Read the Winning Entry from our Essay Competition

Foundation Update

Read the Winning Entry from our Essay Competition

24 Mar 2015

We are pleased to announce the winner of our Teaching Network 2014/15 Essay Competition. For this competition students were asked to deliver a policy briefing on how to engage religious groups in resolving conflict in either Nigeria, Central African Republic or Myanmar.

Brent McCamon, from Redeemer University in Canada, has won the competition with an excellent briefing on the role that Canada can play in diffusing ethno-religious tensions in Nigeria. Brent's informative and nuanced ideas demonstrate a very clear pathway for his country's government to consider. Find out more about the competition here and read his essay below:

Canada’s Role: Diffusing Ethno-Religious Violence in Nigeria

By: Brent McCamon

Nigeria is a country torn apart by violent religious conflict. Although the principle of religious freedom is protected in the 1999 constitution, discriminatory religious violence continues to be perpetrated by extremist groups, the fragile judicial system does not sufficiently prosecute perpetrators, and the Islamist ideology of Boko Haram continues to pervade the northern states.

Canada, on the basis of its constructive bilateral relations with Nigeria, its role as a middle Western power, and the establishment of the Office of Religious Freedom is in a unique position to aid in the conflict resolution process. Canada is obligated to take concrete steps in diffusing the instability that has defined the region by calling on the parties involved to end the religious violence; simultaneously expanding the Freedom of Religion Fund for Nigeria to form connections with international and local Non-Governmental Organisations to aid in legal system reform and promote religious tolerance through education. 

Issue: Religious Violence

Religion is a fundamental framework through which people interact with their immediate realities and global surroundings. The powerful role of religion can often contribute to conflicts, leading it to be associated with violence and war  Paul S. Rowe, Religion and Global Politics, Ont. Don Mills, Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 21. Religious violence in Nigeria needs to be constructively addressed by the Nigerian government and the international community as soon as possible to prevent further casualties. The impending 2015 presidential election only intensifies the necessity for action as we can observe from the rampant violence following the elections of 2011. Ian Linden, 'Nigeria: Religious Leaders and Elections', Tony Blair Faith Foundation, Oct. 2, 2014, Available from: The Tony Blair Faith Foundation: Religion and Geopolitics (accessed 20 November 2014).

Background: Religion as a Tool For Conflict

Nigeria's population of 170 million people is roughly divided between Muslims and Christians. Export Development Canada, 'Nigeria - Export Development Canada (EDC)', Nigeria - Export Development Canada (EDC),, (accessed 4 November 2014). Northern Muslims and Southern Christians intermingle in the "Middle Belt," creating a violent clash of religious ideology. Nigeria: Persecution or Civil Unrest?' World Watch Monitor, June 24, 2014, (accessed 6 Novmeber 2014). The secular identity of the Nigerian state and protection of religious freedom is defined in the tenth article of the 1999 constitution that enshrines the prohibition of a state religion. Ibid.

Despite the claims of the constitution, the realities of religious freedom in Nigeria are abysmal. According to the Pew Research Center, Nigeria has a very high degree of "Social Hostilities" and a high level of "Government Restrictions" in relation to free religious practice. Pew Research Centers, 'Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion', Pew Research Centers Religion Public Life Project RSS, September 1, 2012, 3 November, 2014). The Global Terrorist Index ranked Nigeria seventh out of 158 countries due to the threat to religious freedom, and national federal unity that Boko Haram poses. Institute for Economics and Peace, 2012 Global Terrorism Index,, (accessed 4 November, 2014). Boko Haram has been able to build upon existing religio-ethnic tensions to amass support in favour of a rhetoric oriented around the establishment of a "pure Islamic state" in the north seceding from Nigeria.  Jideofor Adibe, 'Explaining the Emergence of Boko Haram', Brookings Intuition, [web blog], 6 May, 2014., (accessed 5 November 2014).

This religious sect has launched a variety of terrorist attacks: targeting churches, shooting worshippers, and orchestrating suicide bombings against Christians and moderate Muslims. Ibid. 

Background: A Failing Legal System

Nigerian court systems do not actively prosecute those who perpetrate religious violence. As a result, a culture of impunity continues religio-ethnic violence with few consequences for perpetrators. Although Nigeria has the legal framework to condemn and prosecute extremist violence, "almost universally, individuals identified as perpetrators have not been prosecuted, and there were no known prosecutions for sectarian violence in 2012." USCIRF, 'Nigeria: Tier One Country of Particular Concern', USCIRF Annual Report. 1 January, 2013., (accessed November 3, 2014). Out of 14,000 sectarian conflict related deaths, fewer than 200 individuals are confirmed by the United States Commision on International Religious Freedom to have been prosecuted for violent action. Ibid. In 2011, prosecution and conviction statistics were to be provided by Nigeria's Minister of Justice and the Director of Public Prosecutions. To date, relevant information has not been provided. Amnesty International, 'Nigeria: More than 1500 Killed in Armed Conflict in North-Eastern Nigeria in Early 2014', Amnesty International Publications, 2014, 23.

Background: Anti-Western Ideology

Boko Haram is able to term their conflict as a resistance against the influence of the West. Their use of anti-Western rhetoric persuades those who feel that they have been marginalized by the secular nature of the state to support their cause. Ibid. Educational institutions perceived as "Western" are consistently targeted in attacks, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of students and the displacement of approximately 10,000 students from state schools; leaving them unable to pursue educational goals.

