Tough Rhetoric on Boko Haram from the Christian Association of Nigeria [Updated]

For some time now I (and for some time before that, various commenters on the blog) have been worried about the possibility of Christian reprisals against Muslims in Nigeria in response to regular attacks on Christians by the Northern rebel movement Boko Haram. The nightmare scenario is one in which tensions caused by Boko Haram intersect with other points of political tension and with local conflicts, producing widespread interreligious violence. More immediately plausible scenarios involve continued and severe crises in flashpoint areas such as Jos and Kaduna, both of which are located in Nigeria’s highly religiously and ethnically diverse Middle Belt. One important indicator to track in assessing the likelihood of various scenarios is Christian groups’ rhetoric. Certain Christian leaders have been threatening reprisals since at least last summer. This week marks a reiteration of that rhetoric, and I am tempted to say an escalation of it, by two leaders from the powerful Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) who made headlines with statements about Boko Haram.

AFP:

“I will now make a final call to the Nigerian government to use all resources available to it to clearly define and neutralise the problem as other nations have done,” Ayo Oritsejafor, head of the Christian Association of Nigeria, told reporters.
“The Church leadership has hitherto put great restraint on the restive and aggrieved millions of Nigerians, but can no longer guarantee such cooperation if this trend of terror is not halted immediately.”

Daily Trust/All Africa:

The Kaduna State chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has said that the continued attacks by the Boko Haram sect on Christians and churches across the Northern states, is a deliberate attempt to wipe out Christians from the region.

Chairman of CAN in the state, Reverend Sam Kraakevik Kujiyat, in a statement said the attacks and killings of Christians in Bayero University, Kano were barbaric.

“Nigerians, especially Christians should not be fooled into believing that the Boko Haram sect does not spare anyone. This is because their attacks against their Muslim brothers are either accidental or against those they see as working against their agenda. Their main targets are Christians and their places of worship.”

The first statement is important for the threat it contains, the second for the understanding of Boko Haram it reflects. Boko Haram has claimed the lives of hundreds of Muslims in addition to its Christian victims, but its recent attacks on Christians have reinforced a highly polarized view of what the movement is. Debates over who suffers most from religious violence in Nigeria are also not new; at a conference in Kano in the fall, I witnessed a testy exchange between the Sultan of Sokoto and a spokesman for CAN, with the latter emphasizing tragedies that had befallen Christians and the former arguing for an understanding of violence as affecting Muslims too. Such debates remain unresolved. But the rhetoric from CAN and other groups this spring certainly seems, to me, to be growing sharper. There is not always a clear progression from harsh rhetoric to violent acts, but at the very least the possibility of reprisal attacks on Muslims is real.

[UPDATE]: Excerpting some important commentary from Carmen McCain on the different actions and voices within CAN:

Despite the hot words from the Kaduna CAN chairman, it might be important to point out that Kaduna CAN seems to have been at the forefront of peace building efforts alongside Muslims. I also think the internal diversity within CAN should be pointed out more often. It is often seen as a united front–and from knowing a few CAN people who are frustrated that Oritsejafor’s aggressive talk, I can testify that that is certainly not the case. Although they are a minority within the organization and thus not able to stop Oritsejafor from issuing the statements that he has been issuing, there are some good, reasonable people in CAN, who are working as hard as they can for peace.

Here are three articles from the past several months highlighting the activities in Kaduna:

Muslim and Christian Women Pray for Nigeria, Kaduna:http://leadership.ng/nga/articles/23496/2012/05/02/kaduna_muslim_christian_women_pray_nigeria.html

CAN Offers praying ground for Muslims in Kaduna:http://allafrica.com/stories/201203130664.html

Kaduna: Christian-Muslim youth embark on peace initiatives:http://www.vanguardngr.com/2012/03/kaduna-christian-muslim-youths-embark-on-peace-initiative/

[...]

While I too have been worried by Oritsejafor’s veiled threats, I think that often analysts pay so much attention to him that they ignore the hard work that is being done by those most at risk by BH. Since there are so many bad stories coming out of the north right now, I think it is important to highlight a few of the good stories too and not (by selective analysis) silence those leaders who are speaking reasonably and responsibly.

