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Faith McDonnellAugust 24, 2012
Religious conflict is not new in Nigeria, says the Most Rev. Nicholas Dikeriehi Okoh, the Primate of all Nigeria. Indeed, the Church of Nigeria (Anglican) and churches of all other denominations in Nigeria have been under attack for many years. This is particularly true in Nigeria’s northern and central belt states, many of which are ruled by the Shariah even though Nigeria’s federal government is secular and offers religious freedom.
Today, though, the Church in Nigeria is truly between a rock and a hard place. Christians are in the “hard place” of trying to survive the existential threat of Boko Haram and the lack of protection by their government. The radical Islamist sect demands the total Islamization of Nigeria and is working towards that goal by killing as many Christians and destroying as many churches as possible. Thousands of Christians have been attacked and killed in recent months, and the government of Christian President Goodluck Jonathan seems unable to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Unfortunately, the “rock” making the hard place of Nigerian Christians all the more difficult is the response to Boko Haram offered by many Western entities, including the U.S. State Department. They see these killers as morally equivalent to their victims and seem more concerned with admonishing Nigerian Christians against retaliation than condemning their slaughter. The State Department plans to focus more energy and U.S. dollars to remedy the supposed “economic and social marginalization” of Boko Haram than on trying to protect and defend their innocent victims.
Speaking at a lecture on “Religious Extremism in Africa,” at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC on August 16, 2012, Archbishop Okoh related the tremendous suffering of Nigeria’s Christians under Boko Haram. Hardly a week goes by without news of an attack, but the archbishop revealed that we in the West only hear about the major cases. In reality, “Christians are being attacked and killed on a daily basis,” he said.
Just ten days before, gunmen stormed a Monday night Bible study on August 6 at the Deeper Life Church in the southern Nigerian state of Kogi. They killed 15 Christians outright, and another 4 died on the way to the hospital. Okoh said that the attack was well planned. One of the assailants shut down the generator, leaving the church in darkness so that the Christians would not be able to escape as their killers mowed them down. Although Boko Haram has not yet taken credit for it, it is assumed that they are responsible for the massacre.
In the midst of horrendous attacks such as this, Christians have showed tremendous restraint. They have been stellar examples of “turning the other cheek.” Even now, as the slaughter of Christians continues, church leaders continue to speak out against retaliation.
But Christians are becoming increasingly frustrated. They are not free to go to church without wondering whether or not they will come back alive. And even if they do go, they have to pass through stringent security apparatus that they never had to worry about before. (No Nigerian ever would have believed that a Nigerian could become a suicide bomber.) Additionally, they think that their non-retaliatory stance may be viewed by Boko Haram as weakness. In June some Christians in Kaduna retaliated for attacks on three churches in Kaduna State that killed 23 people and injured dozens.
Nigerian Christians can see no improvement taking place. Instead, the situation appears to be getting worse. They do not see the Nigerian government fighting against Boko Haram or against the larger problem of anti-Christian persecution in any meaningful, effective manner. They cannot depend on the Nigerian police or military who sometimes actually side with Boko Haram. And they have come to understand that in terms of public perception their restraint counts for little because the media and others, such as foreign policy elites in other countries, strive to cast the situation of the Islamists as morally equivalent to that of those whom they kill.
Archbishop Okoh reported that the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has continually asked President Jonathan’s government to protect Nigeria’s Christians. Jonathan had previously explained that the government was “taken unawares” by the security situation posed by Boko Haram and “needed more time.” Four days before his lecture in Washington, DC, Okoh, together with CAN President Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor and other leaders, met with President Jonathan. But there is still no adequate protection for Christians in place, and there is seemingly no plan to track down and prosecute the members of Boko Haram.
With grace and diplomacy, Okoh said that in Nigeria they “were hearing that ‘some governments’” believe that Boko Haram exists because of the economic and political marginalization of Northern Nigeria. The archbishop declared that this was not true. “Christians and Muslims are together in a big sea of poverty,” he explained. This common denominator has been good for interfaith relations in the past, but now some Northern politicians find Boko Haram helpful to fight against Nigeria’s Christian president and to strategize for elections in 2015. The great part of Nigeria’s oil wealth is in the hands of these Northerners.
