NIREC, a voluntary association made up of fifty members divided equally between the two major religions, was set up in September 1999 to provide religious leaders and traditional rulers with a variable forum to promote greater interaction and understanding among the leadership and their followers as well as lay foundations for sustainable peace and religious harmony in Nigeria.
But with the apparent politicisation of the Oritsejafor CAN (even according to some Christian groups), confidence in the NIREC, of which CAN is a 50% shareholder, appears to wane. It is perhaps in the light of this development (though denied by the conveners) that mainly Northern religious leaders this Thursday in Abuja convened a one-day Mini Interfaith Conference co-chaired by His Eminence the Sultan of Sokoto Muhammadu Sa’ad Abubakar and His Eminence John Cardinal Onaiyekan (who, for the avoidance of doubt, comes from Kabba, Kogi State and had been a past CAN President). The theme of the Conference was “The Imperative of Interfaith Understanding and Cooperation for Responsible Politics.”
Reading between the lines of the Sultan’s opening remarks leaves NIREC not so well-dressed: “Cardinal Onaiyekan and I have realised that the religious problems across the country are mostly from the North, hence this meeting. We have met three times before today’s meeting and next year we are planning to hold an international conference where everyone including politicians will be invited. This meeting will not undermine the NIREC initiative…”, adding that the meeting is not unconnected to the 2007 memo written to the Pope by 185 Muslim leaders worldwide on how Islam and Christianity can relate better through mutual respect and understanding.
In his own remarks, the Cardinal had said: “We are meeting due to the international conference that is slated for next year. That is in view of the next  election and for greater understanding between us…The reality on ground is that we have plurality of religion in Nigeria, whether one says they are two or three. Even we have in the two or three diversities. This diversity can become problems if we allow it to get out of hand or allow those having a different agenda to exploit the situation. These diversities can also be seen as great assets. Our common grounds are the truths that we believe, the values that we share and the common challenges and problems that face all of us…”
The Conference was attended by about 100 personalities evenly shared (a la NIREC) between the two religions comprising cross sections of Christian and Muslim scholars, preachers, academicians, intellectuals, politicians and human rights and civil society activists. Two eminent Northern academicians – Emeritus Professor Adamu Baikie, who perhaps needs no additional qualification, and Professor Muhammad Tabiu of Bayero University, Kano’s Faculty of Law – were invited to speak on the Conference’s theme.
Professor Baikie said, interalia, that “To discuss the concept of interfaith, we must first of all understand what it is to be human. Too often we discuss faith outside of our humanity and the contemporary challenges to that humanity. We forget that we cannot be religious without first of all being human. I believe it is not a neo-Darwinian idea to assume that humanity existed before religion, and indeed, religion, for lack of a better term, was part of the instruments utilized by human beings to have access to or relate with a higher being.” Baikie added that “…To be human means to be religious and to be religious means to be human. In other words, you cannot be religious without first of all being human. It is part of humanness to be religious…”
In his own contribution, Professor Tabiu asked “In the face of the insecurity, and social and political crises that Nigeria faces, what is the responsibility of Muslim and Christian leaders? By leaders I mean leaders in the wider sense – religious leaders primarily, but also political leaders, government leaders, traditional leaders, community leaders, civil society leaders, all such leaders, the common denominator being their belief in religion and its essential relevance to their life…”
Venturing an answer, the legal luminary opined that “Christian and Muslim leaders have a duty, guided by the values of religion, to give effective leadership in resolving the crises that our nation faces, and to do so by joining together in unity and cooperation…Muslim and Christian leaders have a duty to join hands and work in cooperation…a condition for effectively leading Nigeria out of its current predicaments does call for joining of hands between Muslim and Christian leaders, because Muslim leaders can’t do it alone, just as Christian leaders can’t do it alone. Christian and Muslim joint leadership and action to rescue Nigeria from its current predicaments…”
At the end of the rich but short meeting, participants agreed to resolve that Muslims and Christians, leaders and the led, and scholars and disciples, should fear God and be faithful to the teachings of their religions in all aspects of life; and that Muslim and Christian scholars and leaders should be seen to be committed sincerely, faithfully, purposefully, proactively and practically to dialogue as an effective instrument of fostering peaceful coexistence and resolving conflict.
Participants further agreed that Nigerians must desist from generalised ascription of individuals’ criminal acts to their professed religions or ethnicity instead of treating them as criminals that they are; and that Nigerians must recognise the fact that a multi-religious country such as Nigeria can only have peace and achieve meaningful development if citizens cultivate and sustain attitudes and practices that show tolerance and respect for one another; and that all Nigerians be determined to recover the authentic religions of Islam and Christianity from those who pervert them in the pursuit of their criminal acts.
The participants further resolved that both religionists should be obligated to jointly fight corruption in the country as it has reduced Nigerians into a people without hope and future; that Christians and Muslims must denounce and jointly fight against any manipulation of religion as an instrument of achieving political power rather than enhancement of faith and humanitarianism; and that the media must desist from sensational publications that can further divide both religionists as a people as the consequence of such divisive publications spares nobody.
Participants also called on security agents to be professional in their private and public conducts and to be seen to be above sentiments and bias; that based on the dictum of charity begins at home leaders must be committed to instilling the values and precepts of tolerance, mutual respect, and understanding in the younger ones at home and in the neighbourhoods.
Finally it was resolved that both Christian and Muslim leaders should join hands in engendering good governance and instituting responsible leadership that is imbued with accountability, transparency, probity and integrity in the country regardless of religion or ethnicity; and that all should work assiduously towards introducing and developing multicultural education at the primary and secondary level in order to foster mutual understanding, positive perception of one another and harmonious relationship amongst the younger ones in schools.
But it was not resolved that NIREC’s 50-50 is much the poorer for this.