The insults against Christianity and against Islam that the two teenage boys aimed at each other were an instantaneous call to arms.
Other teens stripped branches from trees to use as weapons as they hurried toward the verbal skirmish going down on the outskirts of Mangu Halle, Nigeria.
Eight boys from Christian families gathered around one of the teens, and five from Muslim families joined the other. Each group was ready to fight for the honour of Jesus or Muhammad.
Before the first blow could fall, Nasiru Musa stepped between the boys, who like him were freshmen at Mangu Halle Government Secondary School. Musa, a leader in the school’s MCC-supported peace club, recounted the incident that happened last year.
“Please and please,” Musa recalls saying to both ringleaders. “Stop this thing you are doing.”
In this region of Nigeria, where even a skirmish between schoolmates could ignite simmering tensions, Musa’s decision to intervene had the potential not only to stop the impending fight but also to help prevent violence from spreading to Christians and Muslims in the community.
Incendiary violence was common in Plateau State, where Mangu Halle is located, from 2001 to 2011 when Muslims and Christians clashed over issues of political and economic control. This animosity often degenerated into violence that periodically spiked into days of death and destruction.
In this tinderbox, just one spark — a rumour that a Christian had been killed or a Muslim had been robbed — could set off waves of violence as people of different religions took revenge on each other, says Boniface Anthony. He is a peacebuilder with MCC partner Justice Development and Peace Caritas (JDPC) Commission in Jos, Plateau State’s largest city.
“Something would begin on this side of the city, and before you can say ‘Jack Robinson,’ the other side is already in smoke,” remembers Anthony.
Widespread violence has subsided the past seven years, Anthony says, but the risk of it is still there. So is the mentality that “you can only achieve things using force” — a message many Nigerians have internalized by living through 30 years of periodic military rule since Britain withdrew in 1960, says Matthew Tangbuin, a Nigerian and the MCC representative for Nigeria.
Nigerians have learned not to show weakness, Tangbuin says. “So you have to always take revenge when you are hit. Only the weak apologize. The strong have it all.”
To encourage peace, MCC supports the work of JDPC’s Emergency Preparedness and Response Team (EPRT), which Anthony has led since 2005. The 240 members of this network of trained, volunteer peacemakers not only are alert for conflicts that could lead to violence, they also have the mediation and negotiation skills to intervene.
So, for instance, when a tea seller in the Muslim community of Jos North stabbed another Muslim man during a dispute, EPRT member Musbahu Usman immediately saw the potential for violence to spread.
Friends and family of the man who was stabbed would want revenge, and the tea seller’s friends and family would rally to protect him. Even though both men are Muslim, a rumour could spread that a Christian was involved, sparking retaliation by the neighbouring Christian community.
Usman, who heard the shouts from less than a block away, ran to the scene of the stabbing, where he met two community youth leaders, young men in their 30s and 40s, who have the power to amass a group of fighters or to tell them to stand down when a conflict arises.
The youth leaders, who respect EPRT, followed Usman’s advice to protect the tea seller until Usman could get a trusted police officer to respond and to calm those who would want to take revenge.
Usman alerted the neighbouring Christian youth leaders that no Christians were involved, and he contacted other Jos North EPRT members to make sure everyone understood what had happened.
Around the clock, EPRT’s messages through a closed Facebook group or through WhatsApp give network members the information they need to intervene for peace, help each other or dispel rumours in their own communities.
EPRT staff continually monitor messages, phone calls or texts from network and community members about potentially violent conflicts, or even threats of terror by groups such as Boko Haram.
Then EPRT members use the information to act for peace in their own communities.
When the man who was stabbed died, Usman and the youth leaders shared the news with his family. The youth leaders promised to help ensure a peaceful funeral, and the family agreed not to take revenge as long as the tea seller was in police custody.
“We were just praying to God,” says Mai Kudi Usaini, one of the youth leaders. “We are travelling with God. He’s the one who helped us to calm down, and we didn’t have any uprising.”
As EPRT members gain increasing acceptance in their communities, they are looking for more ways to spread the message of peace.
So far, with funding from MCC, they have started peace clubs at 51 schools, including the one that Musa attends. Teachers are trained and supervised by EPRT leaders and introduced to peace club curriculum created through an MCC-supported program in Zambia.
Students begin by learning the basics — conflict is normal, but the violence they’ve grown up with is not — and progress to ways to resolve and prevent violence.
In 2017, EPRT began a program to teach adults the skills students learn in peace clubs.
Students already are quite effective teachers for adults, says Dalyop Mafeng Andrew, an EPRT member. “By the time these peace clubs begin to imbibe the virtues of tolerance, they will take this message home.”
At Mangu Halle and other schools, students told story after story of how they use their conflict resolution skills with their brothers and sisters, their friends, teachers and parents.
Some have chosen to hold their tongues instead of talking back, causing parents to ask why their behaviour has changed. Others have confronted their parents when they are unkind to them or to other adults.
Students also are learning practical ways to encourage tolerance among Christians and Muslims.
Through peace club teaching, Musa knew when he came upon his schoolmates fighting that he needed to control his own temper and to separate the boys from the group so he could address them privately.
“I will hit you,” one boy threatened when Musa first intervened. “You are a Muslim. Get away from this place.”
The other boy scolded Musa for not joining his side.
“They are abusing Muslims in front of you, and you don’t take any action?”
Undeterred, Musa begged them both to step aside and listen to what he had to say. Eventually the boys begrudgingly obliged.
He appealed to the boys from both faiths to acknowledge that all people are created by God and urged them to remember that both religions call their followers to turn the other cheek when someone hits them, rather than strike back.
“Please, stop this thing you are doing.”
The boys shook hands, and the fight never took place.
Read a post from the MCC Washington Office about the conflict in Nigeria and what it will take to work towards peace.