Every Sunday morning at 8:00am, 32-year-old Daniel Musa rushes to church, just a half kilometer away from his home in the Polo area of Maiduguri, with his bible clutched in his right hand. On weekdays, he ensures that nothing derails him from attending midweek services—even in that city, which has been attacked by the dreaded Boko Haram repeatedly since 2002.
His first encounter with the insurgents was on the 6th of January 2012, just after the New Year celebration in Maiduguri. He started hearing shrieks of different pitches resonating from outside his house. He opened his door to find out what was happening but couldn’t find anything.
“So I went to get some packs of noodles for dinner,” He recounted. “On my way home, two of my Christian friends ran to me not knowing that they were being followed by three members of the dreaded group. They caught up with us, surrounded us and shot one in the head.” He said.
Back in his hometown of Goza – once controlled by the Boko Haram insurgents – his maternal uncle, Joseph Aga, was cut into pieces and left to die.
“They macheted him and abandoned him to die while everyone around fled for safety.” Musa told the Catholic Herald.
Nigeria is about evenly divided: a little more than half the country’s 206 million people are Muslim, a little fewer than half are Christian. In the northern part of the country, Islam stands as the dominant faith, while Christianity stands in the South – but most of the killings take place in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, where the halves of the country meet. While religion was not originally an issue linked to conflict in Nigeria, it has risen to the fore.
The issues that originally catalyzed conflict in some parts of Nigeria were politics, economics, and ethnicity. It’s a complex issue, and arguably more so today. Nigeria is a deeply religious country, in which many citizens have very strong views on religion and even identify by it.
When the Boko Haram insurgency started in 2002, it was seen as a jihadist movement working to establish an Islamic order in the north. The persecution of Christians has increasingly become policy for many Boko Haram factions, especially after its founder, Yusuf Muhammed, was killed by Nigerian police while in detention in 2009.
What made Boko Haram?
Last year, Nigeria ranked third on the Global Terrorism Index among 163 countries, a position it has maintained since 2015. Boko Haram, a terrorist group operating primarily in Nigeria, is a major reason for the high ranking.
Factors that produced the Boko Haram are many, making it difficult to understand why the terrorist organization is waging war against the government and religious believers who do not align with its ideology: Islamization. The group has splintered, too, with some factions linking with other international terrorist organizations and waging war against non-Islamic believers across northern Nigeria.
Fr. Aniedi Okure, a Catholic priest and Executive Director Africa Faith and Justice Network, says Boko Haram’s perception of Christians as agents of westernization made Christians a target. “That shows,” he told the Catholic Herald, “in their abduction of young girls and conversion into Islam, selling them off as brides across the border and using them as suicide bombers.”
“We also have the public execution of pastors and Christian leaders who were beheaded, and the abduction of Leah Sharibu, a Christian schoolgirl in Dapchi who is still in captivity for refusing to renounce her Christian faith.”
When Nigeria was preparing to go to the polls to choose a president who would manage the country’s affairs through the country’s 2015 general elections, there were accusations and counter-accusations that ex-president Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, was responsible for the Boko Haram insurgency. President Muhammadu Buhari’s campaign team rode that campaign horse to defeat Jonathan. Five years later, the insurgency and banditry continue unabated.
Dr. Leo Igwe, religious scholar and chair of the Humanist Association, says there has been a competition between Christianity and Islam in the north “and that competition has been political, social and economic, it has involved the use of arms by Muslim promoters. The jihadist movement has become a non-state military wing of the Muslims’ efforts to suppress, oppress and persecute the Christians.”
“Boko Haram has been weaponized by Muslims in furthering their religion beating back the tide of Christianity in suppressing and persecuting non-Muslims,” Dr. Igwe told the Catholic Herald, “especially the Christians and non-Christians. There has been a lot of intolerance and anger as a result of the spread of the Christians on the part of the Muslim authority.”
Violent conflict researcher Idris Mohammed disagrees: “When you critically observe the activities of the Boko Haram,” he said, “you would realize that they are targeting everyone that is not in agreement with their ideology, majority of their victims are Muslims, especially those Muslims they believe are not in support of their campaign.”
Mohammed cited the many worship centers – including both mosques and churches – that insurgents razed to the ground. “They were targeting everybody that is against their ideology,” he explained. “Any Muslim who didn’t believe in their ideology is an infidel,” he said. “They are fighting for their ideology,” he said.
Fr. John Bakeni, Secretary General of the Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri in Borno State, says the persecution of Christians is more or less a systemic one that has been embedded within government and political structures for over a decade.
“We have seen typical violence and confrontation on Christian lives and properties,” Fr Bakeni told the Herald, “especially in places of worship. It is our faith that has been keeping us on, and it is our hope and convictions in our own belief.”
“There has been a lot of forceful abduction of our sons and brothers, marrying of our daughters,” he went on to say. “These are the problems we have been living with for decades, and there have been voices speaking against it in some quarters and we as Christian leaders have tried to tow the part of relationship and dialogue.”
“For me, that is more productive,” Fr Bakeni told us, “but the reality still remains: the persecution is calculated, deliberate, and systemic.”
The Catholic Church in Maiduguri: Doing lots with very little
The Maiduguri Diocese comprises the whole of Borno state, Yobe and some part of Adamawa — all in northeast Nigeria. It is the largest in terms of land mass. But in terms of population, the diocese has about 300,000 Catholics, according to Fr. Bakeni.
“We live on people’s generosity and have been using our resources to attend to the humanitarian needs of the displaced Christians, including the Muslims and none Christians; we are focusing on the human angle, not religion.” Fr. Bakeni said.
In 2015 and 2016, the Catholic Diocese of Maiduguri recorded over 90,000 displaced Catholics in the northeast; over 60,000 of them lived in Minawao in Cameroon, and have returned and reintegrated back to their community of Pulka in Goza.
The Maiduguri Diocese has spent over 150 million naira (US $416,000) on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), using its own funds and donations from dioceses across Nigeria and foreign organizations.
The diocese has also received funding from other organizations, including MISSIO, the Catholic Church’s official charity for overseas missions. In 2017, Aid to the Church in Need provided a grant of $75,000 for 5,000 widows and 15,000 orphans under the care of the diocese. Catholic Relief Services provides school uniforms, textbooks, and school fees for Catholic school children.
Out of 11 existing Christian IDP camps in Borno, one was established by the Catholic Church. The diocese of Maiduguri also has some education funds for some of the children to return to school, and is sponsoring over 200 students in schools at different levels.
So far, more than 100,000 Catholics, over 250 catechists, priests and nuns have been displaced, and more than 200 parishes, especially in the northern part of Adamawa and northern Borno, have been destroyed.
The diocese’s secretary says the attack on priests, catechists and nuns is frightening. “When you look at it from the faith angle, you’d see it as a call to martyrdom. So, it’s not coming to us as something that is entirely new. Many of us have suffered in the course of the history of the church and it’s not something that is peculiar to other Nigerians. We live prepared and see each day as a grace.”
Fr Bakeni, however, says Catholics are not deterred. “Nobody can stop the Gospel of Christ,” he said. “It’s not a human project, but a divine project that cannot be stopped.”
“We’re aware that it’s a difficult and challenging terrain,” Fr Bakeni said, “but we’ll keep propagating the Gospel.”
Valentine Iwenwanne (@valentineiwen) is a Nigeria-based travel Journalist and photographer covering global health, development and the environment. His works have been featured in Vice News, Ozy, The National News, Equal Times, CNN Africa, Byline Times, Sojourners and more.
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