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14 thoughts on “Tough Rhetoric on Boko Haram from the Christian Association of Nigeria [Updated]

  1. Anti-Christian violence in Northern Nigeria has an long history and it predates Boko Haram. As far back as the late eighties when I was still in school, Northern minority Christians (who tended to be the most fervent members of the local Student Christian Movement) told us stories about persecution of Christians, denial of job opportunities and harrassment.

    This was the period when people like Datti Ahmed, Abubakar Gumi and Zakzaky were at their bombastic worst. Shortly before then, there was a truely horrible outburst of religious violence at the University of Ibadan. I remember Wole Soyinka’s speech on the “credo of being and nothingness”.

    The event that is etched into the memory of all Northern Christians is the backlash against Reinhard Bonnke’s crusade in 1991. People were beheaded (a particular female NYSC member’s head was placed on her body), there was an orgy of looting and burning. In response to that event, the Igbo community at Sabon Gari decided to arm themselves, and so far that has deterred further attempts at religiously motivated violence in that part of the country.

    In 1996, Gideon Akaluka was beheaded for “defacing the Quran”. He was seized from a local police station by an angry mob and his head was paraded. In true fashion, several churches were burnt.

    The plight of Christians in Northern Nigeria – their fears, their expectations and their insecurities tend to be brushed over by mainstream Western media. Terms like “mainly Muslim North” tend to obscure rather than educate readers on the true diversity of Northern Nigeria (Kaduna is not in the “Middle Belt”, it is in Northern Nigeria). A lot of the discussion around the introduction of Sharia law in parts of Northern Nigeria was based on an understanding of the Northern Nigeria that existed in 1914, not the Northern Nigeria that exists today.

    Goodluck Jonathan would not have won the 2011 presidential election without the support of Northern Christian minorities (this fact is often brushed aside or ignored). The Christian Association of Nigeria is a much more powerful political force in Northern Nigeria than many people realise – to achieve peace in Northern Nigeria, it isn’t enough to talk to Muslim leaders, you must also talk to Christian leaders.

    But what exactly did Ayo Oritsejafor say? He told “Christians to defend themselves”. The alternative to not defending oneself for many Northern Christians, is sadly, death. Is there a place for self-defense in Christian theology? Yes. What other options exist when government cannot guarantee safety, the local Muslim population is too cowed or is even complicit and an evil sect is hell bent on eliminating Christianity in Northern Nigeria?

    Ayo Oritsejafor’s statement is more of a warning than an incitement to violence. Young angry men are young angry men and they will eventually do what young angry men do when pushed to the wall. The list of provocations against the local Christian community is extremely long (an attack left more than a 100 dead in Damaturu and least 20 Churches have been either bombed or burnt).

    Nigeria’s Christian community has been remarkably restrained. Instead of analysing the impact of statements, we should be working on ways to constructively address their fears.
    We are runnning out of time.

    • Certainly I don’t mean to ignore the history.

      My worry is that “self-defense” is code for acts that target Muslims who are not part of Boko Haram, or for the formation of Christian militias, etc.

      As for phrases like “mainly Muslim north,” I can see why that irks you, but journalists and others have to have some kind of (factually accurate) shorthand for conveying key facts about countries to readers who aren’t familiar with them. Certainly people shouldn’t put forward causal arguments that don’t hold – “Jonathan won the 2011 elections, so therefore you get Boko Haram” doesn’t make sense, nor does it reflect the facts – but on the other hand in a 600-word blog post or a 1000-word BBC report, there is simply not the space to get into an exhaustive discussion of Christian minorities in the North and their history.

      As for what is and what is not Middle Belt, we could probably debate that until we’re blue in the face. I admit that a lot of definitions of the Middle Belt don’t include Kaduna. But if Jos is Middle Belt, then a place like Kafanchan, which is further south than Jos, is Middle Belt too, no? And an area can be both part of Northern Nigeria and part of the Middle Belt – administratively that was the case when the Northern Region existed. But if you want a strict definition then Kaduna city is out, I guess.

      • Alex,
        Won’t you admit that the Christian community in Northern Nigeria has been remarkably restrained? They have experienced the most terrifying year, ever and they have not lashed out at Muslims. They should be commended for that.

        If CAN was so “blood thirsty” reprisal attacks would have commenced six months ago across the entire nation. So far, they have succeeded in calming frayed nerves – very few reprisal attacks have occurred.

        What the good pastor was trying to tell the World is that there is boiling cauldron of angry young men, and he can no longer dissipate this anger. People need security, and if the government cannot provide it, they need to provide it themselves.

