Milan (AsiaNews) - Card John Onayekam, archbishop of Abuja, speaks about the situation in
Nigeria at the annual meeting of the Oasis Centre (for more click here
In his sweeping analysis, the cardinal indicates how
Boko Haram, a terrorist
organisation responsible for several massacres of Christians, represents a minority
view that has foreign support but one that is criticised by local Muslims.
In his address, the prelate outlined a path toward reconciliation
in the country.
Let us begin with the general observation that there
is violence in the Nigerian culture and I imagine like in every culture. Apart from the history of the inter-tribal
wars in the past and of the colonial conquest of our land as well as the
resistance to that conquest, our independent Nigeria has also seen the
experience of the Nigerian Civil War in which there was a lot of violence and
killing. Following this experience, the
country has had to deal very much with criminals, armed robbers, militants and
kidnappers, most of which are a carry-over from the situation of violence in
the last decades. There is also the
communal violence that has been in the country every now and then between
different ethnic groups, between social groups, even between political groups.
Our elections have often been marred by serious violence. In this context
therefore, the religious dimension simply falls into a relatively "normal"
pattern. People quarrel and fight over
many things, including over their religion.
Terrorism is something new in our country. By terrorism,
we mean violent actions that entail indiscriminate killing of innocent people,
with no clear logical reasons. The
terrorism that we see presently in Northern Nigeria, especially the Boko Haram in North East Nigeria, is
therefore an anomaly in our nation. The members are mainly local elements. But
they have definitely foreign links and backing. It is suggested that the
leaders themselves have been part of terrorist cells and movements outside
Nigeria, in the hot spots of world Islamic terrorism like Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan,
Somalia, and more recently, Mali. Sometimes the terrorists target specific
people, for example, government institutions and sad to say, churches and
Christians. Whether the attack against
churches and Christians is specifically religious and if so for what purpose, it
is still very difficult to understand. We note however that they sometimes
speak of their desire to impose by force on the whole of Nigeria an Islamic
state governed by a strict form of the Sharia. At other times, they have
ordered all non-Muslims to vacate their section of the country, a futile call
that fails to recognize the complexity of the Muslim-Christian presence on the
Nigerian territory. In all this, the terrorism we are noticing has brought in a
new level of virulence in the damage they cause to human lives and properties.
To talk of religious terrorism in Nigeria, we must say
a little bit of religion in Nigeria. It
is often said that Nigeria has three religions - African Traditional Religion, Islam
and Christianity. But most Nigerians, we
will say more than 90%, claim to be either Christians or Muslims. But at the
same time, most of them retain their firm root in the African Traditional
Religion. The distribution of the
different faith is anything but even.
Although the North is largely Muslim, the South East is largely
Christian and the South West and Middle Belt are very mixed. That is about all one
can say. To speak of a Muslim North and
a Christian South is to say the least very inaccurate. The fact is that every part of Nigeria has
some elements of both Islam and Christianity.
Generally, relationship between Nigerians of different
faiths is cordial and good and still remains so despite the recent events. It is precisely on the basis of this good
relationship that we are building our efforts to overcome our present
challenges. The terrorist tensions that
we are now experiencing are surely an anomaly that we believe will be overcome,
sooner than later. Already, in recent weeks, there is much talk and debate
about dialogue with those who are ready to lay down their arms, in view of the
possibility of the offer of an amnesty, under conditions still to be
determined. Of recent, the Federal Government has set up a committee made up
mostly of devout Muslim to reach out to the militants with a view to working
out any possible modalities for such an amnesty program. The committee is still
to come out with any tangible result.
Religious Violence in Nigeria is very often with mixed
motives. What appears as religious
violence may actually be due to ethnic, political or socio-economic reasons. For
example, where two neighbouring or even overlapping ethnic groups are fighting
over scarce resources, if one is largely Christian and the other is largely
Muslim, their struggles and their battles become battles between Christians and
Muslims, even though religion may have little or no part to play in the origin
and course of the conflict. In this regard, there are many cases now where
communities of farmers who are generally Christians are having to engage groups
of nomadic Muslim cattle herders. The age-old antagonism between farmers and
pastors, the story of Cain and Abel, is continuing even today. Because one side is seen as Christian and the
other group is perceived as Muslim, the conflict is seen as a religious
war. Cases where we have violence for
purely religious reasons are indeed very rare.
What is important now is to make sure that religion, which is a very
important aspect of the life of Nigerians, is deployed as effectively as
possible for peace all across the board.
