By Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde
Within 48 hrs of publishing Jonathan and the Security of Nigerian Christians on the internet and a number of Nigerian newspapers and websites, Imam Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lidda’wati wal Jihad – commonly called Boko Haram – released a video on Youtube describing the objectives of its mission.
I feel that both the international and local press have not done justice to the speech of the Imam. Though he has clearly given reasons behind their mission, everything was just reduced to “Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for attacking Christians in Nigeria”, without even stating the reasons.
Given the relevance of the group to our national security today, I think it is essential for the media to maintain a balance in its reporting of the group. This is not to say ‘five minutes for the Israelis and five minutes for the Palestinians”, but a coverage that ensures the message of each side is passed to readers in the most comprehensive form possible is desirable.
In following ‘few’ paragraphs, I set out to discuss the most essential points of Imam Shekau’s message – the category of Nigerians that the group is targeting and its reasons for doing so. Of course, he has raised some controversial matters in the province of contemporary Islamic jurisprudence just as there are also many things he did not say which we would love to hear from him directly. However, these are matters that can best be discussed separately at a later date, hopefully, by more capable minds than mine. As conclusion, the challenges the group posed by the group to government, Muslims and Christians are discussed.
The video, according to Imam Shekau, was essentially directed at three targets: President Jonathan, for whom the Boko Haram leader promised “more troubling times ahead”; the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) for its “vituperations” in the aftermath of the recent bombings; and, individuals opposed to the group including those that see it as a “cancer or disease among the people.”
Imam Shekau was also clear on who the group regards as its enemies. First on the list was security personnels who the Imam charged with persecuting members of the group, including the cold blood murder of its leader in police custody, killing many of its members and eradication of its centres; two, Christians, for killing Muslims in various parts of the North in various religious and ethnic crisis that took place during the past two and a half decades; and, three, Muslim informants and moles, “yan chune“, who assist the government to identify and kill its members. “Apart from these”, said the Boko Haram leader, “we have not targeted anyone.”
Let us discuss each of these targets separately.
It is difficult for anyone to suggest an alternative to going underground for the group after the treatment meted it by the Yar’adua administration in 2009. Instead of abiding by rule of law, like arresting its leader and charging him – maximum – with treason, the authorities deliberately chose to provoke the group. The police killed a number of its members during a funeral procession on the flimsy ground of not using a helmet. To date, nothing was done to the culprits.
The group promised to retaliate after Ramadan in 2009. What happened after that Ramadan when the group protested at a police station in Bauchi did not actually necessitate an all-out war against it. Many groups have attacked the police before but they were handled by normal means without resorting to extreme measures like massacres. Let us not forget the “finish them” order that President Yar’adua gave to the security forces that morning when he was leaving for Brazil. In fact, he even timed it that by 4.00pm that day, the job must have been completed.
In Bauchi, it was estimated that over seventy members of the group were massacred at their centre behind the airport. Apparently, they were even unaware of the conflict at Dutsen Tanshi police station that started that morning. By evening, the state commissioner for special duties led a team of government agents that leveled the centre with bulldozers. Passengers at the Yankari Park in Bauchi also witnessed how eight unarmed members were arrested and killed instantly by soldiers as the were boarding a bus to Maiduguri. The governor, Isa Yuguda, would later claim credit for the “decisive way” in which his government dealt with the group in his state.
In Maiduguri, what happened was pretty clear. Government went for total extermination of the group without recourse to any due process. The world was witness to how their centre was leveled by soldiers; how Muhammad Yusuf, their leader, was executed; how Muhammad Foi, a former member of Sheriff’s cabinet, was executed on the street after his arrest; and how the police and the military went about killing anyone that resembled their members to the extent that people started shaving their beards en masse; etc. A senior police officer was reported in the press saying that he cannot guarantee the life of anyone wearing such features. So many were arrested along with their wives. They remain in prison to date without trial. Extermination is still the strategy of government in dealing with the group.