        (Zaria is in Kaduna State, I haven’t heard anyone refer to Zaria as being in the “Middle Belt”).

  2. Alex, I agree that Oritsejafor’s rhetoric (which he has been at for a while, sparking a series of back and forth advertorials in newspapers) is worrisome, and I agree with you that it sounds more like he is threatening Muslims with violence. For those arguing that he is just saying Christians will defend themselves, how does one “defend” oneself against a bomb one does not know is coming? It sounds more like he’s saying he will not discourage Christian youth from “defending” themselves by going to war against Muslims.

    However, I also agree with Chavuka that so far, at least following BH attacks in Kano and Kaduna, most Christians have been more restrained than they have been in previous crises (as opposed to, for example, in Zonkwa last year, when Muslims were massacred by Christians.) Jos, unfortunately, has been less restrained this year. There were attacks by Christian youth on Muslims following both church bombs in Jos this year. The frustrating thing is that, while anger is understandable (hundreds of Christians have been killed in churches this year–we live in palpable fear every day–cement barriers have been dropped down everywhere–you get security wanded, including your Bible, when you go into church these days), when Christians “retaliate”, they are generally retaliating against perfectly innocent Muslims who have nothing to do with BH. It angers me that Oritsejafor is fanning these flames.

    All that said, despite the hot words from the Kaduna CAN chairman, it might be important to point out that Kaduna CAN seems to have been at the forefront of peace building efforts alongside Muslims. I also think the internal diversity within CAN should be pointed out more often. It is often seen as a united front–and from knowing a few CAN people who are frustrated that Oritsejafor’s aggressive talk, I can testify that that is certainly not the case. Although they are a minority within the organization and thus not able to stop Oritsejafor from issuing the statements that he has been issuing, there are some good, reasonable people in CAN, who are working as hard as they can for peace.

    Here are three articles from the past several months highlighting the activities in Kaduna:

    Muslim and Christian Women Pray for Nigeria, Kaduna: http://leadership.ng/nga/articles/23496/2012/05/02/kaduna_muslim_christian_women_pray_nigeria.html

    CAN Offers praying ground for Muslims in Kaduna: http://allafrica.com/stories/201203130664.html

    Kaduna: Christian-Muslim youth embark on peace initiatives: http://www.vanguardngr.com/2012/03/kaduna-christian-muslim-youths-embark-on-peace-initiative/

    Also, in Kano following the attacks on the churches that met at BUK campus, here is how the CAN chairman of Kano reacted:

    “In his reaction, chairman of the Kano State chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), Mr. Ransome Bello, described the attack as “barbaric and condemnable,” but added that Christians will not retaliate.
    “We don’t encourage Christians to rise up in attack. Our best weapon of defence is prayer,” he said.

    http://www.dailytrust.com.ng/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=160994%3Aas-gunmen-fire-on-worshippers2-profs-17-others-killed-in-buk-attack&catid=2%3Alead-stories&Itemid=8

    The same CAN chairman hosted a group of Muslims who attended churches in Kano following the Madalla bombing this year.

    http://www.peoplesdaily-online.com/news/special-report/29259-kano-boko-haram-attacks-are-bringing-muslims-and-christians-ever-closer-together-to-fight-the-menace

    Overall, the reason I’ve shared all these links is that while I too have been worried by Oritsejafor’s veiled threats, I think that often analysts pay so much attention to him that they ignore the hard work that is being done by those most at risk by BH. Since there are so many bad stories coming out of the north right now, I think it is important to highlight a few of the good stories too and not (by selective analysis) silence those leaders who are speaking reasonably and responsibly.

    • Carmen,

      I disagree with you on your assessment of what Oritsejafor said.

      If Christians in America were under the same pressure as Christians in Nigeria, what would their reaction be?

      Sabon-Gari in Kano tends to be spared from the worst violence, why? Because in the early nineties, Igbo traders armed themselves and were able to repel their attackers. If the government could not do the job, then they had to do it themselves.

      Cast your mind back to the story of Korean shopkeepers and L.A rioters in 1992, Korean rioters were not attacked because they were armed and formed a ring around their perimeter.

      The unfortunate event at BUK would have had much less impact if Christians made arrangements to have heavily armed, rough men around them. That is the truth.

