The kidnapping of nearly 300 girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram has made headlines around the world. In this exclusive interview, Father John Idio, parish priest at St. Anthony's Catholic Church in Asipa, Ibadan, Nigeria, details the oppression and violence to which Christians have been subjected by the Islamic terrorist organization, Boko Haram. He goes on to explain the group's ideology and its possible ties to Nigeria's government.
How close have you been to those who have suffered at Boko Haram's hands?
Boko Haram carried out their attack at the Nyanya bus station during the morning rush hour on the 14th of April. My uncle is the Parish Priest of SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Nyanya. He narrated to me how terribly he felt during the bombing of the Nyanya motor park. The explosion literally shook the foundation of his church, although there wasn’t any physical damage. Some of his parishioners who had just finished the morning Mass and were going back to their houses or businesses were affected by the blast.
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There was another bomb blast in Nyanya again on May 1 at the same spot that the other one happened. My uncle is at a loss as he is not sure where they will strike next. He wants the government to assist and mobilize more security agencies in Nyanya.
Would you explain the strain of Islam embraced by Boko Haram? The group is often simply described as Islamic militants. What do they actually believe?
Boko Haram is a Hausa phrase figuratively meaning that "Western education is a sin." It proposes that interaction with the western world is forbidden. So their aim is to put a stop to "Westernization." To achieve this, its members are trying to establish a "pure" Islamic state ruled by sharia. They want full Islamic law enthroned in all northern states in Nigeria and eventually to make the whole of Nigeria an Islamic country. Before his death, Mohammed Yusuf, the former leader of Boko Haram, had reiterated the group's objective as being that of changing the current education system and rejecting democracy. The objective of this group, opposing Western education, is contradictory to the life that the members live. The founder Its founder Muhammad Yusuf was himself a highly educated man; he had a graduate education, spoke proficient English, lived a lavish life, and drove a Mercedes-Benz. He was a controversial cleric.
The Nigerian government has been unable to bring peace to the areas where Boko Haram has operated for years. Is this for lack of resources? Or, does Boko Haram enjoy a substantial amount of support among Nigeria's Muslim population, causing the government to hesitate?
The Nigerian government is just unable to stop Boko Haram from killing innocent lives and Nigerians are losing confidence in the government. The inability for the government to contend with Boko Haram is not due to lack of resources. Nigeria has a vibrant army with a reputation of getting its duty done with efficacy. So the unavoidable questions are: what is the cause of the pervasive security inability to curb Boko Haram or eliminate its threat altogether? Why are the government, the army and the security agencies powerless and helpless? Considering how effective the attacks of Boko Haram are, I have a feeling that Boko Haram has sympathizers in the government and security agencies.
Recently, I read that a high-profile Boko Haram member, Ahmed Grema Mohammed, is also an officer of Nigeria’s Immigration Services. He was arrested and he confessed to be actively involved in the killings of some senior civil servants, security agents, and politicians in Damaturu who spoke against the activities of Boko Haram. But we know that in Nigeria many people are arrested in connection with Boko Haram, but not charged in court and not prosecuted. At the end, they are set free. When government officials are part of the country’s problem, it is always difficult to solve it. There are many government officials, military personnel, top influential Muslim leaders and even ex-presidents and governors that are supporting Boko Haram. In this sense, Boko Haram is a dangerous political tool.
The Nigerian government has taken several stances about Boko Haram that are hard to understand. At first they blamed those who reported the crimes more than the perpetrators. Why? Can you explain the government's mixed motives in this situation?
Yes, some actions of the government in regards to the insurgency leave Nigerians in doubt concerning their commitment to end terrorism. Some weeks ago, Nigerian authorities arrested a leader of a protest in the capital Abuja that called on them to do more to find the 234 girls abducted by the Islamist rebels. Naomi Mutah Nyadar, one of the mothers of the abducted girls, was detained too. She was picked up after a meeting she and other campaigners had with Patience Jonathan, the wife of President Goodluck Jonathan, concerning the girls. The president’s wife believes that Nyadar was falsely claiming to be the mother of one of the missing girls. That’s the problem with Nigeria. Instead of taking steps to rescue the girls and jailing the terrorists, they are jailing the protesters. And the president’s wife is so myopic, even if Nyadar was not the biological mother of one of the girls, she should realize that when Nigerians say "#bring back our daughters or girls," it is in a broader sense of "daughters of Nigeria," not necessarily biological daughters.