While some ulama that were in the good books of government justified the killings saying that the sect is Kharijite, the world condemned the actions. We wrote essays then condemning both the ulama and the authorities on the highhandedness they showed. The government apologized to the United Nations after it was condemned for the human right abuses, promising that it will bring the perpetrators to book. Actually, it did nothing. No disciplinary action was taken against anyone until when Boko Haram bombed the Police Headquarters in Abuja in 2010. Two police officers were then reportedly dismissed from service for the murder of the Boko Haram leader.
Boko Haram therefore was left with no option but to go underground. The group did exactly that. It took time to heal its wounds, regroup and re-strategize before returning to revenge what Imam Shekau described as the “the injustice meted against it.” To my understanding this is why he chose the following verses to open his Youtube video speech:
“Truly, God defends those who believe. Verily, God likes not any treacherous ingrate. Permission to fight is given to those who are fought against because they have been wronged, and, surely, God is able to give them victory. Those who have been expelled from their homes unjustly only because they said, Our Lord is God.”
The overwhelming opinion among Muslims then was that the group was indeed treated unjustly. Public commentators from the North openly accused Yar’adua of playing ‘Animal Farm’ with his brothers. The killing of Boko Haram members came just some few months after the President negotiated and granted a lucrative amnesty to more destructive militants in the oil rich Niger Delta.
Beneficiaries of the amnesty were placed under a welfare package and chunks of the federal government expenditure was sunk into the development of that region in addition to the ‘lion share’ that its state governments collect from statutory allocations, which is greater than the allocations of all the 19 northern states. In addition, they receive 13% of Nigerian revenue earnings. Finally, as it was clear in 2011, 86% of federal projects are now allocated to that region.
The result is peace.
However, for Boko Haram, the government chose to negotiate with bullets and bombs. It is not surprising, therefore, that the group replied it in its own language. In this context, one can easily understand its resort to violence as a means of survival.
If Yar’adua was wrong in treating Boko Haram in the 21st Century with the same strategy that Shagari and Buhari used to overcome Maitatsine in the 1980s, Jonathan did little to correct that mistake. He has not shown any interest in dialoguing with the group, so far. The group has many times cited this as another reason for continuing its struggle. Appeal to its members to put down its weapons and negotiate with government and they will rebut in this standard format: “How can we trust any negotiation with people who are amassing arsenal to attack us?”
All that Jonathan did was to constitute a committee to study the group and matters related to it. When it was insinuated that the mandate of the committee included negotiating with the group, the Secretary to the Federal Government quickly dismissed any such mandate. Months after the committee submitted its report, its recommendation for peaceful negotiation between government and the group continues to remain frozen.
The result is insecurity.
This is in sharp contrast to what happened to the October 1,2010 bombers. President Jonathan laboured hard in public to exonerate the perpetrators who claimed to belong to the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta. They said they did it; he said they didn’t. Security officials told the nation that they have evidence linking Raymond Dokpesi, the presidential campaign manager of Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida and owner of AIT, to the attacks. Security agents quizzed Dokpesi and some arrests were made.
The media guru transferred his support to Jonathan and allowed his channel become the mouthpiece of the President. And behold, the bombing charges were forgotten! The last thing reported between Jonathan and Dokpesi ten days ago was that the latter was paid N1.3 billion for ‘services’ he rendered to the government!
Informants, Moles and Critics
When it reappeared in 2010, Boko Haram started to selectively kill people that assisted the authorities in identifying them. The initial victims were grassroots traditional rulers, the lawanis as they are called in Borno. After killing the first few, Boko Haram issued a warning that it will go after all those that aided the authorities in persecuting them. These included a number of ulama, traditional rulers, and the three governors of Borno, Gombe and Bauchi states. It demanded pubic apologies from the governors and got it from the last two. Though the group rejected the apology, it is yet to carry out its threat against the big three. Among the high profile killings made in this category were those of the junior brother to the Shehu of Borno, the state chairman of the ruling party in the state and its gubernatorial candidate during the last elections.
Immediately the group started its selective killings, the ulama realized their vulnerability and none of them dared again to condemn the group publicly or repeat to assign it the Kharijite nomenclature. At a point, Boko Haram also issued a warning that they will also go against anyone who publicly condemns its activities, including journalists who do not live by the ethics of their profession in reporting it’s activities.
