According to a local bishop, Nigeria's well-being holds the key to the fate of the African continent.
Bishop Hyacinth Egbebo is the administrator of the Apostolic Vicariate of Bomadi, in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, in the heart of the country’s oil-rich but economically deprived south. Nigerian Christians are confronted with the growing threat of radical Islam in the form of the extremely violent anti-Christian Boko Haram sect, which was declared a terrorist organization by the US.
With 160 million people, Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country. Just over 50 percent of the people are Christians, who form the majority in southern Nigeria; Muslims account for another 45 percent of the population, largely living in northern Nigeria. There are 30 million Catholics in the country. In 2012, close to 1,000 Christians died because of their faith in Nigeria, according to reports, and Boko Haram is responsible for the deaths of at least 700 Christians in 2013. Bishop Egbebo spoke with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need Jan. 1, 2014.
Fulani tribesman in conjunction with Boko Haram militants massacred 70 Christians late last year in northern Nigeria and there are reports practically every week of new attacks. The group is said to charge the government with not responding to Christian attacks on Muslims. Is there any validity to that claim?
Revenge killings did take place in Jos, two years ago, and in Kaduna last winter, both of which are Christian strongholds. But the bishops strongly condemned the murder of Muslims at the hand of Christians, and such revenge attacks are very few now.
Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, president of the Nigerian bishops’ conference, has also called attention to what he calls Islamic propaganda, exaggerations of the number of Muslims killed, and he also pointed to instances where Muslims included the bodies of Christian victims among their own dead. The bishops have prevailed however, in the face of Boko Haram’s effort to provoke Christians into acts of retaliation and create chaos in the country. Of course, some Christians fight back if they are attacked.
What is the appeal of radical Islam? Why this hatred of Christians?
Boko Haram wants an Islamic state in the North, imposing Sharia law on everyone. Hence, everything that is an obstacle to implementing that goal becomes a target for violence. Those obstacles include the government itself, the constitution, as well as the police and the army.
Christians, moreover, are associated with the West, with the values of freedom and democracy and the promotion of education. That’s why Boko Haram is even attacking schools and killing children. These radicals believe that Western education should be forbidden, anything that builds up the Christian ethos.
Then, should they succeed in the North, they would set their sights on the South. If they should overrun Nigeria, it will be a steppingstone to conquering smaller countries. There is a lot of support for Boko Haram from outside the country; otherwise the fact that they are so professionally trained and supplied cannot be explained. If they had simply been a homegrown organization, they would have been defeated by now.
What outside forces could be behind it?
I am not sure. There was speculation that Muamar Gadaffi played a major role. He is the only figure we have been able to identify, thus far. The former president of Nigeria, General Muhammadu Buhari, at one point made a not so veiled threat that should he not be re-elected, he would make the country ungovernable. Now a man from the South, a Christian leader, Goodluck Jonathan, has been elected president of Nigeria and attacks by Islamic radicals have definitely increased. Since the killing of the electoral officers on the day the results were announced, the momentum of Boko Haram attacks has picked up sharply.
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