A Discussion with Imam Abdulkareem Shefiu Majemu, executive director of the Strength in Diversity Development Centre
May 6, 2018
Background: Imam Shefiu is actively involved in several of the most critical issues facing Nigeria, including efforts to resolve the bitter farmer-herder conflicts that are convulsing the Middle Belt, the reintegration of former Boko Haram fighters and reconciliation with victims, and efforts to engage religious actors in national anti-corruption efforts. Katherine Marshall discussed his work and background during a meeting of the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers in Sweden in May, 2018. He described how he came to be involved in conflict resolution work in his home community and how that led him to be engaged in several national and international efforts. His first direct engagement in interfaith conflict resolution came while he was working in the chaplaincy office of the Nigeria Prison Service. A visit to the United States as part of the International Visitors’ Program was a major turning point, inspiring him to start the interfaith NGO, Strength in Diversity, and later to work with the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers on addressing violent extremism through reconciliation and rehabilitation programs.
I am a sufi, part of the Qadiriyya order. I have long been active in peacebuilding, promoting peace of the mind, both inner and outer peace. That is my focus. I am using my Sufi knowledge and training to bring inner peace, and I use my peace work and experience in interfaith dialogue and peacebuilding to bring outer peace.
How did you come to be involved in peacebuilding in Nigeria? How did you get started?
I am a young peace worker in Nigeria. I started in 1999, when there was a tribal clash in my home community, Ajegunle, which is a densely populated community in Lagos State. I was born and brought up in that community which has virtually all the tribes and communities of Nigeria present, all in one place. At that particular day there was a clash between the Hausa community and the Ijos, a Niger Delta people. This was very serious and I actually was the one that mediated that conflict because of my involvement and relationship with the various the tribes in that community.
What peace work are you most involved with now?
I am working with other interfaith groups on the issue of violence that is most serious now in Nigeria, the farmer-herder clashes in the Middle Belt. I have been instrumental in bringing some of the religious leaders together with officials and others in the search for solutions.
How did you become involved in your role as peacemaker in the beginning?
It was an unconscious attempt by me, on my part, to meet all the various leaders of the different tribes in the community. I had relationships with them we had met and I made friends with them. I had dined with them and we had done various things to support the community. So I had a relationship with them. When the clash happened in 1999, I reached out to them and organized a round table, and I gave them the mandate that this must stop.
Were you an imam at that time?
No, I was working then for the Nigeria Prison Service, as a civil servant, in the chaplaincy, as a civil servant. I was also a PR assistant. It was out of this that I had shown a lot of interest in peacebuilding and conflict resolution and in interreligious dialogue. So that was how I came to be involved in the dispute.
After the events in New York of the Trade Center bombings and the aftermath effects in local communities, I started the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow effort. I organized a conference in Lagos. Through this conference I collaborated with the Interfaith Mediation Centre in Kaduna and the U.S. Consulate in Lagos. So we had the political officer to the Consul General in attendance. It was after this two day capacity building conference for Muslim youth in Lagos State that the Consulate invited me and we had a discussion and we started working together.
What led you to take on a full time role as a peacemaker?
At the age of 29 years I became an imam and I resigned from the government work so that I could devote myself fully to the missionary work.
I was then nominated to attend the International Visitor Leadership Program of the U.S. State Department on Religious Freedom and Interfaith dialogue. I visited Washington DC for three weeks in September to October 2010.
Those three weeks brought a paradigm shift in my life. It was really really interesting seeing the American community amidst different religious communities living together as one and working together to promote cohesion and stability and to build infrastructure to help the government. I felt that these ideals should be brought back home to my community.
So when I came home, I started the Strength in Diversity Development Center. The main sense of this was to strengthen our differences, our diversity, to promote national cohesion and national development in Nigeria.
What was your vision at the time for Strength and Diversity?
My initial vision was to have an organization that would replicate what I had seen in the United States, both at a local and a national level, working with both national and local faiths. So we started this organization and started working together with some other interfaith groups, mobilizing and bringing them together to work on peacebuilding and interfaith dialogue. And we have done pretty well, especially in the areas of promoting democracy and good governance. We have engaged religious leaders together to promote transparency, accountability, and other things that are part of good governance.
We have brought them together through the Islamic Platform Society of Nigeria, which is my original organization. I started it. It is to bring enlightened Muslim communities together to work on sustainable development, and to promote religious literacy and understanding. Strength in Diversity was a product of the Islamic Platform Society of Nigeria, in collaboration with some Christian fellows and friends. I have my partner Evangelist Doris Yaro Phillips, who is a Christian, from Maiduguri in the Northeast. She is the founder of a church and has made a huge investment in addressing the problems caused by Boko Haram during the insurgency in the Northeast.
