Since 1901, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has been awarding the Nobel Prize to deserving citizens and institutions of the world in different categories which include Medicine, Physics, Economics and Literature. However, the Nobel Peace Prize, adjudged as the most prestigious of the Nobel Prize categories has been described as the “world’s most prestigious prize”, and is, according to the Nobel Committee, awarded to whichever individual or organization that shall have in the recent preceding years “…done the most or best work for holding and promoting of peace and fraternity between nations…” People like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Frederick de Klerk as well as President Ellen Sirleaf of Liberia have been Africans who have received this world’s most prestigious award.
The Nobel Prize was instituted by Alfred Bernhard Nobel, a Swedish chemical engineer, who invented the dynamite for peaceful and industrial uses, but which use was thwarted for military and unintended use, thus bringing about a lot of sorrow to the human kind. The selection of awardees and the institution of the prize are being executed in accordance with the prescription of Nobel’s will by a committee of five very secretive members, selected by the Norwegian parliament. The award is made to people or bodies selected by this committee from nominations made by qualified individuals and bodies from all over the world, submitted in February of every year. The formal announcement of the winner of the award is done on October 12, while the prize is administered on December 10, every year. Professor Wole Soyinka, who won the prize for Literature is the only Nigerian to have benefitted in any category of the prize.
However, this year, when the announcement is made next Friday, the prize might come to Nigeria. Two eminent Nigerians are among the over 200 nominations for this year’s award and they are being speculated to have become shortlisted among the first four favorites for the 2012 Nobel Prize for Peace. They are Archbishop John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, the Catholic archbishop of Abuja and Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III, the 20th Sultan of Sokoto and the president general of National Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs – and by that token, the head of Nigeria’s 80 million Muslims. Onaiyekan is also the current president of African Council of Religious Leaders. The two Nigerian religious leaders are being tipped to win a joint prize this year, just as Nelson Mandela and Frederick de Klerk had earlier won.
These eminent Nigerians have been nominated in recognition of their paramount and unprecedented roles in their efforts and work for religious harmony and understanding amongst the adherents of Nigeria’s two major religions: Christianity and Islam. As leaders of the two religious communities, these two leaders have jointly and individually preached and spoken out against the futility of succumbing to the antics and machinations of the mischievous members of the society who have been seeking self-serving interests while adorning them in incendiary religious garbs. These efforts they have pursued, almost with their lives, in order to curtail and eliminate conflicts and battles that have been and are still been prosecuted under the banner of the different religions.
Mohammed Sa’ad Abubakar III mounted the throne of his ancestors almost six years ago at the death, through air-crash, of the 19th Sultan and immediately plunged into the task of battling religious bigotry and other dangerous tendencies that were rearing their ugly heads and threatening to destroy the harmony that had existed among the different groups of Nigerian people. He was psychologically prepared and professionally disposed to wage the battle which confronted him immediately he got into power, having been a general in the Army, having functioned as a commander in different war theatres, especially in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where ECOWAS under the leadership of Nigerian Armed Forces brought sanity and peace to the troubled states of Liberia and Sierra Leone. He also functioned as a diplomat as Nigeria’s defence attaché to Middle East nations and worked closely and, therefore, had a first hand experience of the events both in Iran and Iraq, especially the havoc that religious bigotry and jingoism are capable of causing.
He was reputed to have often told other officers that whatever it took, Nigerians must ensure that they do not allow the type of incurable havoc which religious crises and incitement are capable of causing. He had always believed that on account of the emotive properties of religious beliefs, it was important to ensure that the prevention and avoidance of crises that could arise therefrom had to be tackled from its deep roots and at all cost. He has remained true to that commitment.
Six years ago, fate thrust on the shoulders of the cosmopolitan general the responsibility of being at the head of the Muslims in the country, and therefore got the direct responsibility of furthering the deep intellectual legacies of his forebears through the legacies of Sheikh Othman dan Fodio who founded the Sokoto Caliphate in 1804 and became the first sultan of the Caliphate that spread the purest form of Islamic practice and scholarship to an empire that stretched across Nigeria, Niger, Chad and the present Cameroun.
By the virtue of his position as the NSCIA president, he automatically became the co-chairman of National Inter Religious Council (NIREC) with the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the umbrella association of the over 80 million Christians in Nigeria. The CAN president at the time and until two years ago was Archbishop John Onaiyekan, with whom Sultan Abubakar was co-nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. The chemistry between the two leaders was magical and instant mainly through the coincidence of their shared values and belief that what was dubbed as religious crises had nothing religious about them, but rather a wicked manipulation of the people’s innocent differences and sentiments for other dubious intentions.
The Catholic Archbishop with whom the Sultan co-chaired NIREC was no less enthusiastic in directing his flock through a path of harmony and understanding of the religious viewpoints of the adherents of the other religions. As it was, Onaiyekan was a keen adherent to the precepts of the late Pope John Paul II, who extended olive branches to the practitioners of the other major world religions. The Pope visited mosques, synagogues and other prayer places of other religious, met with and discussed with their leaders, thus underscoring that all humans are God’s creation and that if He created the human being in His image and likeliness, it would be foolish of humans to allow man-made views and ways separate them. What the Pope did elsewhere in the world, Archbishop Onaiyekan with many other Nigerian Catholic bishops replicated in Nigeria, with olive branches always extended to the Muslim faithful. It also helped that a Nigerian, Francis Cardinal Arinze, who was the Pope’s pointsman in the execution of the entente with the other religions in Rome, looked in from time to time in Nigeria to encourage and second the efforts of the likes of Onaiyekan.
