JOS, PLATEAU: The Jos North Secretariat Hall in Nigeria's Central Plateau State was filled with about 150 Muslim and Christian youths on February 25 this year. Salis Abdulsalam stood before them, introducing the second edition of the "music + football = peace" initiative.
First introduced in 2020, the initiative is an annual football tournament where Muslim and Christian youths between 18 and 25 play matches together to promote a culture of peace and religious tolerance.
"We know music and football are appealing to the youths, so we decided to merge both as a vehicle to promote peace in Jos [the state capital]," said Abdulsalam, founder of Displaced Women and Children Foundation or DWCF, a nonprofit supporting vulnerable groups in Nigeria.
Religious hatred and violence
Religious and ethnic divisions are deeply rooted in Nigeria, with a Muslim north and Christian south mapping. Thousands have died in violent conflicts involving Muslims and Christians since the 1980s, including in Kaduna State, where over 20,000 have lost their lives in different religious riots since 1987.
Like Nigeria, Plateau State is divided into a Muslim north and Christian south. And there is a near steady tension between Muslims and Christians arising from years of struggle for land rights, political competition between so-called indigenes and settlers, and herder-farmer disagreements. This tension could, at any time, bring about a violent confrontation between youths from the two religious groups.
Though some conflicts don't start as religious, they end up having religious colourations because, in most cases, most members of one interest group are Muslims, and the majority of the members of the other group are Christians.
‘Building a brotherhood’
But in partnership with Jos Town Ambassador or JTA, a nonprofit promoting peace in Jos, Abdulsalam and his team help young people see the value of peaceful co-existence through football tournaments.
This initiative is "important at this time because we must play our part to restore peace and heal wounds of distrust, disharmony and discontent. We have ignored it for too long," Odesa Chuwang, JTA's board secretary, said.
"So, we are not just building a team; we are building a brotherhood. We see the potential in using this approach to unite our youths because music connects us [and] love of football unites us. So, we decided to marry the two to promote peace."
Before the tournament commenced, Abdulsalam and his team visited 22 communities considered to be prone to violence in Jos. In each community, they worked with community leaders to identify players. But before joining the football team, players were first counselled and trained in de-radicalisation.
There are six teams, each identified by its jersey colour: team forgiveness (white), team patience (red), team reconciliation (green), team love (yellow), team humanity (black), and team unity (blue).
"These [teams] are all components of peace," Abdulsalam, a Muslim, said. "So once you wear that jersey, that is who you are, and that will bring us together to form team spirit."
Each team has 16 players and two coaches with an equal or near-equal mix of Muslims and Christians. During the tournament period that will last till the end of March, matches will be played in at least six different locations, including Baptist School Nasarawa Gwon-Jos and Duala Police Barrack Dogon Dutse.
"The reason we play matches in different locations is for us to preach peace in those troubled areas. And for us, playing in these locations without security men means our approach is working," Abdulsalam said.
"These boys have not been involved in crises, and we use them as advocates of peace in their various locations. Interestingly, more areas are showing interest."
Before a match commences, music is played to attract crowds and create a festive ambience. During the games, it is also played with commentary and jokes to liven the venue.
For Chuwang, having Muslims and Christians sit together at the pitch is a big win because past violent conflicts sparked hatred between the two groups and made collaboration and interactions difficult.
"If you go to the pitch, it is beautiful to see both Christians and Muslims cheering because their teams are playing," she said, grinning. "They have removed the element of ethnic and religious tag."
After the tournament, Abdulsalam and his team will monitor and follow up with the youths during their training to ensure they remain friendly.
"We are happy the youths are cooperating," 39-year-old Coach Atang Magaji said. "We will continue to encourage them and work with them to ensure we achieve our aim of restoring peace back to Jos."
Before conceiving the football tournament initiative, Abdulsalam said young people's active participation in the lingering crisis in Jos pushed him to start thinking of a solution.
As a youth in pre-conflict Jos, Abdulsalam enjoyed hanging out with his Christian and Muslim friends as a group, and they often discussed how they could support each other. But because of years of violence, he said "that togetherness no longer exists among youths" as they live in suspicion of each other.
"The town is not as enjoyable as it used to be. You hardly find a location where Christians and Muslims live peacefully together," Abdulsalam decried. "I have been best man to over eight of my Christian friends [in pre-conflict Jos] and followed them all through the church processes. Now, it is not possible. In fact, my son was denied being the best man to his Christian cousin [because] the church frowned at it. They said my son must be a Christian. So, the intolerance level is very high now."
This cycle of hatred is what he is working to break in Jos. "We can't relent," he vowed. "That is why we are increasing our efforts to deepen peace-building."
Besides football and music, he regularly organises other entertainment activities, including beauty contests and pageantry, to bring youths from different faiths together.
But his inability to award cash prizes to winners of the peace football tournaments worries Abdulsalam, as funding only comes from his foundation and JTA. He said the budget is patchy, so giving the winners cash prizes is a significant challenge. He fears the situation could discourage some of the players.
However, he said he is determined to make things work. He is having talks with JTA to see if he could give small cash prizes to this year's overall winner and first runner up.
He plans to increase the number of teams and locations hosting football matches. He hopes that these peace tournaments and his other efforts will eventually restore peace in Jos.