Fr. Emmanuel-Mary Mbam stands outside St. Theresa’s Church after the Christmas Day bombing attack. Photo courtesy of Fr. Emmanuel-Mary Mbam

Nigeria’s Christmas a day of tears and sorrow

By  Fr. Emmanuel-Mary Mbam, Catholic Register Special
  • January 4, 2012

ABUJA, NIGERIA - Christmas was a day of joy but also a day of tears and sorrow for Nigerian Christians. As the world celebrated the birth of the Prince of Peace, the Nigerian Church was struck by senseless violence that wiped away entire families and slaughtered scores of worshippers at three churches: St. Theresa’s parish in the town of Madalla, the Mountain of Fire and Miracles Church in Jos, and the church in Gadaka.  

I could have been among the victims but for divine providence. Until last April, when I was appointed as an assistant chaplain at the University of Abuja, I did weekend pastoral ministry at St. Theresa’s parish. But for that appointment I would have been in St. Theresa’s on Christmas day.

Of the five bombings, St. Theresa’s was the hardest hit, with 40 confirmed casualties. The bombers struck at the end of the 6 a.m. Christmas Mass, the most heavily attended, especially by youths. The bombers intended to drive their car full of explosives right into the Church immediately after Mass but, providentially, exiting parishioners had clogged the path to the Church with their vehicles. That caused the bombers to detonate their explosives in the middle of the road, blowing their car and everyone close by to smithereens, and damaging the church and other buildings. Entire families died in their vehicles and body parts were strewn everywhere, including the roof of the church. The casualities would have been much higher except most parishioners had gone through the back of the church to pay homage to the infant Jesus in the Christmas crib.

A spokesperson for the Islamic sect Boko Haram said the blast was revenge for Muslims killed during the last Eid-el-Fitri in Jos.

In my agony of ministering to the dead I gained insight into why the Church calls the day a person is martyred one’s birthday. These people were martyrs; they died for their faith. As Christ was born into the world, they were born into heaven. This is my only consolation. The past year saw an upsurge in religious violence in Nigeria as a determined Islamic sect intensified efforts to impose Sharia law on the country. Incidents of devastation and death are now common.

A woman picks through the belongings of the bomb victims at St. Theresa’s parish looking for the Bible of a dead relative.

A woman picks through the belongings of the bomb victims at St. Theresa’s parish looking for the Bible of a dead relative.

Photo courtesy of Fr. Emmanuel-Mary Mbam

With an estimated population of 150 million, Nigeria is a country with tribal, linguistic and religious plurality. Beyond the three politically dominant tribes, Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa, there are hundreds of other tribes that jostle, sometimes violently, for political and economic attention. There are no official or reliable statistics on religion, but the popular supposition is that Nigeria is evenly divided between the two Abrahamic religions: Christianity and Islam. In fact, however, Nigeria is broadly divided between African Traditional Religion (ATR), Christianity and Islam. Many Nigerians  publicly profess either Christianity or Islam for political and social conveniences but remain entrenched in ATR.

ATR adherents claim to embody the tradition and culture of Nigeria and regard Christianity and Islam as foreign religions. But clashes between ATR and other religions are often on a small scale and do not make international headlines. Clashes between Christians and Muslims, which control the political, security and economic machinery of the country, are often better organized and bloodier.

This violence has plagued Nigeria since its independence. It has been worsened by the false and dangerous bifurcation of the country into Christian South and Muslim North. It is false because there is a substantial Muslim population in the South-West and several areas of the North are predominantly Christian. It is dangerous because it has led to religious sectarianism where many Nigerians think and behave as if the North belongs exclusively to Islam and the South to Christianity.

Muslims in the North regard Christians in that region as squatters or second-class citizens. This has led to constant agitation for the application of Sharia law for the entire Northern region. In 1999, the governor of Zamfara State in the North-West adopted Sharia as the official law and was copied by almost all the Northern states. 

Since then there have been thousands of deaths from religious violence. In 2001, Islamic fanatics attributed an eclipse of the moon to the sins of the people, especially the Christians who sold liquor or operated hotels and bars. Hundreds of Christians were slaughtered and many churches burned. Five years later, before another eclipse, the Nigerian government campaigned vigourously to dispel the superstition that an eclipse was a manifestation of divine wrath. In 2002, the Miss World Pageant in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, had to be relocated to Britain after violent protests by Muslims. The protests claimed thousands of lives as churches, shops and other businesses were destroyed across many of the Northern states. The recent slaughter of many Muslims and Christians in Plateau state (North-Central) captured world headlines. Since then, there have been on-going, guerrilla-style ambushes, abductions and killings by the adherents of the two religions.

But most religious violence is fuelled by an Islamic sect called Jama’atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad (People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad), more commonly known as Boko Haram, which translates into the Nigerian Hausa language as “Book is forbidden.” In other words, Western education is abominable/sinful.

