Two eminent Nigerians may be named as the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2012. The Nobel prize is awarded in six categories (Chemistry, Physics, Medicine, Literature, Economics and Peace) adjudged the world’s most prestigious award. The winner of the Peace prize category, which will be announced on Friday, October 12, at 11am Central European Time, is regarded as the most superior among the categories.
The Nobel Prize Award Committee has shortlisted Alhaji Mohammed Sa’ad Abubakar III, the Sultan of Sokoto and Most Reverend Dr. John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, as hot favourites to win this year’s prize, which will be delivered to the winners on December this year.
Very authoritative sources close to the close watchers of the Nobel prize awards over the years indicate the two Nigerians are among the five favourites out of the over 230 nominees of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Among the nominees are Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, former US president, Bill Clinton as the Tunisian president Moncef Mazourki, for his role in the Arab Spring protests which swept through the Middle East last year.
Nobel Prize pundits indicate that the two Nigerian leaders are the hot favourites for their unprecedented, creative and novel approach towards inter-religious dialogue and cooperation, as well as using religion to work for the peaceful cohabitation of Nigeria’s population of over 160 million fervently religious citizens, split amongst of almost equal Christians and Muslims. Apart from being Nigeria’s most powerful traditional ruler, Sa’ad Abubakar is also the head of the nation’s about 80 million Muslims as the life president of the National Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) and in that capacity, became the co-chairman of the National Inter-Religious Council (NIREC), set up as a voluntary body of 50 eminent religious leaders, made up of 25 members each from both religions. The other co-chairman is the elected president of the Christian Association of Nigerian (CAN).
Onaiyekan as the CAN president was, until two years ago, was the co-chairman with the Sultan at a time NIREC was adjudged the most active and most relevant. The widely acknowledged shared-belief of the two men that different faiths should not be allowed to constitute an obstacle to peace and development in Africa’s most populous country, as well as the Third World’s second largest democracy. Rather than emphasize the religious differences between Christians and Muslims, the two men sought to convert the diversity to strength.
The backgrounds of both men as well as their staunch patriotic fervour have been seen as the strongest factors in the chemistry that has existed between both men who opted to become apostles of peace in a country that was being torn apart by the antics of those who they saw as mischief makers, trying to manipulate political and ethnic crises to incendiary dimension, by dressing them in religious toga.
Archbishop John Onaiyekan comes from the Yoruba ethnic group in the South West and parts of the Middle Belt of the country, where interaction between people of the two religions had become a longstanding norm with many inter-marriages between the adherents of the two religions. In addition, the archbishop was brought up in the Northern part of the country where the Islamic faith predominates. Further, his appointment as the second leader of Catholics at the nation’s modern capital and a veritable religious and cultural melting pot, must have aided greatly in his appreciation of the great potential of marrying the gains of both religions. Moreover, Reverend Onaiyekan is said to be a faithful apostle of the late Pope John Paul II, who during the 27 years of his papacy, did more than any Christian prelate in history for the promotion of dialogue and entente amongst the world’s major orthodox religions.
Knowledgeable observers claim that even as the current head of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI is said not to be only half hearted about the continuation of the rapprochement initiatives of his predecessor with other religions – and had in fact touched raw nerves when he unwittingly declared in 2006, that Islam is a violent religion, a statement he later apologized for – the likes of Onaiyekan are said to have remained faithful to the script of the former pope, who is currently on his way to being made a saint by the Church. In the tradition of the last Pope, Onaiyekan reportedly sends goodwill messages to Nigeria’s Muslim faithful during their religious festivals every year and is said to have paid visits to their prayer places where he has often distributed gifts, during the Ramadan fasting periods, in accordance with Islamic zakat, or almsgiving, which is one of the five pillars of the Islamic faith.
On his part, Sultan Sa’ad Abubakar’s background as an inheritor of a legacy that has emphasized justice and cosmopolitan values including encouragement of women education, since the foundation of the Sokoto Caliphate more than two centuries ago, religious tolerance at the seat of the Caliphate has been taken as normal. It is on record that in the face of the different violent circumstances that had been blamed on Islamic extremism across parts of Northern Nigeria, there has never been an instance of such a disturbance in Sokoto and the surrounding kingdoms over where the Caliphate holds sway. Even as Nigeria is going through the scourge of terrorism being fomented to extremists who claim affinity to the Islamic faith – a trend that has been vigorously repudiated and condemned by the Sultan – the base of his powerful kingdom remains an oasis of calm and peace in the Northern part of Nigeria.
