A Discussion with Talatu Aliyu of Interfaith Mediation Centre
Background: As part of the Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding Fellowship, Christopher O'Connor interviewed Talatu Aliyu, Communications and Monitoring and Evaluations Officer at the Interfaith Mediation Centre (IMC) in Kaduna, Nigeria. In this interview Aliyu discusses her work at IMC spearheading an overhaul of its monitoring and evaluation procedures, as well as the impact of the diverse peacebuilding programs led by IMC.
Interview Conducted on July 1, 2010
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Before discussing the Interfaith Mediation Centre’s current programs, could you tell me how, and why, you got involved with the organization?
Prior to coming to the IMC I worked for a women’s NGO that was involved with some of IMC’s work. IMC invited my organization to participate in their Budget Tracking Program, during which I gave a presentation. Imam Ashafa liked my presentation. My training group chose me as their secretary for the project. Consequently, I had frequent contact with IMC employees, and I began to learn a lot about the organization’s work.
Prior to this experience, I thought little about civic engagement in government affairs. By the end of the program I began to realize the importance of promoting government transparency and accountability. I realized that we Nigerians had the right to know what our government was doing. After this experience, I began volunteering at IMC, writing reports.
I was particularly drawn to IMC because of its faith-based orientation. I approached the center for full time employment, and eventually I applied for, and was offered, a job. I gradually worked my way up to the position of Communications Officer due to hard work and trainings I have attended, and more recently I was given the additional responsibilities of running Monitoring and Evaluation for the organization after I pioneered the overhaul of IMC’s assessment mechanisms.
While working as the Communications Officer I participated in several monitoring and evaluations courses that caught my interest. At the time IMC was monitoring and evaluating its programs, but I thought that these processes could be significantly improved and standardized. IMC allowed me to set up a pilot monitoring and evaluation program for a project of ours, the Community Score Card Project. My aim was not only to improve our programs, but also to demonstrate to our supporters that the IMC was more serious and more capable. IMC was very impressed with my pilot program, and they allowed me to restructure our monitoring and evaluation, giving me the title Monitoring and Evaluations Officer, in addition to Communications Officer. The United States Institute of Peace was instrumental in supporting these developments and now monitoring and evaluation is incorporated into all of our programs.
What would you identify as the primary conflict catalysts in Nigeria?
Economics, poverty, and politics are all driving conflict here. Instigators use religion to motivate people because Nigerians are highly religious. Religion is perhaps the strongest identity here. In the city of Jos ethnicity is truly at the root of conflict. There is a struggle between settlers and indigenes, but at the end of the day it takes on a religious coloration.
What is the IMC currently doing to promote peaceful coexistence in Nigeria? As the Monitoring and Evaluations Officer, how are you involved in this work?
My current responsibilities predominately revolve around our programs dealing with the current crisis in Jos. In the past IMC did a lot of work in Kaduna, but Jos is really the epicenter of violence right now. In northern Nigeria we have a religious crisis, but it is really rooted in politics. In Jos we are presently working to rehabilitate former combatants. I am still working to assess the overall impact of this program. We have already trained 120 former militia members, reforming them to be agents of peace, and from my own assessment we have had an 84% success rate.
We take combatants from both sides out of Jos to a camp and have them explain to each other what they dislike, and then we move on to focus on similarities, what binds us together. We try to correct the negative images through the use of religious texts. We aim to deprogram them from their tendency towards violence, to renounce violence. Remarkably, two youth militias have successfully reconciled due to our efforts.
In March 2010, for the first time ever, we also had access to the state government in Jos. We went to the government officials to introduce ourselves, and to explain that we were training religious leaders and youth from the area to promote peace.
Our work has focused on other issues as well. We have been very actively engaged in trauma work with women. Other programs have also worked to empower women in Kaduna and Plateau state. With financial support from Japan we bought community milling machines, used to extract oil from groundnuts, specifically for women in the area. These machines serve two functions. First, they provide economic opportunities for women. Second, they build bridges between the Christian and Muslim women who jointly operate them. In 2008 we started programs exclusively aimed at women. These programs have consisted of workshops aimed at promoting high level interfaith dialogue between Muslims and Christians in every state.
Why do you think IMC is successful in its peacebuilding work?
The faith-based perspective, especially the interfaith perspective, has been vital to our success. We are able to draw participants in by quoting Holy Scriptures from both the Bible and the Koran that support peace.
What challenges have you had to overcome in your work?
