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Danger at the Door

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Fear of religious war looms as Boko Haram sect targets churches and Christians for attacks

T he   ordination   ceremony of Matthew Hassan Kukah as the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese in 2011, is a good illustration of what harmonious relationship in a heterogeneous religious society should be. It enjoyed the full participation of the Muslim community, which was led by Sa’ad Abubakar III, the Sultan of Sokoto and leader of the Muslim community in Nigeria. The Sultan went as far as throwing open his guest houses to accommodate visitors that came for the ordination.

Sadly, this peaceful relationship between Christians and Muslims in the country as exemplified by the Sultan’s gesture, is under serious threat, no thanks to the insurgency of Boko Haram, which has made the frequent bombing of churches a major part of its campaign of terror. The most recent of such attacks on churches as at our press time, last week, took place on June 17, in Kaduna.  Three churches were attacked on that day during worship hours. The attacks left scores of Christian worshippers either killed or wounded. But that was not all. It also marked the first time Christians would go on a reprisal attack as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency and served a signal that Christians have been pushed to the wall and were ready for retaliation in self defence.

The reprisal attacks did not only signal the possibility of a religious war, it was a foretaste of what it would look like. Since the June 17 attack, the city of Kaduna, as well as the entire state, has not known peace. Residents of the city are still counting the cost of the mayhem, which forced Patrick Yakowa, governor of Kaduna State, to impose a statewide 24 hour-curfew for eight days. The curfew was relaxed only on June 25, to run between 4p.m. and 7a.m. for those in Kaduna city and 6p.m. to 6a.m. for other parts of the state. 

Sequel to the reprisal attacks, Kukah was constrained to make a statement on the potential consequences of continued bombing of churches.  He expressed worry for the future of Nigeria and asked a critical question: “How long is this going to go on? Is it going to be until mosques are bombed before we know what to do?”

He pointed out that Christains were running out of patience in the face of Boko Haram’s insurgency as life was gradually becoming very cheap in the northern parts of the country. “But you know that there is something Americans do when they are faced with such crisis. They will establish a deadline and ask themselves questions like ‘could we have seen this coming?’ And if you ask me if we (Nigerians) had seen this coming, I will tell you that we did because this started many years back with these irresponsible characters that are pretending to be under the law of Sharia and Islam but preach water and drink wine.  Clearly, I’m very convinced beyond reasonable doubt that Nigeria is running out of time because with what is happening, those who are pushing us to the walls are determined to start a war that they know would be irreversible,” he said.

Then he asked: “Are we Christians to stop worshipping or am I going to live in a country where every Sunday when I am going to the church I have to be looking behind? Is it really that we are going to continue to remain like this?”

Kukah was not a lone voice in warning that a religious war was looming in Nigeria. Gabriel Osu, a monsignor and director of communications, Catholic archdiocese of Lagos, believes that Nigeria is gradually sliding into a religious war if the current trend was not checked. “If it is not checked, that is what it may turn out to be. But God forbid.  And for God to forbid, it means we must take action. You don’t need to be a prophet to foresee that we cannot wait too long with this. Just make an analogy. You are the head of a family. Today, I come in, I kill your wife, they say sorry. Tomorrow, I come in and kill your first son. The next day, I come in and kill your second son. Will you allow me to come and chop off your head? And unfortunately, people say, it has no religious basis and that these are just “area boys” or miscreants. No, in the Muslim world, if you want to be really objective, there’s a very thin line between politics and religion,” Osu said.

The reality of an impending religious war was brought home in a press release issued recently by the Christain Association of Nigeria, CAN. In the release, Ayo Oritsejafor, pastor, Word of Life Bible Church and president of  CAN, described the June 17, bombings as a clear indication that a jihad, (Muslim’s religious war), has been declared on Christians and Christianity in Nigeria. The Association said in the release signed by Kenny Ashaka, special assistant, media and public affairs to Oritsejafor, that “the pattern of bombings and gun attacks suggests to us a systematic religious cleansing which reminds Christians of the genesis of jihad.”

 The release also gave hint that Christians were running out of patience and may no longer absorb the brutal attacks unleashed on them with the meekness of a lamb. It said that CAN “had reminded the federal government that what is happening to Christians in the northern parts of this country is an inescapable invitation to jungle justice and anarchy.”

The threat to peaceful Christian religious gathering was not limited to the Northern part of Nigeria. It is gradually blowing toward the eastern states of the country. There was confusion and apprehension in Umudo -Obollo in Isiala Mbano Local Government Area of Imo State on Monday, June 18, following the discovery of a bomb near the village town hall, which was the venue for a church service scheduled to hold on Tuesday, June 19. The bomb was discovered by an old man who was trying to clean up the hall and its surroundings ahead of the Eucharistic celebration. The church service was to be officiated by Charles Ohuabunwa, the Catholic priest in charge of St. Theresa’s Catholic Church, Obollo. The incident was blamed on the notorious Boko Haram sect. 

