A Discussion with Maryam Othman and Aisha Akanbi of the Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations in Nigeria

With: Aisha Akanbi

July 1, 2010

Background: As part of the Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding Fellowship, Christopher O'Connor interviewed Maryam Idris Othman, national president of the Federation of Muslim Women’s Associations in Nigeria (FOMWAN), and Aisha Akanbi, good governance officer with the organization. FOMWAN, as it name suggests, is an umbrella association for Muslim NGOs focused on improving the welfare of women and children in Nigeria. Its three core emphases are education, health, and the propagation of Islam. Since women are often the greatest victims of conflict in Nigeria, FOMWAN is also engaged in peacebuilding work. Maryam Idris Othman and Aisha Akanbi are both especially concerned with the role that the government can play in building peace, since peace is vital to the well-being of all women throughout Nigeria.

In your own words, could you tell me what the Federation of Muslim Women’s Association in Nigeria is, and what it is that FOMWAN does?

Othman: The Federation of Muslim Women’s Association in Nigeria, more commonly referred to as FOMWAN, is an umbrella association for organizations focused on promoting the welfare of Muslim women and children throughout Nigeria, primarily through the provision of health and education services. More recently we have initiated peacebuilding and good governance programs as well. We are now entering our twenty-fifth year of existence, and proudly, we are very active in 34 states where we operate schools, adult education programs, four hospitals, skills centers, pharmacies, and small businesses. Each state has an executive council to oversee operations. At the national office in Abuja we advise and assist in coordinating these state programs. The national headquarters coordinates multistate initiatives, but state offices manage programs when they are limited to one state. In these situations donors work directly with the state executive councils.

Much of our funding comes from international donors. [The U.S. Agency for International Development] in particular is assisting several programs. They are helping with our scholarship program and HIV/AIDS program. Meanwhile, [the U.K. Department for International Development] and UNICEF have been key players in our polio eradication efforts. We are also partnering with UNIFEM to promote civic education, and on other issues, such as good governance, we have been working with National Democratic Institute and Pact. Most of our funds go directly to programming costs, as our staff at FOMWAN is mostly volunteer, with only a few fully paid personnel.

Before we delve into FOMWAN’s involvement in peacebuilding efforts in Nigeria, could you tell me why you were drawn to FOMWAN?

Othman: After my studies at university, I started working full time, while also trying to raise a family. This combination was very stressful, and I wanted to spend more time with my family, but I still wanted to do something for my community, something that I found rewarding. FOMWAN has given me the opportunity to work to help my community, especially those who often have the greatest unmet needs, women and children. I also find the religious element very rewarding.

Could you go into more detail about what FOMWAN is doing to help resolve religious tensions and correct its adverse effects in Nigeria?

Othman: At FOMWAN we are increasingly concerned with peacebuilding efforts because violence in Nigeria primarily affects women and children, our focus populations. Some of our states' offices are currently engaged in interreligious cooperation with Christian organizations. The focus of cooperation is generally women and children’s health, but we have also recently started to engage in dialogue forums that emphasize peace and tolerance.

Our Jos office in Plateau state is perhaps the most fully engaged in peacebuilding efforts. We are about to participate in an interfaith body to address the issue of violent conflict in Jos. They are actively seeking increased engagement from ministers in the region, and all relevant stakeholders. Similar initiatives have occurred in Kaduna in the past, but currently Jos is the epicenter of violence in the region.

On the national level we have been gathering women from different backgrounds to voice their concerns.

Akanbi: After the last Jos crisis we went to advocate at the National Assembly to demand action.

Othman: Yes, after the violent conflicts in Plateau state this past year we met with the speaker of the National Assembly and the head of the Senate to present a letter articulating our views on the situation in Jos. In this letter we raised two important concerns. First, we demanded action to prevent the proliferation of small arms. Second, we requested assistance to prevent the suffering of women and children.

What would you identify as the primary conflict catalysts in the northern half of Nigeria?

Othman: The conflict that we are experiencing in Nigeria is not religious. Most of the conflict is political, economic, and ethnic. In Jos for example, the conflict can be characterized as ethnic competition over economics. There is a struggle going on between the indigenes and the settlers rooted in a lack of equal opportunities. But the conflict often is expressed through religion.

Akanbi: Because there is no justice, people continue to instigate violence. Sometimes these instigators are politicians who manipulate the marginalized youth. Unfortunately in Nigeria, and especially in Jos, there are a lot of unemployed youth with limited options. They are there for the highest bidders. When we engaged the youth in Kaduna after some of the crises earlier this decade, we realized the youth were happy just to have someone who would listen to them. We offered them opportunities to improve their lives, to improve their futures. Some of these same youth went on to complete polytechnic degrees with our assistance. Economic opportunities, economic activity would reduce idle hands. These youth need to be empowered, schooled, and rehabilitated. If we can do this, we can create peace.