Now let us talk specifically about the terrorist group
in the North East of Nigeria generally called "Boko Haram" and their impact on religion
in Nigeria. On the surface, they are
perceived as religious. Everybody calls
them "Islamic Terrorists", an appellation that many Nigerian Muslims resent, on
the ground that their activities are against the tenets of Islam. The fact
however is that they are clearly Muslims and call themselves so. Not only that:
in their exploits and attacks especially against Christians, they always shout
the Islamic slogan "Allah u Akbar".
Therefore, the Muslim community in Nigeria cannot deny them, as it has
tried to do for long, even though it is encouraging to know that they do not
represent the authentic face of Islam in our country. That is why we believe
that religious leaders have a role to play in containing and eventually solving
this problem. The recent call of the Sultan of Sokoto, the most visible leader
of the Nigerian Islamic community, for an amnesty for the terrorists, and the
support that his proposal is receiving from some of us Christian leaders, has
generated a debate that I believe will be very fruitful. In this regard, I have
already mentioned the step taken by government to set up a committee to study
this issue and offer recommendations for useful action.
On the whole, it would seem that the action of the government
lacks coherence. For a long time, government tended to underestimate the
seriousness of the phenomenon and approached it in the spirit of maintaining
law and order. First, the police, then the army were sent to deal with them.
Despite vigorous efforts in this line, the terrorists seemed to be waxing
stronger and growing in number by the day. It has been alleged that the crude
methods used by the security agents have often alienated the communities among
whom the terrorists live and operate thus making their task ever more
problematic. How does a soldier deal "nicely" with armed militants without
uniform, melting with the people in the villages and practically turning the
innocent civilian populations into a human shield? This has opened our
government to some harsh criticism from some human rights organizations.
This may be why the government decided to try the
approach of dialogue and offer of amnesty to militants who are ready to lay
down their arms and embrace reconciliation. There is a great problem of who is
going to negotiate with whom? The olive branch of government has been rejected
outright by someone who claims to be speaking on behalf of Boko Haram. It is
hoped that at least some others will accept the offer of peace.
For a long time, the Nigerian political class tended
to political capital from the tragedy of a bloody insecurity. Government
accused the opposition of fomenting the rebellion. The opposition condemned the
government as incompetent and unable to rule the nation. In the midst of the
finger pointing, Nigerians continued to be killed, and economic and social life
were grinding to a halt in the more affected areas. It seems however that of
recent there are signs of political cooperation at the highest level. A clear
demonstration of this is the way a state of emergency was declared in three
states along the north east borders of Nigeria, which are most affected by the
insurgency: Borno, Yobe and Adamawa. In all these states, the democratic
structures have been left in place, which means that the state governments of
Borno and Yobe, under an opposition political party, is cooperating with the
Federal Government in addressing the common danger.
With the state of emergency, the government has
launched a vigorous and robust military action, which is already succeeding in
dislodging and scattering the militants from their camps and installations.
Very little news is coming from the battlegrounds. The military action involves
both Nigerian and non-Nigerian troops from our neighbouring countries. It is
also rumoured that our country has accepted specialized assistance of expertise
and equipment from far away nations like Britain, USA and Israel. We are
waiting and hoping for the best.
As the military action is going on, we need to think
of what comes next after this phase of military engagement. We are still
waiting to see what plans we have for genuine reconciliation, rehabilitation
and re-orientation of the many who have been convinced to turn against their
nation. I believe this is where religious communities will have an important
role to play. These few years of sectarian violence has done a lot of harm on
our hard earned and fragile climate of good relations between Muslims and
Christians in Nigeria. Both communities will need to work hard to restore and
promote mutual understanding and respect. This calls for hard work and patience
especially on the part of the religious leaders in both camps.
Having said all the above, we must stress that the
Boko Haram is a complex phenomenon.
There are social, political and ethnic dimensions. All these factors
must be addressed along with the religious dimension. Religion therefore becomes one among the many
approaches to its solution. This religious approach should start with "the
house of Islam", doing all it can to put its own house in order. We Christians, on our part, need to have
positive attitude to Islam in general, so that along with our brother Muslims,
we can jointly face the challenge of Islamic Terrorism. It means seeking common grounds, stressing the
things that bind us together, and emphasizing what we hold as shared religious
values. Furthermore, we can jointly work to address the challenges that face us
all, in terms of poverty, bad governance, sickness, etc. When we look at all
these and we act together, we shall be able to build a community that can work
and walk together as one body, one community, one nation, despite our different
In all this, there is need for coordination of all our efforts. I
believe this is where the responsibility of the government largely lies, a responsibility that, unfortunately, we have so far not been seeing much evidence of.