Recently at the annual LEADERSHIP Conference and Awards ceremony, the Sultan of Sokoto, His Eminence Alhaji Muhammad Sa’ad Abubakar, reiterated the crucial role traditional and religious leaders play in peacebuiding.
The Sultan, who has been in the forefront of mobilising grassroots support for peace efforts, called for greater recognition of traditional and religious institutions as agents of stability.
“Therefore, fusing traditional and religious institutions’ mechanisms of promoting peace and conflict resolution into Nigeria’s peace and security architecture could have positive implications for surmounting some of the challenges to national security in Nigeria,” he said.
Indeed, religion and tradition are powerful constituents of cultural norms and values. The former addresses the most profound existential issues of human life such as freedom and inevitability, fear and faith, security and insecurity, right and wrong, and sacred, while the latter encodes the organised way of life of a people. Both are deeply implicated in individual and social conceptions of peace, because they have developed laws and ideas that have provided civilisation with cultural commitments to critical peace-related values, including empathy, an openness to and even love for strangers, the suppression of unbridled ego and acquisitiveness, human rights, unilateral gestures of forgiveness and humility, interpersonal repentance and the acceptance of responsibility for past errors as a means of reconciliation, and the drive for social justice.
Thus, based on a common commitment to shared values and their own moral authority, religious leaders and traditional rulers can serve as the conscience of the nation, working together to uplift and build consensus around those shared values. Custodians of faith and culture can therefore bring social, moral and spiritual resources to the peacebuilding process.
This position was emphasised at a 2016 “Summit of Religious Leaders for Peace in the Middle East” organised by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), in Alicante, Spain. The summit resolved that: “Religious leaders, as part of civil society, and with great influence in their communities, have a very important role to play in peacebuilding and in stability through the promotion of peaceful coexistence and reconciliation among communities. They also have prominent role to play in facing extremism and preaching tolerance.”
Part 2 of the Policy Framework and National Action Plan for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism, developed by the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA), also acknowledged the role played by religious and traditional institution. “In order to prevent and counter violent extremism, faith-based organisations and leaders have a critical role to play. Through engagement, dialogue, rehabilitation and counseling, religious leaders can bring about change in behavior of violent extremists.
Through their platforms, religious leaders can help vulnerable persons in finding balance and staying away from violent extremism,” the document states.
The document also specifically encouraged state and local governments to develop and implement their own action plans at grassroots level and ensure the “involvement of traditional leaders, Imams and Pastors”.
Since the National Security Adviser Babagana Monguno assumed his role in 2015, ONSA has been actively involved in strengthening the capacity of traditional rulers and religious leaders in order for them to play their part on issues pertaining to national security. The office has been supporting inter-, intra-faith and community-based dialogues to strengthen tolerance and resolve religious and communal conflicts. The office has also been partnering with religious and community leaders to develop and disseminate counter-narratives, as well as design guidance materials for preventing violent extremism.
At a meeting with traditional rulers and governors from the North West in Kaduna last February, Monguno, once again, emphasised the importance of traditional and religious institutions to national security. “I call for the support of traditional and religious leaders in the areas of community engagement and citizens’ feedback and appreciate their peace-building efforts,” the NSA said.
Clearly, religious and cultural beliefs offer crucial intangible components of peacebuilding and religious and traditional leaders perform a certain number of social functions in the society that can be all the more important to national security. Their voices and actions can also be a powerful force for countering the narratives of violent extremists and other threats to national security. The cases of the Catholic Diocese of Yola, which built a mosque for Muslim Internally Displace Persons (IDPs) and 83-year-old Abdullahi Abubakar, a Muslim cleric who saved the lives of Christians fleeing violence in Barkin Ladi Local Government of Plateau State are important examples of the impact of the involvement of these leaders in the overall peacebuilding process.
Since the importance of the role of traditional and religious leaders in national security is undeniable, how then do we scale up their involvement and active participation? They may not have constitutionally spelt-out responsibility other than advice-giving role, but many national policy documents and programmes, such as the National Security Strategy, National Counter-Terrorism Strategy (NACTEST), the Policy Framework and National Action Plan for Prevention and Countering Violent Extremism and the National Cybersecurity Policy and Strategy (all developed and being implemented by ONSA), clearly define the roles and responsibilities of religious and traditional institutions.
What needs to be done is for state actors in national security, especially in states and local governments, to ensure that traditional and religious institutions are constantly involved in grassroots peace efforts.
– Familokun teaches at the Federal Polytechnic, Nasarawa