For Nigerian Christians, last Christmas and the days that followed have been a nightmare. Christian communities have become the sole target of Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists group.
Conflict today is more likely to occur within States rather than across national borders. Indeed, the number of intra-State conflicts has proliferated worldwide. Economic and political issues have most often instigated ethnic, religious and regional tensions that in their turn have generated fierce conflict. This is the case of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. It strikingly illustrates the most conspicuous scenario of ethnic and religious identities that have been fueling the dynamics of conflict ever since the Sokoto caliphate (which ruled parts of what is now northern Nigeria, Niger and southern Cameroon) fell under British control in 1903. During the last incidents instigated by Boko Haram whole families were burnt in their cars and bodies were scattered across the area. Churches were attacked and practically nothing was done to defend the Christian population. This is why Boko Haram’s ‘terrorist organisation’ claimed a victory.
A Militant Islamist Group
Nigeria’s Militant Islamist group Boko Haram, which is a movement styled on the Taliban and allegedly having ties with al-Qaeda-linked groups in Africa, has lately caused havoc in Nigeria and has created a reign of terror amongst the predominantly Christian ethnic believers particularly in Abuja, Jos and Yobe (Damaturu in Yobe is increasingly a focal point for Boko Haram’s militant activity). This militant Islamist group (and not a sect – they do not have a theology of their own) was founded by the radical Muslim cleric Mohammed Yusuf in 2002. Etymologically speaking the name loosely translates as “Western education is haram” i.e. sinful or forbidden.
As a vindication of this belief, he set up a religious complex comprising a mosque and an Islamic School which started to recruit jihadis to fight the State. Their main objective is to overthrow the Government led by President Goodluck Jonathan (who hails from the south and endorses the Christian faith) and establish an Islamic State with Shari’a law applied across Nigeria. His re-election has inspired anti-southerner riots in the north in April 2011 resulting in an extreme bloodbath in the name of religion. Yet even when Nigeria had a Muslim President, the Boko Haram regarded the Nigerian State as being run by non-believers. Its followers are said to be influenced by the Quranic dictum that “Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors”. Thus, they call for the establishment of an Islamic State, if not in all Nigeria at least in the north and in the centre of Nigeria, and are therefore pushing mostly in the centre of that area where there are mixed populations of Christians and Muslims in order to extend the area under their control. In other words, they are trying to intimidate the Christian population to leave these areas.
The wider Muslim population
From the outset we have to distinguish between the militant Islamist group as described above and Nigeria’s wider Muslim population. For instance, in Abuja, protesters have challenged the Government’s removal of fuel subsidies in rallies that united Muslims and Christians. Likewise, in several other Nigerian cities, Muslims and Christians have assembled in a rare demonstration of interfaith unity to protest against the Government’s elimination of the aforementioned popular fuel subsidy. This has been confirmed by activist and onetime Vice-Presidential candidate Yunusa Tanko who gave utterance to the following words: “Gas prices are unifying the nation”, and that “Muslims were praying and Christians were protecting them during our protest march [in the Northern city of Kaduna]”. Even the former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, John Campbell, has admitted that the protests have the potential to be “very dramatic” as Nigerians put aside their differences to take on what they see as State corruption. He cited reports of Muslim-Christian demonstrations in Kano, where anti-Christian riots broke out last April.
Different views in the same melting-pot
Within this context and ironically against this background, Boko Haram’s spokesman gave Nigeria’s Christians three days to stage an exodus out of the north or else risk retaliations. Reuters reported that hundreds of Christians have already begun to flee northern Nigeria. Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja has called on Nigerians to ignore the latest threat of the Islamist group. It should be said that the apparent futility of the Government’s efforts inspired threats of retaliation by militants in the Christian-dominated south.