The government has been unable to protect its informants and other citizens from these attacks. This partially explains the silence of the Muslim community over Boko Haram. Generally, though, it could be argued that it has not been the tradition of communities in Nigeria to criticize their own militants. The Niger Delta and the killing of Muslims in Plateau and Kaduna States are the bad examples that readily come to mind.
While whoever decides to serve as an informant or a mole knows the risk he is taking, it is my opinion that the group has gone too far when it considered criticisms as attack. By so doing, though the group would gain the advantage of instilling fear in the population, it stands the chance of losing public sympathy and gaining the benefits of correction, or nasiha as it is called in Islam.
Islam, which the group is linking its cause to, is very wide and it could harbour a variety of opinions on the same issue. Throughout its history, given the diversity of their environment, Muslims have benefitted more than losing from such differences. Divergence of opinion is counted among the blessings of the ummah. And even great Caliphs like Umar welcome corrections by ordinary members of the society when they adopted policies that are contrary to the scripture.
Likewise, there could be many other interpretations to the Nigerian situation than Boko Haram’s and if the cause is truly for the common good of the people as Imam Shekau has said, the door of constructive criticism must remain open. In his video alone, there are a number of controversial issues on which many Muslims would beg to differ from Boko Haram: the status of Christianity, democracy, jihad, western education, etc. It is the right of the Muslim community to debate them publicly in light of its understanding of Islam and it is the right of Boko Haram to rebut such points with superior arguments or accept them at its pleasure.
Having made this observation, I must hasten to mention that debates on issues regarding Islam in Nigeria are very difficult even among Muslims in particular. What I have realized in the past thirty-five years is that some people are impatient, and many times unwilling, to listen to the other side. Immediately I differ with you in opinion, the first thing I do is brand you as heretic, infidel, blasphemous, or other similar dangerously derogatory names. End of discussion! (I have been awarded a number of those insignia whenever I express an opinion that is distasteful to some pious readers.) That is why in Muslims and Rule of Law in Nigeria (2009) I wrote strongly against the people who rushed to label Boko Haram as Kharijite. Others before them have been labeled with equally disastrous names, making it difficult for mutual understanding to be reached at on any single matter that arises.
The very day their massacre started in 2009, the Bauchi State government sought and obtained from the ulama in the town a fatwa which served as a license for authorities to kill Boko Haram members without recourse to justice. Only the most elderly sheikh in town opined differently, insisting that in Islam no soul should be killed without a ruling from a judge. That is why some of the ulama fled the country when Boko Haram staged a return the following year. The governor too has abandoned the Government House and practically relocated to Abuja since he received the death threat.
The reluctance of Boko Haram to intellectually engage this kind of ulama is therefore understandable. Yet, if it will look around well, it will see that not the entire ummah is a mouthpiece of government. There are hundreds of other ulama with whom it can engage constructively.
Up to last Christmas, Boko Haram has not clearly claimed attacking any church. As we tried to do above, it is possible to see the angle from which the group justifies its attack on security personnel, informants and the like. However, making targets of innocent Christians is extremely hard, if not impossible to reason with from the Islamic viewpoint. Justifiably, nothing has negatively affected public sympathy for the group like those attacks. The uproar that greeted the Christmas bombing among Muslims and Christians alike is a testimony to the prevailing repugnance.
But let us be fair and examine the reasons of Boko Haram first before we hang it. Imam Shekau based his justification on the brutal killings of Muslims in various incidents Kaduna and Plateau State since the Kafanchan crisis. He mentioned how Muslims were killed in the various crises, their women subjected to dehumanizing treatments, and so on. The acts, and worse ones, like the reported trafficking of children of victims and the sex-slavery of Muslim women, did not receive any condemnation from Christians or their leaders. Government also declined to prosecute perpetrators clearly identified by their victims, despite the availability of hardcore evidence like pictures, videos, etc. It was against this background that the Boko Haram leader rebuffed the protest of the CAN President, as he put it, “simply because of the few successes we recorded recently”, apparently referring to the Christmas bombings and those that followed in Gombe, Mubi and Yola.
