“What’s peace?…It recognizes one humanity in which all lives are precious and worthy to be loved and given help towards fulfillment.”
In 1970 the Nigerian army overwhelmed the army of the Biafran rebels, forcing a surrender and ending a 3-year long civil war that left half a million people dead. Many feared a bloodbath following the government victory with occupation troops flooding the rebel region and exacting a harsh revenge. Instead Nigerian President General Yakubu Gowon was generous toward the defeated rebels saying there were “no victors, no vanquished” in the war. Gowon’s bold steps toward reconciliation were in large part the fruit of a quiet back-door mediation effort of a small team of Quakers including Adam Curle.
Curle was born with the name Charles Thomas William Curle, but became known more for the name of his birthplace in France, L’Isle-Adam, outside of Paris. His mother lost three brothers in the quagmire of World War I, and she planted her abhorrence of war into Adam. Such feelings had not gelled yet when Curle joined the British Army in World War II. But toward the end of the war he took a position working with rehabilitating returning prisoners of war. He plunged into the study of psychology, eventually becoming a professor and lecturer. Curle’s anti-war convictions became refined as he made commitments to be a pacifist and a Quaker.
Curle became a professor at the Harvard Centre for Studies in Education and Development. In that capacity he participated in projects in Africa, Central America and South Asia to develop education policies that were essential for building the conditions for peace. He was part of a Quaker team that shuttled between India and Pakistan during a war in Kashmir. The Quakers engaged in listening to each side and communicating what they heard in ways that enabled each side to grow in understanding the other and to open up possibilities for solutions to the conflict. Although the Quakers didn’t succeed in helping India and Pakistan resolve the Kashmir crisis, all parties thought the process was useful. Curle’s experience would quickly have a more significant application in Nigeria.
Quakers had been working in many African countries to assist in resolving conflicts in the post-colonial period. Curle and his Quaker colleague John Volkmar made 12 trips to Nigeria during the civil war period to gather information and seek ways for peace and eventual reconciliation. They came with no official political status, which helped them to be accepted as politically neutral parties interested only in ending the killing. As the Biafran leader General Emeka Ojukwu later said of them, “Any political actor would be suspect; only a nonpolitical actor would have a chance of bringing the two sides together or giving the necessary type of assurance.” Curle and his colleagues had three goals: to open lines of communication; to reduce suspicions, misperceptions and fear; and to support a negotiated settlement and official mediation efforts.
To open the communication lines they had to meet with both sides. They were open about who they would meet with and that they would report back to the other side, except for sharing information that was confidential or could provide one side a military advantage. They carried messages back and forth, gaining trust so much that on many occasions they were specifically requested to carry key communications. Flying into the rebel enclave was a risky venture as the Nigerian army gunners knew planes were also bringing arms and supplies into the Biafran enclave. Curle and Volkmar’s willingness to take the risks to carry communications to each side helped underscore their trustworthiness. They were more than passive messengers as they also presented their own substantive ideas about ways forward in the negotiations.
In changing the perceptions of each side, the Quaker views about humanity and the divine were especially pertinent. As Curle said, “Virtually the sole dogma, if this word is not too emphatic, of Friends concerns ‘That of God in every one’….One cannot be hostile or violent toward another without being hostile or violent toward oneself…In working for peace I am simply doing what I’ve sensed is carrying out a normal human function: to realize—make real—the bond between us all.” This interaction with “that of God in every one” was reflected in a careful practice of deep listening. As Curle said of listening, “In this way peacemakers may reach the part of the other person that is really able to make peace, outwardly as well as inwardly.” The respect of the person expressed in deep listening built up the trust level that allowed the Quaker team to also “speak truth to power” in their discussions with both sides. When Nigerian bombers hit hospitals and markets in Biafra they spoke to Gowon about how such bombings didn’t drive the rebels to lay down their arms but only fed the charges of genocide. The Quakers helped the federal side to see that toward the end of the war the Biafrans were driven more by fear, which helped Gowon take his conciliatory position following the battlefield triumph. As one observer noted the Quakers “Tried to resolve the hardness of the heart.”
During the Nigerian civil war many official diplomatic mediation efforts were undertaken, most notably by the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations and the Organization of African Unity. Curle and the Quaker team were often present nearby to help in clarifying messages, delivering messages, defusing tension, and encouraging continued commitment to a negotiated settlement. The Quakers encouraged Gowon to bring observers into the battle zone and investigate charges of misconduct and monitor the treatment of prisoners and refugees. Though the efforts of the Quakers and other mediators did not achieve a negotiated settlement, the deep process of building understanding, accurate communication, and even empathy led to an extraordinary post-war peace.
In 1973 the activist/academician Curle was appointed to the first Chair in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom. Building upon the foundation Curle laid Bradford’s Peace Studies program has grown into one of the best in the world and become a model for developing programs around the world. Curle helped define the field of peace studies, working with a comprehensive definition of peace and education related to peace.
Adam Curle retired from Bradford in 1978, but he continued his peacemaking activities in various conflict zones, including Zimbabwe, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka and the Balkans. In Croatia he inspired the creation of the Osijek Peace Centre which has become a key institution for peace, trauma healing and reconciliation in that region. When he died at the age of 90 he had left a rich heritage of peacemaking in mediation and education.