ifa: You once mentioned that vicious cycles of violence in Nigeria have taken on a religious coloration. What do you observe in Nigeria?
Sister Agatha O. Chikelue: The ongoing violent extremism in Nigeria has become a matter of grave concern as it continues to claim lives of many innocent citizens. The government's response to the crises has not only been untimely but inadequate. Thus, people are losing trust and confidence in the government because of high levels of insecurity. Meanwhile, religion in Nigeria is currently in a delicate position due to its mobilization, manipulation and politicization which lead to a rise of fundamentalist groups. Unfortunately, these groups claim to act in the name of God which often serves as a leading cause for intolerance, sentiment of hatred, animosity, sectarian violence and the destabilization of the entire country. This is further exacerbated by the economic and social deprivation, lack of rule of law and other factors that increase the potential for conflict.
ifa: Your project work, the Peace Fellowship Program, brings together a diverse group of members of the civil society community and religious leaders. How do they move from dialogue to action through your project?
Chikelue: Prioritizing military intervention as the only means of curbing terrorism and insecurity will not achieve lasting peace in the country. Religious leaders are among the most influential and respected people in Nigeria. Therefore, we believe that empowering them and building their capacities will enable them to bridge community divides, promote religious freedom and build resilience against all forms of violence in their own community.
As an important aspect of this one-year program Fellows are asked to design, develop and implement a peace project of their choice in any part of their community. This exercise enables them to apply learnt skills to a particular conflict issue, situation or challenge. Through this process, Fellows have demonstrated how they can play an integral role in countering violent extremism, promoting peace and building community resilience by deploying the training in their local communities. Many of them have facilitated town hall peace meetings in warring communities and have educated other religious leaders with the skills acquired from the Fellowship Program. For that reason, our Program is not only about educating people on theories or just engaging them in dialogue, it also gives the participants the opportunity to put skills, experiences and lessons acquired during the Fellowship Program into concrete actions. Fellows have continued to work and expand their community peace project even after the Fellowship Program ended.
About Agatha O. Chikelue
Agatha O. Chikelue is a Nigerian Catholic Nun from the Congregation of the Daughters of Mary Mother of Mercy (DMMM). She is the Executive Director of COFP, active in several Religions for Peace activities particularly in Women of Faith Network functions and leads the Peace Fellowship Program.
The organisation Cardinal Onaiyekan Foundation for Peace (COFP) trains civil society actors in Nigeria in dialogue and conflict transformation skills - empowering them to counter violent extremism. It is funded by zivik.