So we work on peacebuilding, interfaith dialogue, conflict transformation, and empowerment in Nigeria with Strength in Diversity leading the pack and playing a pivotal role in promoting religious literacy and understanding and good governance and democracy and interfaith dialogue.
How did you become involved in broader issues for Nigeria as a nation and in the Boko Haram insurgency?
In 2015, we developed a concept and we started to address the Boko Haram story with the Network and to collaborate with Finn Church Aid to understand the challenges better.
How did you come in contact with the Network [for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers]?
I got in touch with them through the Lutheran Church. I met Douglas Leonard at a religion and mediation course at the Chateau de Boissey in Switzerland, where I made a presentation about countering violent extremism and PVE [preventing violent extremism]; he was the one who recommended me to the Network and we started a relationship from there.
What was the focus of your collaboration with the Network?
We carried out a study of over 100 Boko Haram returnees.
That was the study that you presented at the Berkley Center in October 2016 (https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/events/uncovering-the-root-causes-for-radicalization)
There were 50 returnees in Yola in Adamawa State and 50 in Maiduguri in Borno State. We did this with the support of the Civilian Joint Trans Task Force on the ground to get us there and to give us the vital information about where we could find these returnees. So we went to Malkohi Internally Displaced Persons Camp in Yola and the National Youth Service Corps camp in Maiduguri. We interviewed them about their motivations, their agitations, initiations into Boko Haram, and their reasons for joining Boko Haram, and the funding system. We got pretty good information and the report was collated by Finn Church Aid and the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers and the results were released and disseminated at the 2016 U.N. meeting and also the World Bank meeting in Washington, D.C.
From there the report gave us the push and the urge to come up with a concept of rehabilitation, reconciliation, and reintegration of violent extremist offenders of Boko Haram and the victims of insurgency. So we designed a five year action plan for this and a budget to actually clean up Nigeria from violent extremism and to prevent, avoid recidivism and having them go back into Boko Haram. And most especially the rehabilitation was to do this by deradicalizing and deprogramming them.
This was done through counter narratives and religious teachings and traditional teachings to reform them and to de-escalate negative narratives about religion and especially Islam that were promoting and encouraging violent extremism.
The effort was also to help bring about reconciliation between victims who were internally displaced and offenders and those who have grudges and grievances against Boko Haram members. One of the things that the studies showed was that some, indeed most of the communities are not willing to accept the former militants back. We thought that one of the efforts we should make was to come up with a strategy to encourage some kind of approach to reconcile them with the communities.
The third effort was centered on reintegration which is very key. Part of the reasons for joining Boko Haram were economic ones. We felt that the reintegration must be an empowerment program that includes capacity building and vocational training, by putting the returnees in jobs. This will help them a lot.
We have put forward various proposals on all three of these topics
What other programs are you working on?
We also work on elections. In 2011 and 2015, we mobilized about 10,000 observers to observe the elections and send us reports through social media about any problems they saw. We formed a situation room that we call the Interfaith on Peaceful Elections.
Are all the observers religious leaders or adherents?
No, they are just Nigerian citizens. We did not put it as a religious effort, but it involves religious outreach. It was really tremendous.
We are hoping to do the same for the elections that are coming next year. We call it Interfaith on the 2019 elections.
We are also working on hate speech and incitement to discrimination that can lead to atrocity crimes. Most times in Nigerian elections, politicians leverage on the political, tribal, and religious divides to promote their selfish interests. These are some one of the factors that contribute to insurgency that leads into violent extremism and violent conflict in Nigeria. We felt that religious leaders should take a front row in trying to mobilize religious leaders and let them understand the negative effects and the dangers in allowing politicians or promoting them in presenting their interests along tribal and religious lines. We are very keen on that.
We are also working on capacity building in inter and intrafaith forums, allowing religious leaders to search for common ground
We are promoting SDG programs so that most of these policies will be accepted by the people.
Can you elaborate on what you are doing on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are obviously a huge challenge? How far have you succeeded in making them meaningful to people?
We are working on health. For instance, take the national policy on reproductive health which was culled from the UN document and the World Health Organization Commission. Most of the local communities rejected this policy on religious grounds. One of the efforts of The National Urban Rural Health Initiative in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Health was to search for support from the religious leaders to help promote these policies We had several conferences and workshops whereby some of these policy documents were reviewed in line with religious tenets, both Christian and Muslim. This was in Kano, and it was a country focused project. There were Christian and Muslim versions. It began in 2015 and the last forum was in 2017.
We also work on the Child Rights Act which was domesticated, going through the religious leaders and hearing their voices to promote these vital policies. We look at various issues around child rights like gender equality, the issue of allowing the child to hawk in the streets, and the potential child abuse around the almajiri system and all the issues around it.