As a matter of fact, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, a onetime oil militant who took to arms after being discharged from employment as a result of a 2007 treason charge, told reporters that his former militia was “seconds away” from reprisals against Muslims living in Nigeria’s south. Very recently, Nigeria’s President told a church audience that Boko Haram has sympathizers within the Nigerian Government itself, including the military and the police. President Jonathan has his own reasons to play up the threat. He needs to keep his base happy. On the other hand, the Opposition headed by a Muslim Nigerian has criticized the Government for being unable to protect the Christian population. Many believe that generations of Nigerian politicians, not excluding the current political elite, have grown rich on oil revenues.
In the meantime, the group’s new leader Abubakar Shekau, who after the killing of Mohammed Yusuf and the mass murder of hundreds of his supporters together with the fleeing from Maiduguri (which is Boko Haram’s heartland) of thousands of residents, managed to regroup and to free from prison hundreds of Boko Haram’s supporters, justified the targeting of Christians by saying that this was a revenge for previous attacks upon Muslims.
Intra-State conflict needs internal and external deterrents
All these dynamics of conflict have fuelled tension between Muslims and Christians and raised global concerns. It should be remembered that Nigeria is split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims. While the massacres do not find any theological justification in Islam, such negative attitudes are contrary to and are an outright denial of the most fundamental principles of the Islamic Shari’a, namely: freedom, equality, justice, free discussion, and communal solidarity, upon which social and political relations are organised. As rightly stated by an unnamed analyst quoted by BBC NEWS AFRICA, “this threat will disappear only if the Nigerian government manages to reduce the region’s chronic poverty and builds an education system which gains the support of local Muslims.”
This would definitely be a deterrent to allowing Boko Haram to pass from one form of social structure to another until it becomes a total community. Movements usually begin with an individual who may be primarily a founder in the sense of innovator or leader, a prophet or a healer, or else someone who combines more than one of these functions. Adherents or followers are attracted and perhaps an inchoate mass movement appears. This will be short-lived unless it passes over into one or more of four structured forms that provided organisation, continuity and identity.
The simplest of these is the clientele of a healer who have no dealings with one another. If joint cultic activities develop, it may become an ancillary society for certain limited purposes, such as healing or revelations. In this way it remains ancillary to the earlier and major religious allegiances of its members; once it ceases to be ancillary and provides for all religious activities of its members it has become a religious society such as an independent church or new African denomination. If it proceeds to embrace the whole life of at least some of its members, with economic, educational and social activities in a village or holy city, then it may be called a total community (H.W. TURNER, New Religious Movements in Islamic West Africa, in Islam & Christian Muslim Relations, Volume 4, Number 1, June 1993, 3-35).
Finally, and this is of utmost importance, “Because religions are more and more often behind the forging and assertion of multiple identities, the authorities have a duty to take the utmost account of them when establishing democratic rules and arrangements for living together” (COUNCIL OF EUROPE [ed.], Gods in the city: Intercultural and Inter-Religious Dialogue at Local Level, France 2007, backpage).
From an external point of view, the remarks by HR Catherine Ashton concerning the prevailing situation in Nigeria are indeed clear words. Baroness Ashton not only deplores the atrocities and describes them as “truly awful”, but once more reiterates the position of the EU on the persecution of religious minorities, stating that it is “wrong, fundamentally wrong”, stressing that “Freedom of religion and belief is absolutely a fundamental part of who we are as Europeans and we support that everywhere in the world” (Brussels, 23 January 2012).
Yet as actions speak louder than words and the EU together with the US should be more actively involved. The EU and the US should put Boko Haram on the list of ‘terrorist organisations’ – this is the first message that should be conveyed to the Federal Government and the population of Nigeria and why that has not been done so far is still a mystery. This is basically a ‘terrorist organisation’, a jihadist organisation which is trying to drag the country towards sectarian violence. If this was sectarian violence, we would have fifty million Muslims against fifty million Christians – this is not the case. What’s happening is that a small minority of jihadists extremists are trying to strike out at the Christians to force them to react and when they react that will be the beginning of sectarian strife. This must be stopped immediately.
Fr Joe Vella Gauci writes for the Commission of the Bishops Conferences of the EU and Jesuit European Office.