Image by AK Rockefellar/Flickr

Christians under siege in Nigeria

“The world must stop being docile and silent”

For the past five years, the radical Islamist group Boko Haram has waged a bloody insurgency in Nigeria, cutting a trail of tears across Africa’s most populace nation, targeting Christians and moderate Muslims.

On April 14, the militant group abducted 276 schoolgirls, most of them Christian, from a school at Chibok in Borno State. In the intervening weeks, some of the girls managed to escape, but as of press time more than 200 are still being held captive.

“This particular crime is rooted in religious extremism, a warped ideology and a degree of sexism,” says Khataza Gondwe of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a United Kingdom-based human rights organization that advocates on behalf of the persecuted Church globally.

“Boko Haram opposes Western education and has destroyed schools and targeted teachers for assassination,” Gondwe says. “The Nigerian Union of Teachers recently revealed it had lost 173 members to Boko Haram attacks in the last five years.”

The insurgent group “also opposes education for girls,” says the CSW representative, and has murdered schoolchildren of both genders.

Earlier this year, insurgents attacked a boarding school in Yobe State, killing 59 boys. Boko Haram then issued an edict, demanding that girls quit school, return home and marry. Fearing further attacks, schools in the northeast were closed temporarily.

“However, the school in Chibok was reopened for students to register for vital regional examinations after the Borno State authorities assured the examination board they would provide adequate protection for the students, refusing the board’s request for the children to be relocated to safer areas,” Gondwe says.

Tragically, the school at Chibok was not adequately protected and made for a tempting target. “The school is located in a predominantly Christian part of Borno, hence by attacking it Boko Haram was assured of capturing a significant number of Christian girls,” Gondwe says. “However, around a fifth of the kidnapped girls are thought to be Muslim.”

Photo by Michael Fleshman/Flickr
Photo by Michael Fleshman/Flickr

Violence, fear and frustration

Nigeria, with a population of 170 million people, is a religiously mixed society. The southern part of the country is predominantly Christian, while Muslims are in the majority in the north.

“From its inception in 2002, Boko Haram made clear its desire for a nation governed by its own restrictive interpretation of sharia law and its opposition to Western influences, including democracy, the Nigerian federal system, Western education and above all, Christianity, which it deems a Western religion,” Gondwe says.

The Christian Association of Nigeria has grown increasingly frustrated with the central government’s inability to halt Boko Haram’s attacks on the Christian community. For example, insurgents are executing a campaign of ethno-religious cleansing in the Muslim-dominated north, targeting Christian schools, villages and churches.

However, Nigeria’s Muslim community has not escaped the death and destruction wrought by the Islamist insurgency.

By 2010, Muslims who didn’t conform to the terror group’s Taliban-like interpretation of Islam were also put under the gun. “Boko Haram increasingly began to assassinate Muslim imams and leaders who opposed it,” Gondwe says.

Last week, Alhaji Idrissa Timta, a prominent Muslim Emir, was killed by gunmen in Borno State. Although no one has yet to claimed responsibility, Boko Haram is believed to have orchestrated the assassination. The Christian Association of Nigeria immediately condemned the murder and urged Nigerians not to be intimated by the terrorists.

“As local opinion has turned against it,” says the CSW representative, “Boko Haram has also launched collective punishment attacks against villages where vigilante groups cooperate with the security forces, including Muslim villages.”

The abduction of the Nigerian schoolgirls has been condemned by prominent Muslim groups internationally, including the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Similarly, Jama’atu Nasril Islam, an organization representing Nigeria’s Muslim community, has denounced the mass kidnapping as an “act of barbarism and called upon the authorities “to put all the needed efforts to free these innocent girls.”

In May, Boko Haram released a video of the kidnapped schoolgirls wearing Muslim headscarves and chanting Islamic prayers. “The timing of the video was interesting, coming after key voices within the Muslim world had condemned the abduction, enslavement and threatened sale of the girls,” Gondwe says.

“In the video, Boko Haram’s leader [Abubakar Shekau] appeared keen to illustrate that he had ‘liberated’ the girls through forcible conversion, perhaps in an effort to put a positive spin on this heinous act,” contends the CSW representative. “However, this won the group no plaudits except from its fellow Islamist terrorists in Somalia, Al Shabaab, which applauded the kidnappings.”

“The fear on the faces of girls who were interviewed appeared to underline the forcible nature of the conversions,” Gondwe says. Forced religious conversions are a clear violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of religion, belief and conscience.

Security concerns

The Nigerian central government, led by President Goodluck Jonathan, has been come under heavy criticism for its slow and seemingly impotent response to the kidnappings. Government inaction spurred to the #BringBackOurGirls protest campaign on Twitter.

“I am delighted that the world has eventually woken up to this evil going on in Nigeria,” Nigerian-Canadian Emeka Njoku told ChristianWeek when contacted in Nigeria. Njoku was a hospital administrator in northern Nigeria before fleeing anti-Christian violence in the Muslim-majority region over a decade ago. He now calls Canada home but frequently returns to his home village to visit family.

“The government is not doing enough to protect us,” says Njoku.  “The government has been in denial, grossly incompetent and seemed not to care until the international community pressured it as a result of the inhumane abduction of the schoolgirls.”

“The Christian community in Nigeria, like everyone, has become more security conscious,” Reverend Father Evaristus Bassey told ChristianWeek in an e-mail. The Catholic priest serves as the executive secretary and chief executive officer of Caritas Nigeria, which is a member of Caritas Internationalis, the humanitarian and international development agency of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church.

Like Njoku, Bassey is keenly aware of the fear that permeates Nigerian society. “When people hear news of security personnel being killed by the insurgents it makes them feel insecure and alone in the quest to safeguard their lives,” he says. But he is quick to add that such feelings of insecurity “are common to most Nigerians of all faiths.”

“There is apprehension when traffic builds up and when certain makes of vehicles pull up, for fear it might be laden with bombs,” Bassey says.

“Most Nigerians believe government itself is helpless, even as they make great effort,” he says.

Afraid to attend school

Is the Nigerian government doing enough to protect the country’s Christian community?

“Except in some core northern Nigerian cities where Christian settlers live separately, people of all faiths live together, so it is difficult to single out adherents of particular faiths for protection,” Bassey replies. And he points out that while Boko Haram has concentrated its attacks on churches, the insurgents have also targeted mosques.

However, he says some individual churches “make arrangements with security personnel to secure churches during worship, especially on Sundays.”

Are Christian families afraid to send their daughters to school?

“Christian families still believe strongly in education,” Bassey answers. “Although those in towns and communities within the catchment areas of the operations of the insurgents are in a dilemma, yet most parents believe their wards should have education.”

Some families with kin living in safer cities send their children away to attend school. But Bassey says many find it hard to leave their ancestral homes. And others have no choice but to send their children to local schools, hoping that their daughters won’t be abducted.

“We feel under siege and abandoned,” Njoku says, who is currently visiting an ailing relative in Nigeria. “The general feeling of insecurity, being under siege and hopelessness, is everywhere.”

Although he is pleased that the international community has become aware of the threat posed by Boko Haram, Njoku thinks more should be done to combat radicalism.

“The world must stop being docile and silent about the war, persecution, and other evils against Christians in Nigeria and globally,” he says.

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About the author

Special to ChristianWeek

Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian rights journalist. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.

About the author