In its latest move to effect religious cleansing in Africa’s largest country, Boko Haram — the Nigerian Islamist movement that claimed responsibility for the deadly Christmas Day bombings of a Catholic church, an evangelical church, and three police stations — is now reportedly warning all Christians in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north to evacuate by Friday or else face new attacks. It also vowed to confront Nigerian troops sent to quell four of the northern states it has targeted with violence.
Catholic archbishop John Onaiyekan, of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, appealed for help. “It’s a national tragedy. We are all unsecured. It’s not only Catholic. Today it’s us. Tomorrow we don’t know who it will be,” he said. Nigeria’s Catholic bishops report that some 200 individuals, mostly Catholic worshippers, were killed in the coordinated Christmas bombings.
According to the Vatican news agency Fides, Nigeria’s Catholic bishops called on Islamic leaders to speak up and take measures to end the violence. On behalf of the bishops, Archbishop Ade Job, president of the Episcopal Conference of Nigeria, issued a desperate plea: “Members of the Boko Haram sect have claimed responsibility for this shameful crime against God and humanity. We use this opportunity to call on our peace-loving Muslims, especially their leaders from the political, economic, social, and religious spectrums, not only to publicly denounce these acts, but for their own good and good of Nigeria . . . to do everything positive to end this movement.”
So far, this plea has been met with silence from Nigeria’s Sunni religious leaders. No doubt some are afraid that they too will become targets if they dissent from Boko Haram’s dictates.
Western analysts debate whether, as U.S. AfriCom commander Gen. Carter Ham asserts, Boko Haram is linked to al-Qaeda, or is, as stated by others, a diffuse group of local Sunni Muslims. In any event, former U.S. ambassador John Campbell, now an expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, who takes the latter view, said that a group calling itself Boko Haram could very well launch the cleansing campaign as threatened.
Boko Haram, in the local Hausa language, means “Western education is prohibited.” Fides explains that its roots lie in traditional local opposition to British-introduced Western education, which — associated with foreign white people — was understood as “Boko” or witchcraft. Math, science, and literature stood in stark contrast to the simple recitation and memorization of the Koran that is the practice of the madrassas in the Muslim areas of the country.
Fides reports that even today over 80 percent of Muslim parents in both rural and urban areas of Nigeria’s northern states refuse to send their children to school to acquire Western education. It states that “hordes of Muslim children who today roam the streets of Nigeria are graduates of the Islamiyya schools, under the tutelage of an itinerant teacher, Mallam.” It concludes: “These children, with no job, are the lifeblood that feeds sects like the Boko Haram and other similar millenarian movements, occasionally popping [up] in northern Nigeria.”
The Nigerian government has arrested hundreds of northern Muslims following the Christmas bombings but, over three years of Boko Haram violence, has yet to successfully prosecute anyone associated with the movement. The Catholic bishops have given up on these efforts and now call for foreign expertise. Archbishop Job declares: “It is apparent that, if we depend only on our available active security agents, we shall not make much progress. I therefore call on Mr. President to recall the retired experts in criminology and employ foreign experts in this field to assist the active security agents to put an immediate end to [the] Boko Haram menace.”
This is precisely the expertise that the United States should be providing — and fast.
― Nina Shea is the director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and co-author, with Paul Marshall, of Silenced: How Apostasy & Blasphemy Codes Are Choking Freedom Worldwide (Oxford University Press, 2011).