Card John Onayekam: Religion and terrorist violence in Nigeria
by card. John Onayekan
There is no "war of religion" in Nigeria but a series of terrorist attacks by locals and foreigners. Christians and Muslims alike criticise Boko Haram. The government's ineptitude has accentuated the problem. The Archbishop of Abuja speaks on the matter at the Oasis Conference.

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 and 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 religions.

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.