When, in May 2017, 82 girls, most of them Christians, were released three years after their abduction from Chibok, northern Nigeria, some sections of the media declared that the tide was turning in the battle against home-grown Islamist terror group Boko Haram. But, while the media referred to the release as “a victory” for Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, concerns persisted about the threat from militant extremists, particularly in the north of the country. In spite of the Nigerian military’s efforts to push back Boko Haram, the Islamists’ ongoing attacks on Christians and the increased potency of other militants’ violence meant that the outlook for the Church was increasingly uncertain.
By summer 2017, the toll of death and destruction carried out by Islamist groups against Christians was becoming fully apparent. In March 2017, an Aid to the Church in Need delegation flew into Maiduguri, capital of the worst-affected state, Borno. ACN were told that 1.8 million people in the state had been displaced as a result of the Boko Haram conflict. They also learned that 5,000 women were now widows and 15,000 children had become orphans. There was damage to 200 churches and chapels, 35 presbyteries and parish centres. In total, 26 million people in the region had been affected by Boko Haram.
With Boko Haram allegedly responsible for the bulk of the violence, the evidence indisputably shows that, during the period under review, the Islamists held firm to their declared aim: “The Nigerian state and Christians are our enemies and we will be launching attacks on the Nigerian state and its security apparatus as well as churches until we achieve our goal of establishing an Islamic state…” It followed a March 2012 Boko Haram declaration of a “war on Christians” aimed at eliminating them from parts of the country: “We will create so much effort to have an Islamic state that Christians will not be able to stay.” Having sought to eliminate Christianity from the region, it can clearly be indicated that Boko Haram is guilty of genocide in parts of northern Nigeria, warnings of which were made by Catholic clergy as far back as 2014. While the government had, at the time of writing, succeeded in wresting Maiduguri from the control of Boko Haram, the threat had by no means passed, with the city falling victim to repeated suicide attacks.
During their spring 2017 visit to northern Nigeria, the Aid to the Church in Need delegation was handed a dossier from Church leaders showing that in the Diocese of Kafanchan, southern Kaduna, 988 people had been killed since 2011. The report also showed that over that same period 71 mostly Christian-majority villages had been destroyed, as well as 2,712 homes and 20 churches. They heard that the diocese had been targeted by Fulani herdsmen, Islamist fighters described as forming a “sister organisation” to Boko Haram. After late 2016, there was an upsurge of Fulani violence against Christians in the diocese. The attacks included the April 2017 massacre of 12 people, 10 of them Catholics, killed just moments before an Easter Vigil service got underway outside a church in the south of Kaduna State. While not necessarily sharing Boko Haram’s vision of a Muslim caliphate in northern Nigeria, the evidence suggests the Fulani herdsmen are as committed as the Daesh (ISIS) –affiliates to eliminating Christians in a region where the Church has grown fast. Church leaders state that in a region which a century ago had very few Christians, the faithful are now 35 percent of the population. The sudden explosion of Fulani-related violence shows the herdsmen’s capacity to threaten the Christian presence at a fundamental level.
Nigeria’s climate of conflict and tension has arisen out of divisions in a society where religion has long since been a source of at best lively debate and at other times a cause of explosive violence. Africa’s most populous nation is equally divided between Muslims and Christians and much debate persists as to which is in the majority. Christians predominate in the south – with a high proportion of Catholics in Igbo settlement areas – and the north is predominantly Muslim. Nigeria’s constitutional status is a federal republic based on the model of the United States of America but in the north the constitutional position was complicated by the introduction of Islamic Shari‘a law in the year 2000. Islamist violence in Nigeria is said to have decreased since May 2015 when Buhari, a Muslim, became President in accordance with law which decrees that the holder of the office alternates between the country’s two major religions. The prospect of a Christian once again assuming the Presidency points to the threat of a resumption of violence, as happened during Goodluck Jonathan’s crisis-filled period in office, which ended in 2015.
Whoever does take over from Buhari, the chances are that the Boko Haram threat will by then have subsided. While the full impact of the militants’ violence of recent years has only now become fully apparent, the indications are that the threat of Boko Haram and similar groups is in decline. Analysts, however, consistently allege that the Boko Haram threat remains potent because of alleged prevarication by the government in fighting the militants. Stating that the Nigerian federal authorities had “failed to implement effective strategies” to counter Boko Haram, in 2017 the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom praised the state military for reclaiming land from the Islamists before adding that “the government’s non-military efforts to stop [the jihadi group] remain nascent” . Bishop Bagobiri went further to accuse the government of collusion with Boko Haram and Fulani fighters. In an Aid to the Church in Need interview in spring 2017, he stated: “Given the sophisticated nature of the weapons used in the [Islamists’] operations, it is suspected that their kin in government and the military are able to supply these arms to them.” Stating that the Fulani had responsibility for customs, immigration and control over the internal affairs ministry, the bishop concluded: “It is easy to bring dangerous weapons through our borders, with no-one to prevent this.”
In conclusion then, while the Islamist threat to Christians peaked before the reporting cycle, the continuing Boko Haram violence, the renewed potency of the Fulani and the impact of mass migration has put the Church at greater risk. This point is highlighted by reports of the use of more sophisticated weaponry and training. Notwithstanding the threat, in areas where the government had clearly succeeded in rooting out the jihadi threat, bishops and other Church leaders were doing everything possible to resettle the people back in their homelands, provided adequate security is in place.