      You mentioned peace initiatives between Christians and Muslims, well and good. Neither myself, CAN nor Oritsejafor have any problems with the vast majority of Nigerian Muslims. We (and most Nigerians, Christian and Muslim) have problems with Boko Haram, though. If the government cannot deal with this problem, how many young babies must die, how many husbands must die in their prime before we are forced to protect ourselves?

      Self-defense is not anti-Christian. I have the right to overpower a robber that intends to do harm to my family. German Christians were not entirely passive under Hitler (read up on Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

      Finally, Oritsejafor is very influential. The majority of Christians in Northern Nigeria are thinking along those lines. There must be and will be a proper Christian response to Boko Haram. It will include peace, love and reconciliation in addition to the threat of violence.

      • It’s been quite some time since the U.S had that kind of split*. Historically it’s been more repression by the Caucasian majority than two groups fighting for dominance.
        Incidentally that creates a chicken and egg scenario**. Is the state weak because the people who are being targeted take matters into their own hands, or do the people take matters into their own hands because the state is too weak to protect them.

        *The American Civil War.
        ** If you’ve heard of the strange phrase before.

      • It is the latter – people are about to take their destiny in their hands because the state is too weak.

        The state isn’t only weak, it is in retreat. I pump my water, fuel my generator to provide electricity. Kids go to private school (70% of all schools in Lagos are private) and the government spends more on Niger Delta Militant rehabilitation than on primary healthcare.

        What does the state do for me?

        Pastor Ayo’s statement can be seen as the last desperate plea of a man who needs to shock feckless government into action.

        If that doesn’t do the trick, all bets are off.

    • Just to add.

      There is a very fierce debate in Christianity over self-defence. The classical response to persecution is “flee” or be matyred, but there are more nuanced responses to violence specifically targeting Christians in environments where the government is either unwilling or unable to guarantee safety.

      Jos, Zonkwa and Yelwa are more of ethnic/political rivalries masking as religious crises.

      It is also interesting that Christians in India echoed exactly the same sentiments as Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor:

      “Faced with continuing violence by Hindu extremists Christians in India are considering appropriate ways of self-defense.

      Retaliation is, however, out of the question, as Rev. Pran R. Parichha, President of the Orissa Chapter of the All India Christian Council (AICC), explained to the German evangelical news agency “idea.”

      In the federal state of Orissa, where anti-Christian attacks continue, police and paramilitary security forces are not providing sufficient protection for the Christian minority, said Parichha during a visit to idea’s main office in Wetzlar, October 6. Christians were living in constant fear.”

      http://www.crosswalk.com/news/religion-today/india-christians-consider-self-defense-against-violence-11582700.html

      Sounds familiar?

      As I said earlier, there are no easy answers. Please stop potraying Pastor Oritsejafor as some angry dangerous religious extremist.

      • Chavuka,
        I have no problem with self defense of the sort that churches have been resorting to over the past few months. The church I attend has built an extra gate. The streets in front of it are blocked off and watched over by church security as well as one soldier, no cars or motorcycles are allowed into the church compound, and we go into church with only our Bibles–no bags. We are also wanded down by church security. Other churches have built cement barriers and other sorts of defensive mechanisms to ward of an easy attack. I think these sorts of measures are sensible and needed during these times. If this is what Oritsejafor means by “self-defense”, I have no problem with that. If, on the other hand, he means arming youth to stand around churches with guns, I’m afraid I’m the kind of Christian who does not believe in that sort of self-defence. Not when it can so easily turn into violent aggression against innocent Muslims as has happened after both church bombs in Jos this year. Indeed, after the COCIN church bombing, the violent response of the youth resulted in the killing of a COCIN member misidentified as one of the bombers. (see: http://www.vanguardngr.com/2012/03/bomb-blast-church-admits-members-death-in-error/). Furthermore, when you are dealing with suicide bombers, how effective is armed self defense? If they don’t care if they will die or not, it is hard to see how the threat of meeting armed guards will deter them. Indeed, it would seem that it would only make BH build bigger bombs and arm themselves more thoroughly, which will inevitably lead to more deaths.

        What worries me in Oritsejafor’s statements is his threatening tone and language. Someone in his position should be much more careful, as it is very easy for both Muslims and Christians, looking for an excuse to fight, to misinterpret this sort of statement: ““The church leadership has hitherto put great restraint on the restive and aggrieved millions of Nigerians but can no longer guarantee such co-operation, if this trend is not halted immediately.”

