical scholar, Imam Muhamed Nura Khalid, who was killed. When he was alive, the group was not very harmful, far less than it is today. But after he died the character changed. Today Boko Haram are criminals who terrorize the life of every Nigerian citizen. Religion is not their motivation either; rather, they hide under the guise of religion to carry out their deadly activities. They have political motives and are seeking to destabilize the country. They have their sponsors both within and outside the country.
Violence begets violence, and fighting fire with fire leads to more conflagration. There is no place in the world where violence has ever brought peace. This is why we have taken the part of peace and at the same time, speak out forcefully that there must be no more terrorism.
What is your approach to interfaith work? Who are the leaders?
There are some groups that are now showing some interest in interfaith in Nigeria, including in the north where it is most difficult. The Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja, Most Rev. Dr. John Onaiyekan, has always been there, supporting us. He has always been a strong leader in interfaith and has a special sensitivity in reaching out to Muslim leaders. His successor at the Interfaith Council, Pastor Orisajefor Ayo has a rather different approach. He believes that it is important to confront what is happening but sometimes that can generate even more anger. The Sultan of Sokoto has been very supportive in interfaith peace initiatives in Nigeria as well.
What do you see as the impact of the work of Imam Assafa and Pastor Wuye? Is their work contributing visibly to peace?
What they do is important and good. But they are not considered and respected as religious leaders. That is where the Archbishop and the Sultan have had a special role. And interestingly those senior leaders have a better appreciation of why women are so important and the capacity to reach out to them.
Few women hold formal leadership roles in both Christianity and Islam, in northern Nigeria. How do you find women religious leaders for the network?
To be a leader in dialogue is a different thing from being a formal leader of a religious community. That is why we go for women who are interested in peace building. Also, women have an advantage in dialogue because they can listen and hear what the others are saying. And they are very determined to see peace. Enough is enough.
What we do is to go to the grassroots communities through their leaders, mostly women but also men. There are many women who have accepted leadership roles in all religious communities, Christians and Muslims. What we need to do is to find people who are interested in peace building and we start from there.
Money is always an issue. We have worked with almost no resources. But if we are not able to find resources then nothing really can happen.
We have built personal friendships and partnerships within the Network. The co-chairs trust and believe in each other. My Co-Chair is Hajya Maryam Dada Ibrahim. She is a very hardworking woman who is willing to go to any length for the sake of peace in Nigeria. These are the kinds of people we are looking for.
What resources do women bring? How would you describe them as peacemakers?
Our women often bring in monetary and manpower resources. For example, long before any external aid arrives in many crises situations, women in the areas of conflict are the ones on the ground working to meet human needs and rebuilding peaceful societies. The experience of these religious women on the front lines of violent conflict provides valuable tools and lesson for all women and men working to promote peace. So, women’s resource lies in the wealth of their experiences and efforts for peace. Therefore, for conflict transformation efforts to be successful, it must take into account women’s perspectives, experiences and unique contributions.
Do you think things are getting better?
Yes, I do. It is what I see and also what I feel. We have people, young people especially, approaching us looking for projects and urging us to speak out. Additionally, immediately after our peacebuilding seminar in February this year, the leadership of Christian and Muslim youths approached us and asked for our assistance in setting up a similar inter faith youth network, which by the grace of God, we have done. Other government agencies and organizations keep on encouraging us never to give up since we are like their last hope for achieving peace in Nigeria.
What kinds of activities do you do?
We organize common projects that respond to what people say they need. A large tree planting program is the best example, and it brings together many youth from different communities, Muslims and Christians.
We are also convinced that peace must start in the family so that is where we work, to bring better dialogue between wife and husband and parents and children. We have interfaith meetings and dialogue for peace often.
What kinds of activities can you imagine that would make the most difference?
1. Building the capacity of Christian and Muslim men, women and youth as agents of peace, security and development through trainings and workshops.
2. Organizing a skill acquisition empowerment program where Christian and Muslim women and youth will learn skills that will enable them generate income and create job for themselves and others.
3. Establishment of interfaith/intercultural peace clubs/networks in schools and in local communities.
4. Holding regular interfaith seminars in parishes and mosques.
5. Production of posters and hand bills on interfaith action for peace.
You wear two hats, working for the Archdiocese of Abuja and with Archbishop John Oneiyekan, and with Religions for Peace, and the women of faith network. How did you balance the two?
For me, the two jobs look alike. They do not oppose each other rather, and in fact they are very similar. In the Archdiocese of Abuja, my work or office serves as a bridge between the Church and the civil society, including governments and religious organizations. Meanwhile the women of faith network enables me to collaborate with different faith groups for peace and development. My work in Archdiocese of Abuja cannot succeed or achieve its goal in a chaotic environment or atmosphere, especially when religions are used as tool for violence. This is the reason why the two hats that I am wearing now is not only important but match each other; and I wish more people would wear these caps with me!
Can you say a little more about the work of the Mercy Sisters in northern Nigeria? How did you come to be a religious?
The Congregation of the Daughters of Mary Mother of Mercy DMMM is an indigenous but international institute of female religious. It is an institute of pontifical right spread almost in all the Continents of the world, Africa, America, Europe, etc., with over 1,500 sisters. It was founded in 1961 by Bishop Anthony G. Nwedo CSSp of the Blessed Memory in Umuahia Abia State Nigeria.
We came to the northern Nigeria in the late 1970s. Our work in the northern Nigeria includes: care of the poor and needy in homes and orphanages, teaching in schools for all-round excellent development of young boys and girls at all levels, and providing health care service in hospitals, clinics, medical centers, as well as other missions. We also engage actively in the pastoral work of the Church by teaching catechism and preparing people for the sacraments, counseling and directing Church groups, individuals, families, youths, and Church organizations that are in need of spiritual or physical growth. Finally, we carry out social service apostolate to the less-privileged by taking active part in programs that aim at alleviating the sufferings of the poor, improving their lives and promoting their full human dignity.
I came to be a religious because it is my vocation. But I hadn’t the courage to answer this call at the beginning because I was not really interested then in becoming a religious. I am the first daughter and second child in a family of six. Suitors were coming looking for marriage even when I was under age (14 years), but my parents refused. Then one day, when I was about to graduate from secondary school, I came across a very pretty Sister. I kept on admiring this beautiful Sister who looked like an angel until she vanished from my sight. I got home that day and told myself that if such a pretty person can leave everything just to serve God by becoming a Sister, then nothing should stop me, who is not half as pretty as this Sister, from becoming a religious. That was the beginning of my journey as a religious.
My objective in life is to impart what I can to people and the community positively, by putting similes on the faces of the poor and needy. In summary, since I embraced religious life, I discovered that I did not made a mistake in my choice, rather, God has been using me for special missions beyond my imagination. To Him be the glory.