Such early efforts by Onaiyekan in the pursuit of inter-religious dialogue include the organization of a lecture given by Cardinal Arinze on the reasons why Christians and Muslims should have no reasons to fight. The happy and mammoth occasion was chaired by Hon Justice Muhammed Uwais, a Muslim and former chief justice of Nigeria, who told how much Nigerian Muslims were praying for a Nigerian to succeed the then pope in Rome. Needless to say that at every Muslim festival, Onaiyekan sent goodwill messages to the Muslim faithful in addition to visting their mosques and giving alms and donations to the needy in accordance to the finest Christian and Islamic traditions. In recognition of these positive traits he was guest to many inter-religious forums all over the world, including the one in Tehran where he delivered a paper on the world’s two greatest women – May(mother of Jesus Christ) and Fatima (the daughter of Holy Prophet Mohammed).
Sultan’s efforts in this direction have been no less significant. Three years ago, at the peak of the Jos crises that was bringing untold challenges to religious amity in Nigeria, Sultan Abubakar III went to every length with Onaiyekan and other 48 members of NIREC to impress on the leaders of both religious divides on the need to scale down the religious jingoism which was exacerbating the crises. He encouraged and urged Muslim state governors to rein in the extremist imams within their areas of authority who were dishing out inciting messages that also denigrated other religions. He was largely successful because a strict monitoring regime was instituted across the North both by the governors and religious leaders and bodies.
At the same time and in order to dramatize the need for adherents of both religions to work together, the CAN under Onaiyekan organized a national seminar at which the Sultan delivered a keynote address, marking the first time a Muslim of that stature would attend and officiate at a fully Christian function. His paper went a long way to clear the mists of understanding which had existed in the understanding of the belief systems and practices of the adherents of both religions, and many Christians heaved a great sigh of relief on hearing the head of Muslims give accurate perspectives on issues that had been largely misunderstood.
A few weeks later, Muslims organized a similar forum in Kaduna where a top clergyman of a major Christian denomination delivered a paper on how Nigerian Christians view Muslims. The efforts of the NIREC under both men became so phenomenal that suddenly, the hostile and artificial walls which were being erected between the two religions started to crack and collapse.
Two years ago, CAN elected another president, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor and because his views of religious relationships with Muslims had a different trajectory with Onaiyekan’s attitude and beliefs, many believe that efforts initially at religious harmony suffered a jolt, if not a reverse. It was difficult to blame Oritsefafor as his coming coincided with the incidence of the Boko Haram which seemed to have thrown a lot of spanners into the works of religious harmony. So, even though the two leaders are still very committed to the promotion of the ideals of NIREC, the fact that their chemistry is said not to be as that with the previous CAN president, these efforts are still ongoing, even if less enthusiastically. For instance, the Sultan has continued working with the youths, some clergy people and groups of the two religions and their constant consultations with both leaders are likely to get back the previous momentum back on track.
Even if he is longer the CAN leader, Onaiyekan who superintends over the influential Catholic faithful, with his colleagues in the orthodox and bigger Pentecostal denominations have continued to work closely with the Sultan and Muslims for better religious understanding. Perhaps the greatest fillip to these efforts was the appointment of Most. Reverend Dr. Matthew Hassan Kukah, a very intelligent, very influential and focused missionary as the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, the very seat of the Caliphate. In the interpretation of informed quarters, the enthronement of Kukah, a man seen by many as an African papabile (a likely future pope), underscores the Vatican’s nod for the efforts of Catholic leaders with the Sultan whom the Church sees and considers a close ally. During Kukah’s ordination, Catholic bishops who trooped to Sokoto were warmly welcomed and hosted by the Sultan. Meanwhile, Onaiyekan, strategically stationed at Abuja has Kukah as a partner and ally in the inter-religious dialogue.
It is hard to deny that the incidence of the Boko Haram scourge has considerably slowed down the momentum towards the religious understanding which Abubakar, Onaiyekan and NIREC have worked so hard to enthrone, particularly because many Christians have found it difficult to accept that the Boko Haram is not a Muslim tool against Christians. And even when it is becoming evident that the sect operates under every rule that runs against the Islamic teachings and as more Muslims have become its victims, such beliefs have become difficult to erase. It is also true that not many people are privy to the almost superhuman efforts which the Sultan has put in the resolution of the Boko Haram scourge, but suffice it to say that if he had not mobilized such efforts, the situation would have been much worse.
However, with the nomination of both men for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, a new searchlight would be shone on their activities for the benefit of their country and the world. If they are announced this Friday as the winners of the award, it will be a great impetus for them and their work; the attention of all people of goodwill in the world would be focused on Nigeria and its problems the more. But if the prize eludes them, the nomination would still reamin a great and fitting recognition and tributes to the efforts of these apostles of peace, for all times.
And because both are deeply religious men, they know and accept that the ultimate prize would be the crown of glory which the Almighty confers on those who have run the race and fought the good fight for God and humanity.