Sustainability is always a challenge. It is very difficult to secure long term funding. The government is slowly beginning to assist our programs, but at the same time we are also afraid of government politicization. We fear that if we operate too closely with the government, we will lose both our independence and neutrality. Unfortunately, the tensions on the ground are replicated in the political sphere. When one wants to win an election, he uses religion.
The politicians were impressed that IMC was able to change the militant youth, to assert that never again will we be used as a tool by politicians. The reformed youth have even started drafting action plans, and training programs for others. They have gone so far as to recommend new steps to promote peace. Again however, my fear is sustainability.
In my opinion it is much easier if funding for our programs originates outside of Nigeria. External funding allows us more independence to dictate our own operations. Funding from the Nigerian government often comes with more strings attached, because the government sometimes has its own motivations. Government funding comes with more direct interference, which we would prefer to avoid.
Another major issue is capacity. When I restructured IMC’s monitoring and evaluation practices, we had very limited institutional capacity. I was learning as I went along. I started enrolling in external training programs, which have provided me with a stronger understanding of what I need to be doing. At the same time, I still need more training. Additionally, I currently work alone, and I really need several other staff members to improve IMC’s capabilities. Despite these challenges, external donors have been happy with our improved reporting patterns.
Does IMC coordinate its work with other organizations?
We are the only interfaith mediation center working with all the relevant stakeholders. While we need the support of the religious leaders on both sides, most often our programs operate independently.
How do you get the radical youth to come to the table?
The IMC has an expansive social network, which includes contacts that cut across religion, gender, age, and ethnicity. We have our ears to the ground, and we are engaged with both religious and traditional leaders. When trying to get the radical youth to the table, we know who we should approach to apply the appropriate social pressure. We also have an Early Warning and Early Response mechanism that consists of a very diverse network.
It is not easy to get through to the youth. They have their own expectations, their own views. It is imperative that we physically remove them from the violent environment and bring them into a relaxed and peaceful environment for our training programs. Again, we use Scripture as a tool to get through to reach them. It takes a lot of time, effort, and empathy, but we have been able to gain their confidence. When trying to facilitate trust and tolerance, we realize that we need to move slowly. At the first stage of training we separate the youth by religion. For two days we merely operate on the intra-religious level. This way the participants are relaxed and they can express their views within their own communities. We try to deprogram them from this initial stage. They must understand themselves first. They must be relaxed before we merge the groups and try to get them to understand one another. Only then can they come to acknowledge that the conflict between the two sides is one of misconceptions, misunderstanding, and stereotypes. From here we can then move forward.
How do you engage spoilers who resist these efforts?
In Jos we tried to bring groups of religious leaders together to promote peace. We will have spoilers for a very long time to come, but we must be persistent and continually press forward. We engage those who are willing to listen and gradually wear down the opposition, but we cannot let spoilers slow us down. We move on with or without them. We have never had to ask spoilers to leave. Others within their groups apply pressure to control these spoilers.
As the Monitoring and Evaluations Specialist at IMC, how would you assess the size and scope of IMC’s efforts?
Let us take this youth militia training program as an example. Here, we worked with 120 youth trying to get them to renounce violence, to become agents of peace. As I said, we had an 84% success rate according to our monitoring and evaluation assessment.
Unfortunately, 120 youth is just a small portion of those engaged in violence. While we are proud of our successes, 120 is not broad enough, not deep enough in scope. We need to expand our programs, but there are several constraints. As one small organization we only have so much capacity. Funding is also always an issue. We need to significantly expand other program as well, but again, we have our limitations.
There is some resistance to what IMC does, but most have grown to accept us. We have shown people ways of working together to reach a common goal, a common vision. There is always room for expansion. Other organizations can do good work, but the orientation, the perspective at IMC is different. Christians and Muslims have a shared perspective at IMC. At IMC we understand the other side’s perspective, but people should talk based on their own beliefs. We cannot tell the other side what to think, but fortunately we have people from both faiths. The institutional mentality and perspective at IMC is unique. IMC is currently working to expand its capacity, but it will take time and money.
What lessons have you learned from your experiences at IMC that might prove useful for others engaged in peacebuilding issues in Nigeria?
Religious leaders have a role to play. They have the leverage to push for peaceful coexistence, and they are obligated to do this. Unfortunately, some leaders fail to live up to this expectation, and they do not use their influence for constructive engagement.
Additionally, the domestic media has a vital role to play. They are vital in disseminating information, and they need to be balanced in their reporting. The media sources often exaggerate the violence, and their reporting is not honest. Some media sources tend to take a pro-Christian stance, while others take a pro-Muslim stance. Lastly, it is imperative to engage the government. We are training Nigerians to demand good governance, to demand that politicians shun violence. Politics needs to be used for good.