Did you talk about child marriage?
Yes, we also talked about early child marriage and we gave a lot of clear religious ethics on this.
We are now leveraging this work and bringing it into the public forum for discussion and looking at the Declaration on the Rights of the Child to see how we can leverage that further and come up with more action.
This is all done by Strength in Diversity. Can you say something about the organization?
It is the interfaith organization that I founded as an interreligious and intercultural organization. We are an NGO, registered with the Corporate Affair offices, the CSE, which is the government arm that deals with businesses and NGOs. We have ten staff and six are in the regional officers. We are now recruiting state coordinators that are working with us. So we are expanding as the responsibilities come.
How did you get involved in the interfaith effort to address corruption?
Nigeria is the world’s third most corrupt country and so it is an important area to be involved in, with interfaith leaders. We are working with the MacArthur Foundation, which, after much discussion, has come to agree that a national action plan cannot be written without religious leaders. We are also working with the United States Department of State. We have developed the Interfaith Charter on Anti-corruption, and invited religious leaders to come up with ideas, through the Interfaith Anti-Corruption Network of Nigeria.
The real potential is for religious leaders to be involved as community mobilizers. In the past, some leaders actually used their positions to promote corruption, especially around elections. Working with an NGO, BudgIT, and an interfaith group, we are tracking progress and building capacity to this end. Our focus is on working with religious leaders. We aim to help them to understand the implications of corruption: it is killing people and the economy. People see bribing as forced, so the briber is not guilty. Thus, we need to work with the police and develop feedback mechanisms. We have a website: Report Yourself, and work with social media. We also try to mobilize the energies of youth.
Can you say more about your own path now?
Apart from the programs I run, I am a Ph.D. student at the Lagos State University. I started with Babcock University but changed back to Lagos State University, in mass communication. I am in my first year. I think my thesis will be finished by 2019 or 2020. I am working on public perception of media reports, reportage, on violent extremism in Nigeria: the case of the Boko Haram insurgency.
Can you say a bit more about your path and how you have come to the work you do now?
I grew up in Ajegunle. I was born and brought up there. My parents lived there. My father is no more so my mother is now in my village in Lagos. So I am a resident of Lagos State, from Epe Local Government area. I did my Arabic school in Kwara state and I married from Kano State. So I am very close to the North all the time.
What brought your parents to Lagos?
My parents were originally from the North. They were part of the migration. My father used to be a religious scholar, a spiritual person, so he migrated from the North down to the South, to Lagos State for long years.
How did you do your schooling?
I did my Arabic schooling in both the nomadic system and then I went to the Arabic school in Ajegunle, the Darul Falah Arabic Institute in Lagos. Also, I did my diploma in Arabic and Islamic studies and legal studies at the Zhulikha Abiola College of Arabic and Islamic Studies, in Ogun State, Abeokuta, an affiliate of the Usman Dan Fodio University in Sokoto, Nigeria. From there I got admission to the Lagos State University to study public relations and advertising. I did my masters in communications studies and am now doing writing my PhD in mass communications.
When did you first visit the northern states of Nigeria?
I was 28 years old when I visited the North for the first time. Since then I have been going there many times. My two wives are from the North.
To be an imam in Lagos now, what did you need to do?
It depends on the community. There are two types of imam. There is the community led imam, an imam of a community, and then there is the society led imam, leading a particular NGO. I became a community imam in 2013 in the Magodo Muslim community in Lagos State.
How would you describe yourself in the Islamic spectrum?
I am a sufi, part of the Qadiriyya order. I have been so active in this area and also promoting peace of the mind, inner and outer peace. That is my focus. I am using my Sufi knowledge and training to bring inner peace, and I use my peace work and experience in interfaith dialogue and peacebuilding to bring outer peace.
How did you come to work for the Nigerian Prison Service?
When I had completed my secondary education, I got admission to the college to read Arabic and Islamic Studies, and that was when I was enlisted into the Nigerian Prison Service as a chaplaincy officer. It was an opportunity, introduced to me by some of the officers of the Service, to train some of the Muslim inmates and educating them more as part of the mandate of the Prison Service. So I was working with the prisoners. There were the awaiting prisoners (who are waiting for trials), the convicted, and the condemned. The condemned are not allowed to come out. The idea was to give them some training and spiritual support.
It did not take much, just a year, until I was transferred to the state headquarters of the Nigerian Prison Service, in Ikoyi, Lagos and I worked in the office of the Controller for Prisons, for about seven years. I was doing my studies at the same time, but I also had a job. Then I resigned to become an imam.
Do you still work with the Interfaith Mediation Centre?
That was my second organization, after the Islamic Platform. After a conference that I attended in 1999, I began working with them. I was the zonal coordinator for the Southwest and to this time we are still working together.