Five days in Akwanga, and the search for Common ground

Today it is about one week since my departure to Akwanga in Nasarawa State for a training/ workshop on Conflict-sensitive reporting within the framework of freedom of religion and belief in Nigeria.

First of all, this was organised by an NGO known as Search for Common Ground Nigeria and from the day I got that call from a certain Katlong Dasat, I queried the choice of Akwanga for the training. Why not Abuja? I asked her. How do we get to Akwanga? By road? Would it be safe? What were the security arrangements put in place? I’m sure Katlong got tired of my consistent bickering over security and the road trip.

At one point, I wanted to withdraw from the training and send someone’s name instead. That was how much it bothered me. I could not risk getting caught up in anything I did not plan for. I got assurances from Katlong but I wasn’t assured. I decided to tag along any way, and hope for the best.

Day 1 and arrivals

Ikechukwu Oyemike, Richard Gbajimi and China Acheru

The first person I met on arrival at the airport in Abuja was Okechuwu Odogwu from Enugu. He introduced himself as the General Manager of Dream FM, Enugu. We were booked to be on the same ride from the Airport to the Search for Common Ground office at Gwarimpa. As soon as we introduced ourselves, he recognised my name, based on the fact that between 2002 to 2004 I used to be a regular guest on their radio sports show in Enugu. This was 21 years ago o.

We talked about a common friend, Ralph Chiedozie George, who now works with Supersport.

At the Search office at Gwarimpa, as soon as Katlong saw me and confirmed it was me, she screamed out loud, “This is the China Acheru that has requested for fighter jets to accompany us to Akwanga,” and we laughed it off. Indeed I would not have minded those jets though.

I met Whitney, who was with Royal FM, Ilorin and a few fellows in the cold conference room having tea. Whitney was later declared the “Uwardadi” of the group. I asked if there was coffee and I had a cup. I hardly ever pass up the chance to have coffee, especially in the morning and sometimes at night.

A fellow called Ikechukwu walked up to me, dark glasses and all. He was looking like a boxer about to throw a knockout punch. He handed me a package and I immediately knew who he was. He was the one from Wazobia FM, Lagos.

From L-R: Whitney, Dennis and Temisan watch on as Daniel gives a security briefing

There was a short security briefing by Dan Ogabiela, the Project Manager. I guess, that was to reassure us that they had done their due diligence and we would have a safe trip to Akwanga. He introduced the rest of the team to us- Temisan Etitisola, the Media Specialist. Incidentally, Temisan had a history with Cosmo FM too and produced the sports show for Ralph George, so knew me, but I doubt if we ever met. As part of the Search Crew were Emmanuella Atsen, the Training Specialist, Habiba Ghazali, the Senior Program Officer, Katlong Dasat, the Senior Media Officer, Dennis Pwajok, the Finance Controller and the most important of them all. The round of applause from all of us when Dennis was introduced as the Finance Controller. It was the stuff of legends. There was Joseph, the Monitoring officer and of course Ucham Bokkos, the Admin Assistant.

Did I say, it was actually Ucham that offered me coffee when I arrived? Yes, it was.

I slept all through the more than two-hour journey to Akwanga and only woke up briefly when we passed a place where the people came out to celebrate a court ruling concerning the governorship elections in the state. We were in Akwanga. We had our rooms handed to us, some of us had dinner, I watched my TV series, Criminal Minds and then I slept off.

Day 2: Why are we here?

Day 2 which was actually the first day of the workshop started pretty late, and this was because we had to wait for the second batch of participants from Abuja. But when we started it was more like a meet and greet session, and introducing the aim of the workshop to us.

It was all about understanding the objectives of the workshop, introduction to the Common Ground approach, principles and beliefs, as well as how we can apply these to our everyday reportage and coverage. It was a great start to the workshop, but most of all we were getting to know each other better and understanding the weight of what we were doing.