You mention that conflict in Nigeria is in part driven by politics. What is FOMWAN doing to address this source of conflict?

Akanbi: In addition to health, education, and dialogue, FOMWAN is committed to improving the welfare of women and children by improving Nigeria’s government. We are committed to electoral reform and good governance. Over the years, especially since 2003, we have supported efforts to sensitize the masses, to reach out to women and youth, often through local religious leaders, to get people to vote their conscience, to vote on issues above everything else. Additionally, we have advocated nonviolence. In the run-up to next years election we are preparing to do more grassroots work to mobilize and educate people about voting, while advocating nonviolent elections. We are calling people to register and to vote on issues. We are also advocating increased female participation in government. Our goal is for 35 percent of the government to be female. Currently it is under 10 percent.

What impact would more women in government have on Nigeria?

Akanbi: If we were successful in increasing female participation in government we would have improved governance and development. The government would be more gender-sensitive. Democracy would be strengthened. We as women, we would be partners in progress. I also envision that greater participation of women would lead to a significant reduction in violence.

What challenges do you confront when trying to build a more peaceful Nigeria?

Othman: In trying to foster an environment of tolerance and cooperation in Nigeria we face a few challenges. Some of these challenges are presented by the government and others by the people. Immediately after any crisis in Nigeria the government always sets up a commission, but these commissions never accomplish anything. The government is all words and no action. Nobody is ever held to account, and because of this government failure, perpetrators know that they can get away with their acts of violence. There is no accountability, and the government is doing nothing to curtail the proliferation of arms. Consequently, a few people will continue to monopolize on the situation through the use of violence. There are also broader challenges with accountability.

Akanbi: Looking at the issues of accountability and corruption, at FOMWAN we already have a zero tolerance program for corruption.

Othman: Unfortunately some of our politicians are less comfortable with zero tolerance approaches to corruption. Worse yet, while they use religion to their benefit, many ignore religion the rest of the time, when it is provides no tangible payoff. Some Muslim politicians do not come to mosque until after the sermon. Consequently, even when Muslim imams preach about fighting corruption and promoting accountability and transparency, the politicians are not present. The failure of politicians to attend the full religious service creates a lot of misinformation about religious interpretations. Christian politicians are more likely to attend their respective services in full. In general, many of our politicians do not really adhere to religion. When politicians campaign they will say that they are protecting the interests of Islam, or of the north, but this is not their real interest. There religious claims are merely political ploys. It is just a political shield. Unfortunately they successfully use this shield to manipulate the uneducated youth, mobilizing them to defend their religion. Most will not fund FOMWAN. We are partnering with the Muslim League for Accountability to curb corruption because of politicians’ lack of respect for religion and accountability.

Othman: In the wider community there is also a trust issue. After a crisis here, there is suspicion making it very difficult to promote dialogue and cooperation. After the recent incidents in Jos, however, we are seeing a people tired of violence, a people willing to come together to dialogue to get passed this suspicion.

Akanbi: With our preventive measures, we always try to collaborate with other partners, to bring Christians on board, but as Maryam said, it is often difficult to get beyond deep seated suspicions. We are starting to plan youth outreach programs that ideally will be interfaith efforts to address this lack of trust.

Does FOMWAN try to coordinate its work with other organizations, Muslim, Christian, secular, or otherwise to achieve its goals?

Othman: In addition to working with members in our own association, we work with other women’s NGOS, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Social Development, and with Christian women’s organizations, especially those linked to the Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church of West Africa. Coordination focuses on improving development and health programs.

Akanbi: One project I am working on in the run up to the election is the Community Life Project “Promoting Popular Participation and Citizens’ Action in Electoral Transparency and Democratic Governance in Nigeria” in partnership with Justice, Development, and Peace/Caritas throughout the country. I am hoping that this election will help raise the profile of FOMWAN. It will offer greater chances for increased coordination, outreach, and collaboration with other organizations from across the spectrum. We are already starting to work with the Nigerian Bar Association. Overall we are hoping for an improved election. It is absolutely vital that the country succeeds in instituting the new system for a swift count. The new chairman of the Independent Electoral Commission is widely viewed as a responsible head, raising our hopes higher. More bodies will also be monitoring the election this time. Anticorruption bodies are getting more active.

What lessons have you learned through your peacebuilding work at FOMWAN that might be useful for other organizations trying to build peace in Nigeria, or in other areas affected by violent conflict?

Othman: The unity that is within FOMWAN is vital to its efficiency. We find unity in diversity with membership from throughout the country. Each state has its own problems, but there are similarities in these problems, and as such, we can learn from each other. Solutions in one state can often provide guidance for solutions in another state. We need to accept our differences and embrace them for the good of the country. God knows these differences exist, and yet he put us all here together.

Akanbi: I only wish that the rest of the country could be more like FOMWAN. Through advocacy and conviction we will conquer the stumbling blocks standing in our way. We also find strength in our Islamic tenets.

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