        You say that this statement that the church “can no longer guarantee such co-operation” is only referring to “self-defense”, but let me quote from Oritsejafor’s press release following the Madalla bombing in December. Though the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs and other Muslim leaders, have issued multiple condemnations of violence in the name of Islam, Oritsejafor, on behalf of CAN, writes
        “6. If the Supreme Council for Islamic Affaris does not take positive action towards resolving the threat to our security by its extremist sects, particularly the Hausa and Fulani Muslims of Northern Nigeria, we might be forced to review our Christian/Muslim collaborative efforts towards peace building.”

        Here, he holds the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs responsible for extremist violence (perhaps comparable to holding CAN responsible for the Zonkwa massacre and attacks on Muslims during Sallah of 2011. I agree with you that this sectarian violence is more ethnic than religious, but if you are going to hold leaders of a religion responsible for the violence of other members of the religion, then this is a fair comparison ). Not only this, but he phrases it in such a way as to imply that the “Hausa and Fulani Muslims of Northern Nigeria” are all extremists, and he threatens to remove Christian collaboration in peace building—the absolute last thing we need.

        Let’s go on to item number 7. “Christianity is inspired by Jesus Christ , the Prince of Peace. Unfortunately, our overtures for peace and disposition for civility has been mistaken for weakness by extremist Muslims. The consensus is that the Christian community nationwide may be left with no other option than to respond appropriately if there are any further attacks on our members, Churches and properties.”

        Here, his choice of language “respond appropriately” sounds like a threat to respond with violence to me, as if the “Prince of Peace” is not enough in these troubled times. Again, this is all a matter of interpretation, but the leader of a body which purports to speak for all Christians in Nigeria, should be much more careful with his choice of language. I was particularly struck by the fact that in the entire press release, he did not once quote scripture. Here is a photo of the press release from which I quote.

        2011-12-31-Weekly Trust-CAN advertorial

        Contrast Oritsejafor’s tone with that taken by these other church leaders:

        Anglican Bishop of Kaduna Josiah Idowu-Fearon today, who challenges both Christians and Muslims to live up to what the Bible and Qur’an teaches about God: http://www.vanguardngr.com/2012/05/bishop-idowu-fearon-asks-murder-in-the-name-of-which-god/

        Anglican Primate of Abuja Nicholas Okoh, who supports your interpretation of what the CAN president said but uses much more careful language: http://sundaytrust.com.ng/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=10106&catid=58&Itemid=125

        Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Matthew Hassan Kukah: http://www.vanguardngr.com/2012/01/do-not-be-afraid-bishop-kukah-appeals/

        Former CAN President Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, John Onaiyekan

        http://sundaytrust.com.ng/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=9092:why-i-visited-the-national-mosque-archbishop-onaiyekan&catid=54:lead-stories&Itemid=127

        Cornelius Afebu Omonokhua , Director of Mission and Dialogue, Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, Abuja:

        http://sundaytrust.com.ng/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=10045&catid=7&Itemid=113

        Pastor Wale Adefarasin and Reverend Moses Iloh of the Soul Winning Chapel, Lagos, who urge Christians to focus less on “Muslims being the problem with Nigeria” and examine whether they are truly living the way that Christ taught:

        http://www.weeklytrust.com.ng/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7532:pastors-blame-church-not-islam-for-nations-woes&catid=41:news&Itemid=30

        I do not necessarily think that Pastor Oritsejafor is an “angry dangerous religious extremist;” however without having the benefit of personally knowing the man, I would say that his statements have been consistently open to violent interpretation, and that he would be wise to take a cue from other Christian leaders in Nigeria to be more careful with how he expresses himself in this current volatile environment.

      • Carmen,

        Boko Haram certainly isn’t a Yoruba, Igala or Auchi Muslim thing. At a certain point, we’ve got to tell ourselves the truth and ask ourselves hard questions. What is it about the practice of Islam in the Hausa speaking parts of Nigeria that leads to frequent outbursts of violence, and does the local Islamic leadership either tolerate this violence or actively encourage it?

        As CAN president, there are many things Ayo Oritsejafor knows that neither of us are privy to. But fifty-plus years of religiously inspired violence are a bit too much to ignore.

        Peter Akinola (a previous CAN president) spoke like Pastor Ayo and I doubt these men speak this way because they want to provoke violence. There must be something deeper.

        I leave it at that.

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