The poor government security performance against Boko Haram, especially in the girls’ abduction episode is worrisome. There are inconsistent statements by the military and the government regarding the number of girls abducted. Earlier, the military had announced that they had rescued the girls, but it was a huge lie, as it is evident that the girls have yet not returned. That’s the inconsistencies of our government. The military was misleading the world about the innocent girls. I just hope the military is not doing something funny with this very sensitive issue and that the government is not playing politics with the lives of these innocent girls. Politics also sometimes interferes in the government’s reaction to the insurgency. Before Boko Haram attacked Kano in January 2012, the SSS says it had alerted the Kano political leadership about the impending bomb attacks 48 hours before they happened, but nothing was done.
How widespread is the fear in which the Christian community now lives? Might Christians be attacked anywhere in the country or is it confined to certain regions in the north?
For now, Boko Haram only operates in the northeast of the nation. The group exerts influence in the states of Borno, Adamawa, Plateau, Kaduna, Bauchi, Yobe, and Kano. Christians in other parts of the country are calm and safe; they don’t live in fear. Their only fear is the fact that they have relatives and friends in the areas where Boko Haram exists. But there are also fears that Boko Haram is tactically spreading its ugly tentacles to the middle belt of the country. If it does, it will be so bloody.
Are Christians forming militias or taking up arms to defend themselves? What is the Church saying to her people about a proper response? Are Christians united in their response?
Christians are known to stand for peace, justice, and unity. So they are not taking up arms to retaliate as they are being attacked by militant Muslims. In the north now, each church is trying to tighten security. During the celebration of Holy Mass or other functions in the church, cars are no longer allowed to park on the church’s premises, but only along the road. Everybody entering into the church is checked with a "bomb detector."
Christians have a united message as response to Boko Haram. They do this through the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). CAN is the umbrella body for all Christians in Nigeria with over 80 million members. The national president of the Association, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, says government should go beyond the mere condemnation of the abduction of the school girls because that doesn’t go far enough to stem the tidal wave of violence perpetrated by the militants. He has called on influential Muslim officials to persuade the extremists to stop their violence. There has to be action backing condemnation.
How much does tribal rivalry play into what's happening? Or is the divide strictly along Muslim and Christian lines?
Boko Haram is evil and has so many faces. Sometimes it appears to be political, and at other times people believe that the group is motivated by inter-ethnic disputes as much as by religion. But there are strong indications to believe that it is more a religious crisis. The violence carried out by the extremists affects both Christians and Muslims, but it affects Christians much more. Christians now feel particularly vulnerable in the north, where they form a small but highly visible minority that Boko Haram has specifically pledged to "eradicate." In 2013, over 1000 churches were blown up, but only three mosques were destroyed. When they attack Muslims, they go after those who do not agree with their doctrine, because they see them as infidels, as they see Christians. They also go after some Muslims that they believe are betraying them in the sense of giving information to security agents. But basically, Boko Haram members are targeting Christians. The threats have not proved idle. Christian groups estimate that up to a quarter of the 4,000 people killed by Boko Haram since 2009 were Christians, according to the Nigerian Catholic Bishop's Conference. Across the troubled north-east, many Christian neighborhoods are now ghost towns as tens of thousands of residents flee south. It is one of the biggest Christian exoduses of the century.
What are possible solutions to this situation?
To curb the insurgence, government has to come up with decisions and strategies that are really working. Government must carry the fight to Boko Haram in its hideouts and show evidence that it is capable of maintaining the territorial integrity and peace of the Nigerian nation by eliminating this threat swiftly and efficiently or be ready to carry the stigma of their inability to protect the lives and properties of its citizens. The military needs to get more intelligence to be able to penetrate Boko Haram cells and anticipate their raids before they kill everybody. Soldiers and security agents need to be more equipped. We have heard that the soldiers' weapons and equipment are inadequate and sometimes faulty and do not match those of Boko Haram terrorists. Many times soldiers are forced to flee their barracks because they are being overpowered by Boko Haram. They are exposed to serious dangers because of the defective bulletproof vests, helmets, tanks and other hardware. I think that the soldiers are ill-prepared for these challenges and terrorism. To this end, government should re-train military personnel in urban warfare, civil-military relations, tactical communication, counter- terrorism, and counterinsurgency.
But there's no easy military fix to Boko Haram. So everybody should be involved in the campaigns to end insurgency in the country. There is a need for the alleged financiers of the militants to be arrested, investigated, and prosecuted for their role in the violent crimes perpetrated against civilians. Some Muslim leaders know those who are financing Boko Haram. Those who finance the group and those who work in collaboration with them must be exposed. Finally, I have to say that there is an intricate link in Nigeria between politics, religion, governance, corruption, poverty, and violence. Unless issues of bad governance, systemic corruption, and the religious crisis are addressed vigorously and transparently in the country, all other measures will be nothing but a drastic failure.
This interview originally appeared on Aleteia.org and was conducted by Harold Fickett, publisher and editor of Aleteia's English-language edition.
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