According to Mrs. Emmanuella Atsen, the common ground approach to reporting conflict-sensitive issues is key to de-escalating tension, as it places human beings over and above all forms of religions and beliefs.

Adah James was at the top of his game

By the first training day, I had noticed Abdul-Azeez Ahmed, who was the General Manager of Liberty TV and Radios in Kaduna. He always spoke calmly, and he seemed to know what he was talking about, whether it was about Christianity or Islam, he seemed well-informed. Ijeoma Thomas- Odia, the Guardian Newspaper reporter from Lagos was the life of the group. She was involved in every conversation, and if you didn’t know better, you would think she was a troublemaker, but she was far from it, as she was one of those who challenged with tough questions, and made the training worth it. Nathaniel Shaibu from Punch newspapers always had a thing to say and these people made the house lively. Richard Gbajimi of Kpoko FM, Ikechukwu Oyenike of Wazobia FM, Lagos, Greg Betiang from Hit FM, Calabar, and Solomon Ndahi of Wazobia FM who always had different views of issues discussed were all great guys at the training.

Ijeoma Thomas- Odia making a presentation

Day 3: Searching for Palm wine in Akwanga

With a full house and an early start on the third day of our trip, but the second day of training, we could go in-depth about the causes of these crises, why they escalate and how the media knowing or unknowingly fuels it.

Group sessions looked at headlines and how they can either divide or connect, while we got introduced to the slogan, “Do no harm”

Most of the training today was done by Adah James. He seemed a decent chap and it was quite revealing.

Temisan Etietsola briefed the attendants on how to equip themselves with the knowledge of relevant laws which will help them see through the agenda of political and religious leaders.

Nathaniel of the Punch Newspapers

In between, I stepped out with Daniel to dress a wound on my left thumb that I had brought along from Port Harcourt and he suggested I join him to the local brewery to get palm wine. This got us back late for the afternoon session and I had to pay a fine, which was fine by me. It was Richard Gbajimi whom I had made pay a fine for coming late in the morning who was there at the door to ensure I paid a fine for joining the afternoon session late. Fair enough.

Day4: Designing a common ground content

The highlight of Day 4 was the group work where we each mapped out a radio show that encourages common ground content and respectful representation of freedom of religion and belief matters.

Somewhere along the way, Daniel put Nathaniel of Punch on the hot seat and asked the rest of us, at least those who were willing to say what they felt about Punch Newspapers. One person cited their Editorial on December 11, 2019, where they called out President Buhari. It was actually titled, “Buhari’s Lawlessness: Our Stand”

Abdul-Azeez Ahmed of Liberty Radio Kaduna

While the person praised the Punch Newspapers for taking a tough stand against a sitting president, another person cited the same Punch Editorial as the reason why he disliked the newspaper, saying “Punch Newspapers just showed they hate Buhari and they hate the Fulani race”

Different perspectives on the same issue.

It was poolside of the hotel for a shutdown at night, knowing we would be going to our bases by the next day. and of course, we were armed with a full gallon of palm wine and some grilled fish.

Day 5: Homeward bound

After three days in the classroom, did we find common ground? I am sure we did. From understanding what the common ground approach to journalism is, in relation to freedom of religion and belief, to how our perception and perspective influence our reportage, and of course the role of the media in promoting religious tolerance.

At some points, the discussions became heated between the Muslims, between the Christians, and of course between Muslims and Christians as we disagreed to agree. The good thing, however, was that in every discussion or argument, we arrived at a common ground.

So, did we achieve anything on our five-day trip to Akwanga and back? Did the three-day workshop teach us anything we did not know before? Was it a successful venture or a waste?

Amongst that group were thirty of the most influential media houses in Nigeria, cut across the six geo-political zones of the country. These thirty included reporters, producers, editors, managers and heads of stations. If there is any group of people in the media that can push the message, it has to be there.

A religious crisis may not be caused by the media, but the way the media reports it can either make us a connector or a divider. Which do we choose to be?

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