In 2009, Boko Haram targeted military and police personnel stationed in Northern Nigeria. This led to a crackdown by a joint team of the police and the army which left many members of the sect dead, including its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, who died in police detention. His death was suspected to be an attempt by politicians to cover up the truth of Boko Haram’s activities by silencing its leader. The sect has attacked several military barracks, police stations and churches. In September 2010, it raided a prison, freeing hundreds of inmates. On Christmas Eve 2010, several people were killed as four bomb blasts hit the city of Jos. A Boko Haram spokesman called the violence a religious war between Muslims and infidels. On the same day, two churches were attacked in Maiduguri, the headquarters of the sect, killing six people. Another attack occurred that New Year’s Eve when an army barracks in Abuja was bombed.

Last May, following the presidential inauguration of Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from the South who replaced a Muslim from the North, a series of bomb blasts ripped through a market in Bauchi state. Another explosion rocked a bar in Zuba, on the outskirts of Abuja. The attacks were interpreted as Boko Haram’s protest against a president considered by many Northern Muslims to have benefited from a rigged election. 

In June a suicide bomber in a Mercedes trailed the convoy of the Inspector General of Police, Hafiq Ringim, and blew himself up as the convoy entered the national headquarters of the Nigerian Police in Abuja. Several people were killed. The police chief was targeted for vowing to eradicate the sect. The bombing was seen as a demonstration of the sect’s ability to strike anywhere and of the ineptitude of the security agencies. It was a message to Nigerians that no one is safe.

A priest and security forces look over the scene of a car bomb explosion at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, just outside Nigeria's capital Abuja, Dec. 25.

A priest and security forces look over the scene of a car bomb explosion at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla, just outside Nigeria's capital Abuja, Dec. 25.

CNS/Reuters

The sect upped its campaign last August by bombing the United Nations headquarters in Abuja, killing at least 18 people. Though Christians are not the only targets, they have borne the greatest brunt of Islamic aggression. In November, the sect unleashed mayhem on Christians in Damaturu, the capital of Yobe State (North-East). Bomb attacks on the Christian-dominated part of the city called Jerusalem struck seven churches, Yobe State Police headquarters and some banks. More than a hundred people, mostly Christians and security personnel, were killed. Some residents who escaped the blasts were chased down and hacked to death.

Boko Haram is believed to be linked to al-Shabab militants in Somalia and to Al-Qaeda. Several attempts to negotiate with them have failed. In September former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo met with a family member of the sect’s slain leader. A few days later the family member was assassinated, allegedly by Boko Haram members who objected to a rapprochement with the government.

The Church in Nigeria and other parts of the world needs help. There is a call for the Church in Canada to be more vigourous, especially during inter-religious dialogue, in demanding the rights of Christians to worship freely in Islamic parts of the world. The Church in Canada needs to show concern for its brothers and sisters who are being terrorized. Canada has been vigourous in defending the rights of minorities and vulnerable groups. It should extend that same advocacy for Christians living in Northern Nigeria.

It is telling that the name, Boko Haram, implies aversion to education. This is emblematic of the loathing many Nigerians hold for their education system. The public school system, from primary to university, is so broken-down that only the poor patronize it; the rich send their children to private schools or to schools overseas. Nigeria’s 104 universities (41 of them owned privately) cannot provide admission to half of the country’s eligible candidates. Those who are admitted face poor facilities and a lackadaisical (or should I say demoralized?) academic staff. Those who graduate may spend years searching for their first job. Is it any surprise then that some youths regard education as futile?

Northern Nigeria is particularly disadvantaged academically and economically. By no coincidence, it has always been the hotbed of religious fanaticism. The North has Nigeria’s highest level of illiteracy and unemployment. The fact that in the 21st century many young men could believe an eclipse is a sign of divine wrath, and then go on a killing spree, is a testimony to the sorry state of education. So much mayhem in Nigeria could have been avoided had the government provided youths with good education and meaningful jobs.

Nigeria, the sixth largest oil producer in the world, has absolutely no reason to be poor. Yet, because of endemic corruption and administrative ineptitude, it remains impoverished. It spends 25 per cent of its annual budget on maintaining the National House of Assembly, which comprises 109 senators and 360 members of the House of Representatives. The 36 states that make up the country spend 96 per cent of their budget on overhead. Many top government officials siphon public funds into private foreign accounts. 

This is where Western powers like Canada hold the Nigerian government accountable for its corruption and failures. First, Canadian foreign assistance to Nigeria should be tied to a significant reduction in corruption and greater investment in infrastructure. Ottawa should put pressure on Nigeria to increase spending on education, research and investment. One way to make this pressure efficacious is by stemming the flow of funds out of Nigeria to developed economies like Canada. The violence in Nigeria does not hurt most of our leaders because they have little invested at home.

Canada can partner with Nigeria to improve the quality of education. Unless Nigerian leaders upgrade educational facilities, Canada should bar children of government officials (and their cronies) from studying in Canada. This is very important because, as long as the Nigerian education remains inefficient, there will be many more ignorant and susceptible youths willing to believe groups like Boko Haram that call for the killing of Christians and burning of churches.

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