After decades spent establishing a network of Muslim and Christian peacebuilders in Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, Gopar Tapkida says he is ready to leave his home country for the challenge of doing leadership and peace work in Zimbabwe, one of the poorest countries in Africa.
Tapkida, who earned a master’s in conflict transformation from Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in 2001, has seen Nigeria move from having virtually no leading citizens committed to peacebuilding to having a network of Muslim and Christian peace practitioners who monitor their neighborhoods and faith communities for signs of budding violence and who intervene to head it off.
Emergency responders nip budding violence
Called the Emergency Preparedness and Response Team (EPRT), the system is supported by 10 organizations, encompassing Muslims, Catholics, Evangelicals, women’s groups, the Red Cross, and others committed to promoting nonviolence and peacebuilding. The monitors, typically EPRT members, use text messages to confer with each other about possible threats and rumors of attacks.
Tapkida cited this example from 2009: Upon learning that Muslim youths were planning an attack on Christians (because the Muslims felt they needed to strike preemptively), a Muslim member contacted her EPRT Christian counterparts, who quickly surveyed their youth groups and found no movement towards a first attack. Reassured, the Muslim member of EPRT was able to calm the Muslim youths.
“Over the years there has been individual transformation and institutional transformation in Nigeria,” Tapkida said during a summer 2013 visit to EMU, where he hopes his middle daughter, Anni, will transfer in as an undergraduate in 2014-15. (Anni is now at two-year Hesston College in Kansas.) When he first began doing peace work in Nigeria, “it was a lonely position. I didn’t know how deep the ocean was, I didn’t even know how to swim.”
Gaining partners after swimming alone at first
Yet, despite the growing commitment of Nigeria’s mainstream religious leaders to peacebuilding, the violence has continued. Tapkida’s home city of Jos is situated in the middle of the country in a region where the largely Muslim population of the north (Muslims constitute 50 percent of Nigeria’s population) bumps against the south, largely inhabited by Christians (40 percent of the population).
As a result, Jos tends to be a flashpoint city. In November 2008, at least 200 people were killed during clashes between Muslims and Christians there, according to the BBC. Violence struck again in January 2010, when at least 149 people were killed during two days of violence between Muslims and Christians, followed by 120 more people killed the following March. At the end of 2010, the Boko Haram Islamist sect took credit for a Christmas Eve bomb attack near Jos that killed at least 80 people.
In May 2013, Nigeria’s government declared a state of emergency in the three northern states of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa and sent in troops to combat the Boko Haram Islamist militants. That fight continues to be waged.
Average Nigerian wants end to cycles of violence
Among average Nigerians, however, Tapkida sees a desire to distance themselves from the violence of Boko Haram, which seems to be a fringe effort to fuel cycles of bloodshed between Muslims and Christians that otherwise would be waning.
“Nigerians are beginning to recognize the way religious identity is used for political manipulation,” he said. Two Christian seminaries in Nigeria that rejected Tapkida’s first efforts to encourage peace initiatives are now among his greatest collaborators.
Amid the ashes of the worst violence of 2008 in Jos, when leaders of EPRT (both Muslims and Christians) brought anger, suspicion and grief to a conference table with Tapkida, they ended up sorrowfully agreeing that the only option was for all to work harder at peace.
To heighten awareness and to impart conflict-transformation skills, EPRT has started forming peace clubs in high schools, trying to reach Nigerians who are in the majority – the under 25-year-olds.
Returning to Harrisonburg to regenerate
Despite his successes, “you can get empty working in the field,” said Tapkida, a former evangelical pastor who has worked in various capacities for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Africa for more than 20 years.
“You need to gas up somewhere. Being in Harrisonburg is like being at a filling station. We feel like this is home.” The youngest of Tapkida’s three daughters, Melody, was born in Harrisonburg while he was enrolled in the graduate program at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding between 1999 and 2001. Tapkida said he extensively uses the teachings from his graduate studies, “contextualizing” them for Africans.
Tapkida – accompanied by Monica, Anni and Melody (their oldest daughter, Nen, was in Kenya doing university study) – came to Harrisonburg in July 2013 during a two-month period of respite before he transitions from his role as MCC regional peace advisor for West and Central Africa to jointly serving with his wife Monica, a former teacher, as MCC country representatives for Zimbabwe.
Tapkida sought the job change to give the West Africans he has mentored room to grow. He was also ready to accept a new challenge; he will be concurrently working on a doctorate in transformative leadership at Africa International University in Nairobi, Kenya.
Gaining the president’s ear in Chad
As part of his MCC responsibilities in West Africa, Tapkida traveled frequently to Chad during 2008-12. Chad is a landlocked country to the northeast of Nigeria, where in 2008 “Christians felt oppressed and weakened by the political leadership,” he said.
By Tapkida’s second year of work in Chad, “the interfaith vision” of Catholic, Evangelical and Muslim leaders in that country – leaders whom Tapkida had identified and introduced to conflict transformation principles and skills – had reached the president of Chad, Idriss Déby.
As a gesture of goodwill, this Muslim president donated two Jeeps to Christian groups and declared Nov. 30, 2011, to be an interfaith day of prayer. The following year, he appointed one Christian and one Muslim – both drawn from the group trained in conflict transformation – to be his advisors on religious matters.
Tapkida said there is a high demand for peace workers in Chad, which hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing wars in neighboring countries, plus internally displaced persons from conflicts with rebel groups.
“We need to train more trainers of trainers,” said Tapkida. But he feels confident that the peace devotees remaining in that region – such as Sani Suleiman, a Muslim mentored by Tapkida, who took classes at EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute in 2011 – will continue the work he is relinquishing in West Africa with his upcoming move to southern Africa.