At a July 10, 2012 House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights hearing on U.S. Nigeria policy, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Johnnie Carson espoused the Obama Administration view that it is poverty, “not religion” that “drives extremism” in northern Nigeria. His comment caused House Subcommittee Chairman U.S. Representative Chris Smith to retort, “Frankly, that’s an insult to poor people. Poor people don’t go around blowing people up.” Archbishop Okoh also challenged this premise, asking why would Boko Haram “focus on Christians, if that is the case?” Wouldn’t they specifically target political parties and government offices instead of churches, he demanded. “There is a huge, huge dose of religion involved,” he said.
Rather than being marginalized, Northern Nigeria has been indulged, says Okoh. Almost all of Nigeria’s rulers have been Northerners, and even now, the Christian president focuses on meeting Northern Muslims’ demands rather than alleviating the crisis endured by Christians. The Nigerian government has offered no church compensation or reparations for buildings burned or otherwise destroyed by Islamists. But it is building 400 new madrasas, with public funds – a violation of the constitution.
President Jonathan has asked for U.S. help to protect Christians and other Boko Haram targets, but the Obama Administration has been cool towards him ever since he defeated Muslim opponent, Muhammadu Buhari. The U.S. government prefers to address “the underlying political and socio-economic problems in the North.” Translated this means: the ongoing resentment by Northern Islamists that a Christian was elected president.
The State Department labeled as “political divisions” the horrific post-election riots by Nigeria’s Islamists that left hundreds of Christians dead. These divisions could be healed if Jonathan would “act in both a responsible and inclusive manner in the selection of those individuals for his cabinet,” said Carson. In other words, although he was elected freely and fairly, Goodluck Jonathan is supposed to share power with Northern Islamists in order to appease them. Such appeasement only serves as positive reinforcement to those who use violence to gain power.
U.S. officials have also offered the opinion that there should be “dialogue” between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram. The Islamists prefer monologue, though. In recent months, Boko Haram has declared, “For Christians in Nigeria to know peace, they must accept Islam as the only true religion.” They also called upon President Goodluck Jonathan to become a Muslim. “There are no grounds for negotiation,” Okoh explained, and advised that “those who make a case for Boko Haram should listen to what Boko Haram says about itself.”
Based on their own assumptions about Boko Haram and other marginalized Islamists in Northern Nigeria, the U.S. State Department plans to build a consulate in Kano (one of the premiere killing fields of Christians by Islamists). It is earmarking billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to help Boko Haram feel less marginalized, even though members of the House Committee on Homeland Security have urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to designate Boko Haram as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). In March 2012, U.S. Representatives Peter King (R-NY) and Patrick Meehan (R-PA), the Committee Chairman and Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence Chairman, wrote that Boko Haram’s “evolution in targeting and tactics closely emulate that of other al Qaeda affiliates that have targeted the U.S. Homeland.” They wrote to her again in May.
Designating Boko Haram as an FTO would ensure legal authority for investigation and prosecution of Boko Haram. It would give access to all military, intelligence, diplomatic, and economic tools to disrupt and deter Boko Haram’s operations, planning, and fundraising. This is critical because of Boko Haram’s ties to other Islamist terrorist groups and to the Islamist agenda of global domination. Members of Boko Haram are not all Nigerians. They are also from Chad, Niger, and elsewhere.
Okoh explained that as “a village pastor,” he was always asked by people for evidence on paper of any statements he made about outside funding for Boko Haram. He thanked members of the audience who referred to evidence in reports of the group’s sources of funding and weapons from such places as Libya, (under Gadhafi) Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Okoh smiled broadly, but did not comment, other than to say “thank you” when a human rights activist from Saudi Arabia, Ali Alyami, cited a Guardian interview with a Boko Haram spokesperson. Boko Haram “enjoys technical and financial support from Saudi Arabia. Anything we want from them, we ask them,” boasted Abu Qaqa, the Boko Haram mouthpiece. Mr. Alyami expressed his solidarity with persecuted Christians. He also pointed out that although the Sultan of Sokoto condemns the actions of Boko Haram, he promotes Shariah and so does Boko Haram – “so what’s the difference?”
Boko Haram receives its support from other Islamist terrorist and global jihad groups. Nigeria’s Christians lack support from their government and from official U.S. Nigeria policy. The Church in Nigeria needs the prayers and support of Christians around the world as well as advocacy by U.S. Christians to influence American Nigeria policy towards actions that will help to deliver Nigeria’s Christians from this hard place.
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