Rather than establishing formal educational institutions, Boko Haram "schools" are dedicated solely to the memorization and study of the Qur'an. They teach that Jihad means only holy war, and that all other interpretations are illegitimate. As a result, the barely literate recruits are easily indoctrinated to continue religiously fueled violence.  Jacob Zenn, 'What is Boko Haram?' The Tony Blair Faith Foundation, 21 July, 2014, available from: The Tony Blair Faith Foundation: Religion and Geopolitics (accessed 20 November 2014).

Background: Canada-Nigeria Contemporary Relations

Canada, under the ORF has established the Religious Freedom Fund to designate $553,643 over two years to the Centre For Humanitarian Dialogue to promote inter-community dialogue and conflict mediation in Nigeria. The funding will also train ten senior government officials and key persons from institutions dealing with peacemaking to strengthen the federal government's capacity to support conflict management. Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. 'Canada's Office of Religious Freedom', Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada,, (accessed 4 November, 2014).

Recommendation #1: International Pressure Through Denunciation

From an international perspective, Canada, as a middle power without a history of colonial Western imposed rule, could play a very significant role on the international stage by continuing to denounce the religious violence in Nigeria. However, Canada needs to effectively garner international attention and focus global media on the conflict as a whole, rather than specific events. Canada needs to denounce both the sectarian violence, and the failure of the Nigerian state to adequately prosecute perpetrators of said violence, calling the state to accountability. The pressure garnered by an international focus, combined with a request for stability, would encourage the Nigerian government to ensure that those who organize and commit violent actions on the basis of religious discrimination are brought before the judicial system.

Recommendation #2: Strengthening A Fragile Legal System

As a foreign policy directive under the goals of the ORF, the RRF for Nigeria should be expanded in order to incorporate concrete methods through which the legal system of Nigeria could be strengthened.

First of all, the ORF should use a selection of funding to train a legal council that could act as a board of advisors. They would provide legal counsel to victims of religious violence who have difficulty having their cases recognized by the court of law. By having this panel of advisors aid victims in pressuring the Nigerian legal system and encouraging thorough investigation of named suspects, many more cases could be prosecuted on a national level.

A far less intrusive approach would be to have the ORF offer funding to international as well as domestic FBOs and NGOs to take part in aiding the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Justice to establish witness protection programs to protect victims while simultaneously pressuring the legal system to push their cases to prominence.

Using the system that is readily available, international organizations with teams of lawyers, legal consultants, and international specialists like the International Justice Mission could facilitate long lasting change that would operate within native legal structures. Only the realization that not only can domestic courts prosecute perpetrators of religious violence, but that they will actively prosecute violence, will the culture of impunity fall apart. Gary A. Haughen and Victor Boutros, The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence, Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 234.

Recommendation #3: Tolerance through Education - Developing a Counter-Narrative

Education is an extremely important tool in conflict mediation, particularly in situations of religious violence. Education allows for an understanding of the heritage of one's faith, the diverse interpretations of religious texts, and can facilitate points of commonality between other faiths. To physically oppose Boko Haram without addressing the underlying ideology neglects one of the main tools in Boko Haram's arsenal.

Therefore, in order to address the issue of religious violence, one cannot only approach the issue from an international, or judicial perspective, one must seek to institute change psychologically as well. The Canadian ORF could expand the RFF to connect with Nigerian NGOs as well as Muslim leaders to facilitate tolerance education in Northern schools as being part of a larger tradition of Islamic thought. Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, op. cit.

As is demonstrated by the late Pakistani thinker Eqbal Ahmad, it is possible to frame modern Islamist movements as being, "concerned with power, not with the soul; with the mobilization of people for political purposes rather than sharing and alleviating their sufferings and aspirations. Theirs is a very limited and time-bound political agenda." Marvin E. Gettlermen, and Stuart Schaar, The Middle East and Islamic World Reader, New York: Grove Press, 2003, p.370. However, we now need realizations of such possibilities to take root naturally in the Nigerian context for them to hold legitimacy in the region.

The ORF should then sponsor local NGOs to facilitate tolerance awareness as well as the possibilities for religious tolerance education by discussing opportunities with leaders such as the Sultan of Sokoto, the Emir of Kano and the Shehu of Borno. Although the Sultan of Sokoto has denounced the actions of Boko Haram, a senior Nigerian intelligence official stated, "Had the Muslim clerics in the north been mobilized by the Sultan to challenge Boko Haram intellectually via a common platform, it would have exposed the emptiness and the folly of [the insurgents] deviant ideology." Ola Awoniyi, 'Top Nigerian Muslim Preacher Calls for Unity against Boko Haram', Arab News, 25 May, 2014, (accessed 4 November, 2014).

These discussions would explore how curriculum in the north could reflect and offer details of Islam's rich history of humanism, aesthetics, intellectual pursuit, culture andextra-violence spiritual devotion. This would contribute to the development a counter-narrative to the ideology of Boko Haram that could be systematically instituted in schools in the north in an attempt to wage a war of ideas that would come from within the local Muslim communities themselves rather than from Western societies.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.