As the NIREC returns…

March 11th, 2018

For the past six years, the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC) – the voluntary platform of the leaders of Nigeria’s two key religious bodies – Christians and Muslims – established in 1999, has been in the doldrums, if not comatose. Since its foundation, NIREC had provided a platform and avenue through which Christian and Muslim leaders had led their flock along the path of peace and amity through interfaith dialogue and tolerance, wrought through meaningful efforts to narrow the differences between the adherents of the two faiths, through the constructive appeal to the several strong factors that bind Nigerian people of different creeds and tongues together in a web of common humanity. Activities of interests and benefits to the adherents of both religions, which is to say, to the ordinary Nigerians, had also been embarked upon by NIREC as a way to eschew suspicion and eliminate conflict areas that had tended to erect oft-artificial walls between Nigerians of the two religions.
NIREC is a 50-man body of prominent religious leaders, with an equal membership of 25 each from each of the faiths. To underscore the equality in the stake of the two faiths, the body is co-chaired by the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and the president of the Nigeria Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs (NSCIA). The impact of the good works of the Council was quickly felt, primarily because, as has become the case in Nigeria and other Third World nations, the duplicity of politicians has removed the trust and confidence of the citizens from politicians and relocated it with religious leaders. It was, therefore, not a huge surprise that the roaring flames of violent religious and ethnic conflicts which had been lit and stoked by politicians from both sides of the religious divide, were systematically doused and largely put out through the efforts of these trusted and focussed religious leaders, under the aegis of NIREC.
NIREC members did not just sit and talk over the heads of their followers but had acted in manners that brought their preachments for dialogue down to the church pews and mats in the mosques. That was the period when the Sultan of Sokoto, as the leader of Muslims, attended and delivered a keynote address at a CAN national convention at Abuja, thus making history as the Muslim leader to embark on such and assignment at an important Christian function. Soon after, a Christian leader, Bishop Idowu Fearon of the Anglican Communion, would reciprocate by officiating at a function of the Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI) – a Muslim equivalent of CAN in Kaduna where he delivered a keynote paper on Christian-Islamic dialogue. Other practical and symbolic gestures by leaders of both religions were embarked up in the furtherance of those noble objectives. That was the era when the Christian leaders of the orthodox denominations visited mosques and encouraged their followers to exchange gifts and visits with their Muslim neighbours during Christian and Muslim festivals.
By and large, these activities and engagements being promoted by NIREC had helped to lower tension nationwide, especially where socio-economic conflicts had been dressed in religious garbs by mischievous elements who, by so doing had sought to gain advantages which only could only be honed through the emotive atmospheres which only religious sentiments could engender. By and large, however, those walls of misunderstanding started to collapse as Nigerians, irrespective of tongue and creed, were made to start emphasizing on how religions could unite rather than divide them.
The apogee of the gains from those activities of NIREC was attained at the period when the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, the Most Reverend Dr John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan was the CAN president, and was ipso facto, the NIREC co-chairman with Alhaji Sa’ad Abubakar III, the 20th Sultan of Sokoto and the presided of both JNI and SCIA. The personal disposition, large-heartedness and leadership qualities of both men fomented a chemistry which did not only impact on NIREC and its activities but also spread out to touch on the other crucial areas of peace and stability of the country.
The impact of the leadership qualities and patriotism of Onaiyekan and Sultan Abubakar were not only made manifest in the way the two men used their elevated position to work for the distressed poor of Nigeria, through the instrumentality of an NGO they founded to fight against the spread of mosquito and malaria down to the remotes crannies of the country, using Christian and Muslim clerics as the foot-soldiers of the fight, it is needless to recall that the ground-breaking work of both religious leaders gained the attention of the United Nations and the World, to the extent that they were co-nominated for the Nobel Prize for Peace for 2012.
NIREC and inter-faith dialogue and entente was well on its way until, the CAN election in which Onaiyekan was removed as Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, a Pentecostal, was elected as the new CAN president.
The CAN leadership under Oritsejafor was perceived as very combative and too confrontational to the Muslim membership of INEC. It didn’t seem as if the CAN under him agreed with the need for closing of ranks between members of different faiths. Suddenly, suspicion which had all been eliminated reared its ugly head again between the two faiths and even within CAN itself. Not only did a huge crisis of confidence overwhelm the NIREC, it also hit CAN, such that the Catholic Church which is the pioneer Christian bloc, which alongside some other orthodox Protestant members had formed CAN in 1976, withdrew itself from the membership of CAN.
And as should be expected, NIREC suffered a huge jolt, and in the face of huge loss of confidence in the roles and leadership of Oritsejafor, and as the receding impression that the Christians and Muslims were at war, returned very powerfully.
With the withdrawal of Catholics and the loss of interest of some other orthodox Christian denominations in the Oritsejafor leadership of CAN, and with his alleged complicity with the government of the day, coupled with the complete disinterest of the Muslim arm of the Council, NIREC went into an expected eclipse.
To the glory of God, the election by CAN of its current president, Dr Supo Ayokunle, the president of the Nigerian Baptist Convention was like the injection of a new life into the ‘body of Christ’. He has proved to be a leader of CAN in the hue of Cardinal Onaiyekan and the other cool-headed CAN leaders before them. That was how and why he was able to negotiate with the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria for the return of the Catholics to the CAN fold.
That done just last month, the stage was set for the effective return of NIREC, which reconvenes this March under the co-chairmanship of Ayokunle and Sultan Abubakar III. There is no doubt that both leaders will build the type of understanding that had existed between the Sultan and Cardinal Onaiyekan, to the extent that they became Siamese twins in their aspirations and partnership for peace, harmony and interfaith understanding.
With the return of NIREC with its quarterly meeting this month, it is hoped that it will consolidate on the gains to create a Nigeria of the dream of us all.

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