When Newswatch visited there June 25, the people of the area were yet to come to terms with what would have been their fate had the bomb exploded. The villagers were preparing for the church service in the town hall at about 3 p.m. when the old man raised the alarm that attracted other members of the community, who in turn alerted the police at Umuelemai, headquarters of the local government council. Patrick Osuji, village head of Umudo-Obollo, said the bomb was discovered before it wreaked havoc on the village. 

M. Amaforo, the divisional police officer, DPO, in Umuelemai, confirmed the incident. He said immediately his men were alerted, they “rushed to the scene, assessed the situation, cordoned off the area and alerted appropriate authorities. That was how the bomb disposal unit of the state command was called in to detonate the bomb.”

Amaforo said the bomb was a conventional foreign-made explosive and not an improvised explosive device, IED, as alleged by some residents. He also appealed to Imo State indigenes to be more vigilant and report any suspicious object to the police.

The possibility of a Boko Haram attack has kept the police and other security operatives in the South-East on the alert. Recently, the police held a security meeting with church leaders in Enugu to map out ways to counter any possible attack by Boko Haram. The meeting was sequel to the alarm raised in some quarters that the religious sect had threatened to attack churches in the zone. Alfred Itiowe, pastor of Old Path Revival Commission, Enugu, told the police how a source called to alert him of the development, especially in Enugu. He quoted the source as saying that Enugu and Ibadan in the South-West, were being targeted for attacks by Boko Haram.

 But Emmanuel Chukwuma, South-East president of CAN, and Anglican Bishop of Enugu Diocese, is not taking the situation lightly. He said the church has resolved to resist the threat. “We can’t keep silent and we cannot be intimidated. We are no longer free to worship God every Sunday as worshippers are filled with fear. What have we done that every Sunday our churches will come under bomb attack?” he queried. He promised to take the message of resistance to all the churches, which could be a call to arms. 

Anxiety over the activities of the Boko Haram, especially the sect’s propensity to desecrating churches and turning a Christian religious gathering into a killing field, is not limited to the clergy. It also runs deeply in the minds of leaders of socio-cultural groups, particularly those of South-East extraction. Joseph Achuzia, former secretary-general of Ohaneze Ndi Igbo and a veteran of the Biafran war, said there were enough indications to prove that there is a jihad being waged on Christians by the Boko Haram. According to him, Muslims do not see Christians as brothers and sisters. “As far as they are concerned, Christians are just like cattle and sheep that are to be slaughtered as long as they do not embrace Islam,” he said.

Achuzia said it was naïve of Christians to keep on responding to the destructive tendencies of Boko Haram with love and turning the other cheek. “We are living in a world that is predominantly evil and requires strong determination to survive. So, the church must change its strategy and know how to say ‘enough is enough.’ What is ahead of them is not to be handled with kid gloves,” he said.

 Indeed, the current beating of war drums and descent to anarchy in some parts of the country is not a surprise to many Nigerians. Patrick Utomi, professor of political economy, Lagos Business School, believes that Nigeria “veered long ago from the highway to Liberia and was heading to Somalia.” Last year, he told Newswatch that the country had arrived Somalia. “We are not heading to Somalia any more. We’ve arrived Somalia. What do you think Jos is? What do you think Bauchi and Borno are? They are Somalia already. Thank God that people can go back a few years and see my warning in the things that are happening today. The average Nigerian now seems disconnected from the Nigerian state. He doesn’t feel that he is worth much. If his life means nothing, the lives of others mean nothing to him also. So, we are all in danger,” Utomi said. He asked those Nigerians speculating about 2015 to concentrate their energies and thought in ensuring that Nigerians would not find themselves in the refugee camps before then.

Utomi is not alone in his fears about the stability of Nigeria. Immediately after the Christmas day bombing of churches by Boko Haram in 2011, the trio of Nigeria’s foremost first generation writers made up of Chinua Achebe, author of the famous Things Fall Apart; Wole Soyinka, Nobel Laureate, and J.P. Bekederomo-Clark, a poet, issued a public statement in January, to warn of the impending disaster. The eminent writers warned that “the fears we have all secretly nursed are coming to reality. The nightmare we have hugged to our individual breasts, voicing them only in family privacy or within trusted caucuses of friends and colleagues – lest they become instances of materialising evil thoughts – has finally burst through into our social and physical environment. Rumblings and veiled threats have given way to eruption, and the first cracks in the wall of patience and forbearance can no longer be wished away. Boko Haram is very likely celebrating its first tactical victory: provoking retaliation in some parts of the nation.”

