Christians in Nigeria, as in other countries where conflicts arise involving Muslim nationalism, are facing escalating violence and persecution in their own country. An Islamist militant group known as Boko Haram, which is affiliated with the Al Qaeda terrorist organization, is capitalizing on inter-ethnic conflict and regional differences to impose Muslim rule in the oil-rich African nation.
Catholic Bishop Hyacinth Egbebo of Bomadi told Aid to the Church in Need earlier this month that should the Boko Haram militants succeed in Nigeria, “the rest of Africa might easily fall prey to them. That would be an unimaginable humanitarian disaster.” Bomadi is located in oil-rich Niger Delta.
Boko Haram in a local Nigerian language means ‘Western education is un-Islamic.’ The group has been linked to various bombings of churches, massed armed attacks, assassination, and targeted killings of Christians. According Bishop Egbebo, Boko Haram seeks “wants an Islamic state in the north, imposing shariah law on everyone.” The armed militants view “everything that is an obstacle to implementing that goal.” It is thus that the Nigerian Islamists are destroying Christian schools, hospitals, and churches in addition to killing Christians because of a perceived association with non-Islamic countries.
Once Boko Haram sweeps Christians out of northern Nigeria, “they would set their sights on the south,” averred the bishop. He added that even though “prominent Muslim leaders have spoken out against Boko Haram” and moderate Muslims have been murdered, the group continues to enjoy support from Nigerian political leaders, weapons suppliers, and funding sources inside and out of Nigeria.
Raymond Ibrahim, a journalist and author who has widely covered the persecution of Christians living in Muslim lands, sounded pessimistic when contacted by Spero News. In a Jan. 9 email response, Ibrahim wrote “Wherever Islamist or jihadi organizations are in the Muslim world, almost always one finds outside funding/support from other Muslim groups/nations. The bishop's statement that, were it not for outside help, Boko Haram would have been defeated, jibes well with other similar situations. In Egypt, both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis are supported by non-Egyptians, Turkey and Qatar for the MB (as one example), and Wahabbi Saudi Arabia for the Salafis. Meanwhile, the average Egyptian is against them both.”
Likening the crisis in Nigeria with the experience of Egyptian Christians, Ibrahim drew a connection between the Muslim Brotherhood – which briefly held power in Egypt until overthrown by the military – and Al Qaeda. The persecution of Egyptian Christians escalated significantly during Morsi’s government. “Then, of course, there is the Brotherhood/al-Qaeda connection, with phone calls between Morsi and Zawahari. In Syria, all sorts of jihadi foreigners are part of the ‘opposition,’ and they are most responsible for the worst atrocities (beheadings, etc). People need to move beyond seeing these various organizations -- Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, MB, Al-Shabaab, etc -- as discrete phenomenon and instead keep in mind that they all follow a similar ideology, rooted in Islam. Thus, where one group comes to power, the entire global Islamist movement benefits -- hence this why the bishop is correct that if Nigeria falls to Boko Haram things will get worse for all Africa.”
He added, “Indeed, it is likely that, say, Somalia's Al Shabaab, to the east of Africa is working with Boko Haram, at the west of the continent. So one can imagine what will happen to the nations in between if the Islamist came to full power. Al Shabaab are already regularly attacking neighboring Kenya.”
Bishop Egbebo, for his part, condemned the deaths of not only the approximately 1,700 Christians killing in the fighting over the last two years, but noted that the Catholic bishops “strongly condemned the murder of Muslims at the hand of Christians” in retaliation for Muslim violence against Christians. He said that the bishops prevailed “in the face of Boko Haram’s effort to provoke Christians into acts of retaliation and create chaos in the country.” Even so, said the bishop, “some Christians fight back if they are attacked.”
The bishop also said that government corruption, and the national economy, are among the reasons for strife in Nigeria. Bishop Egbebo opined that “Boko Haram would fade out if people had the prospects of a decent life,” and added that the “Nigerian bishops regularly call on the government and urge reform.” Bishop Egbebo said that Catholic priests denounce corruption since it helps to foster the current harsh economy, while he noted there is “no hope to make a decent living, so many are easily drawn into a life of violence.” leading to the widespread instability that threatens the country’s present and future.
There is ‘palpable fear in Nigeria” about political and economic power shifting to the south, said Bishop Egbebo, as the petroleum industry expands regionally. The south of Nigeria remains poor, with “no electricity,” along with poor roads, “no reliable schools or hospitals” and no water available to the people of Bomadi, he said. “We are dying of lack of food, for lack of very basic things.” Change “will come very slowly” to Nigeria, said the bishop. “Real reform will require very courageous and charismatic leadership.”
Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.