Added to that was his education and training as an army officer in the Nigerian Army where he rose to the rank of a general and held many command positions both as a field officer and a military diplomat. He had along the line attended several courses and undergone several trainings in leadership and governance, including the very prestigious Nigerian Institute of Strategic studies. Only a few Nigerians are imbued the level of intellectualism or have had the type of exposure of the man who was to become the 20th Sultan of Sokoto and the head of Nigerian Muslims.
Among having held many other strategic military positions which took him to all parts of the country – in fact, his first military deployment as an officer was to the university town of Nsukka, the base of Christianity and igbo scholarship – he was the commander of the extremely successful peace enforcement activities of the forces of the West African sub-region in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Thereafter, he served as the defence attaché to Nigeria’s mission to Pakistan and some other nations in the Middle East, where he had first hand understanding and knowledge of the dangers of fanning the embers of religious differences and jingoism. He had supervisory roles of affairs in Iran and Iraq and other parts of the volatile Middle East. When he got the opportunity, he vowed a commitment to use religious fervour not for division but national integration. In that resolve, he had John Onaiyekan as a very close and faith ally.
At NIREC, the two chairmen led the other 48 members to accept that all those things that politicians were feeding the world and the innocent citizens as religious crises were far from that. They spoke out at every opportunity, chiding extremist and bigots in both religious divides who were haranguing their unsuspecting followers into hating and fighting the adherents of the other religions. They mobilized political leaders including state governors and security agencies into reining the excesses of the preachers and other agents-provocateurs in both religions who were goading and inciting their follower into hatred,
They went further to dramatize this entente through direct participation of the activities of the other religions. In April 2010, the Sultan attended a national conference of the Christian Association of Nigeria, where he delivered the keynote, thus becoming the first Muslim of that height to participate in a wholly Christian event. A few weeks later, a top member of CAN went to Kaduna to deliver a paper at an event organised by the apex Muslim organisation.
The NIREC was to take their inter-religious dialogue to a higher level from where their activities would impact more practically on the lives of the ordinary Nigerian, irrespective of their faiths. Sultan Abubakar and Archbishop Onaiyekan took their activities to Washington, United States, in 2009, where they attended the World Malaria Day, under the auspices of the United Nations and the Washington-based CIFA -Center for Inter-Faith Action (for Global Poverty) and noticed how much Nigeria’s present and future was being threatened by the scourge of malaria and immediately decided to take actions. At a landmark speech which the Sultan delivered at the well-attended forum, he drew applause when he declared that, “On Sundays, mosquitoes attack Christians in the churches; on Fridays, they attack Muslims in their mosques.”
The deep commitments of the two leaders made a huge a impact on world leaders and when they, on return to Nigeria, decided to set up the Nigerian Inter-Faith Action Association (NIFAA) in association with CIFA, it was the enthusiastic federal government and the World Bank jumped onto the bandwagon to provide funding for this unprecedented initiative to combat malaria in Nigeria, without any discrimation as to the faith of the beneficiaries. Under the management of its Executive Secretary, Bishop Sunday Onuoha, NIFAA has been involved in grassroots efforts in the prevention and eradication of malaria and mosquitoes. Apart from such practical activities as distribution of mosquito nets, NIFAA has been involved in the training of the trainers of the anti-malaria fight.
The activities of NIFAA have been carried out effectively but quietly over these three years but they have no failed to attract the attention of world leaders. In February 2010, the former British prime minister, Tony Blair and former president Obasanjo visited NIFAA train-the-trainer session at Kuje, Abuja, where 200 Nigerians were trained to go to every nook and cranny of the country to train other Nigerians that would combat malaria nationwide. NIFAA has trained 1,500 religious leaders from both religious divides who have in turn trained 15,000 leaders nationwide.
This initiative is being seen all over the world as a rare and unprecedented imitative that uses the fervour and commitment which religion can produce in the fight of a common societal scourge, Those who see Sultan Abubakar III and Archbishop Onaiyekan are of the impression that if the two men win a joint prize, worldwide attention would be drawn to what they are doing and would most probably impact on other multi-religious societies in the world. Nothing can make for peace than the eradication of poverty and sickness through a joint actions of people that the population can trust and work with.
So, if Sultan Mohammed Sa’ad Abubakar III and Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan are named the winners of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2012, it would turn out to be a wise and timely decision. If not, the activity of the two eminent and committed apostles would still remain mostly Godly and unprecedented.