They called on their fellow Nigerians to eschew any reprisal attack and opt for the more difficult path of envisioned forbearance. “This hard, demanding, but profoundly moral and heroic option will be recognised and embraced as the only option for the survival, and integrity of the whole.  What is proposed here is not any doctrine of submission, of ‘turning the other cheek,’ or supine supplication to divine intervention etc. Very much the contrary! Self-defence is a fundamental human right and a responsibility. However, we caution that we must place the total humanity of our nation above the methods and intent of a mindless, though programmed minority that are resolved to set religion against religion,” they said.

 But it seems that with the current development, time, is indeed, running out for the voices of restraint. The genie seems to have been let out of the bottle as demonstrated in the reprisal attacks that came on the heels of June 17 bomb attacks on some churches. This much was acknowledged by David Mark, Nigeria’s senate president and retired army general. He said the activities of the Boko Haram were capable of plunging the country into a full-scale religious war. “I believe they want to ignite a religious war and threaten our national unity. How long will the people listen to their church leaders because if a bishop says leave vengeance to God to his congregation and he has no church anymore because the church has been demolished, where will he preach? So, there is a limit to patience and we must say that in very clear terms,” Mark said.

Austin Agugua, a lecturer in the department of Sociology, University of Lagos, was impressed by Mark’s frank comment on the activities of Boko Haram. Agugua opined that the major question every concerned Nigerian has to answer is: how long can a people endure the brutality of a group that is not inclined to reason with them and does not value peace? According to him, Christians have been pushed to the wall and the only means left for them is to defend themselves, to answer violence with violence because an action that is not challenged will definitely be repeated. Furthermore, it will prove that no one has the monopoly of violence.

He said that those who read Luke 6:27-29 where Jesus taught his disciples to turn the other cheek should also read Luke 22: 35-36 where he asked his followers to sell their possessions and use it to buy swords. Jesus said: “Let him who has no sword sell his mantel and buy one.” Nevertheless, Agugua warned against descent to religious war as it was an evil omen that does no good to any person.

He also gave an insight to why Boko Haram has made the church one of its prime targets. He argued that from the point of view of the sect’s extreme philosophy that is against everything about western civilisation, the church would be an easy prey having served as the purveyor of western civilisation in the country. “Their attack on Christian churches or Christianity per se is more or less fundamental of that hatred they have against western civilisation.”

He also pointed out that the attacks on churches reveal the ethno-religious dimension in the activities of the insurgent group as the churches targeted were mainly where those people of eastern Nigeria worship. He said one of the distinguishing features of the old Eastern Nigeria is the complete absence of Islamic influence. “It is to that extent that you now understand that when Boko Haram strikes, it is not striking at churches per se, but is also targeting churches where certain ethnic groupings of the Nigerian nation are mostly concentrated, because in their view, these are the people that seem to have benefited more from the advent of western civilisation,” Agugua said. 

However, Muslim leaders have denied that Boko Haram insurgency was tantamount to a jihad against Christians. For them, the country is suffering the evil destructive tendencies of a group of people out to demonise Islam.  According to the Sultan, there is no such plan and “if there is, I should know because I was once in the military. We should trust ourselves. I wish to assure Christians that we are one big family created by Allah. We must promote moderation and tolerance in our society.”

Similarly, Lateef Adegbite, secretary-general, Supreme Islamic Council of Nigeria, has sued for patience and restraint. He maintained that reprisal was illogical and advised both Christians and Muslims to come to the table of brotherhood to find solutions to the current and present danger.

The federal government has also assured every Nigerian and foreigners in the country of its preparedness to protect lives and properties. President Goodluck Jonathan said that in the past one year, the federal government has intensified actions against the Boko Haram threat. Although the threat was far from abating, “we have implemented several measures that have weakened the terrorists’ infrastructure. We must continue to muster our forces and unite our people and bring to an end this challenge to peace, unity and progress. We need to put in place new legislations that will make it easier to track, obstruct, prosecute and punish terrorists. And I need your support,” Jonathan said.   

 President Jonathan also gave hint of his administration’s determination to stamp out the Boko Haram insurgency by sacking General Andrew Aziza as his National Security Adviser and Mohammed Bello Haliru, minister of defence, on June 22. Aziza was replaced by Sambo Dasuki, a retired colonel and former aid-de-camp to General Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria’s former military president. The presidency was yet to announce the name of a new minister of defence as at press time last week.

Nevertheless, Nigerians are more concerned with results that would address the menace that threatens the security of lives and properties than the game of musical chairs in the corridors of power. Moreover, Jonathan should see the challenge of the Boko Haram as the definitive issue facing his presidency and prove to Nigerians that the state is the only credible alternative to anarchy. 


Reported by Anthony Akaeze, Victor Ugborgu, Ishaya Ibrahim and Chimezie Enyiocha


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