There could be few Muslims who would concur with Shekau, privately arguing that reprisal attacks are the norm in Nigeria. Christians, they would argue, would know that if they continue to kill Muslims in their areas, there are now in place a set of Muslims that will revenge it. The overwhelming majority of Muslims, however, were disappointed with the claim. I, for example, was planning to visit Gombe, Yola and Mubi to investigate the recent attacks on Christians because of the widespread belief that those attacks could not have been the work of Muslims. As I reclined on bed to plan the trip that Wednesday, the BBC Hausa Service broke the news that Boko Haram has released a video claiming to target Christians in Nigeria. I became completely devastated.
Like most people, I have my reservations about the recent attacks on Christians in the Northeast. This is not like Jonathan’s case of “they said we did it, he said they didn’t.” There is evidence that implicates Christians in activities linked to Boko Haram. The SSS has shared some with the public. Some were reported caught attempting to burn churches. The latest is in police custody right now in Kaduna. The last person I spoke to in Yola regarding the bombings that took place there recently. He said, “we don’t have Boko Haram here; all we have are politicians who are using the bombings to canvass votes.” An article published today by the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, our respected brother Hasan Kukah, has listed such cases. Good progress.
Despite the above revelations, the speech of Imam Shekau must be given its due weight. We must be honest to say that Boko Haram has unequivocally declared Christians as targets of its attacks. Pure and simple. Whether the group carried all attacks on Christians or not is a matter that is open to debate, which like many, I thought the Imam would clarify himself. Unfortunately, he did not.
If I were a consultant to Boko Haram, I would have advised it against taking this measure on both religious and political grounds despite my appreciation of their concern over the atrocities repeatedly committed against Muslims in many communities in Plateau and Kaduna States.
From angle of religion, it would be quite easy to prove, using unquantifiable number of sources, that collective punishment to Christians in Nigeria is not in accordance with the letter and spirit of the Qur’an. It is haram. Period. If the group had taken the pain to investigate the people or the communities that perpetrated those atrocities against Muslims and directed its anger against them, that would have put its mission of revenge in a more proper context. But to hold a Christian in Niger, Borno, Yobe or Adamawa for the wrong done by some Christians in communities of Kaduna and Plateau state is a cause that is difficult to justify. Revenge in Islam, even where it is chosen by the victim over the preferred option of forgiveness, must be surgically precise to meet the requirement of Shariah.
Politically, I would continue with my advice, attacking Christians sends different messages, all negative to the image of the group. One, some may think that the group is losing in its battle against the Nigerian authorities. Two, that attacking armless and innocent Christian worshippers could be interpreted as going for easy targets, instead of the difficult ones, like the governors that the group threatened but, so far, let untargeted. Thirdly, it may also be seen as a cheap way of conscripting the entire Nigerian Muslim community into the conflict after the group failed to earn its support. In a nutshell, it is a political blunder that it should not have ventured into.
In any case, attacking Christians does not solve any problem since it exposes Muslims to retaliatory attacks in the communities where they are a minority, thus feeding the vicious mill of violence with the blood of innocent souls. It is doubtful if God would be pleased with such a bath.
Meanwhile, the attacks have introduced some favourable developments in Muslim-Christian relationship in the country. Muslim groups, in both Northern and Southwestern parts of the country, have started visiting Christians in Churches, expressing their support for living in their communities. Some have even taken the extra-measure to give protection to churches on Sunday. The awareness has visited many that some clerics on both sides of the divide who would not care to ignite a conflagration have stepped the boundary.
In his comment on my blog after reading Jonathan and the Security of Nigerian Christians, Dr. John H. Boer, a respectable Canadian missionary that lived in Nigeria for decades until recently, wrote the following few sentences, alerting us to the challenges ahead:
“Assuming your facts to be correct, this is a very interesting analysis. If your analysis is correct, Christians, along with government and Muslims, have a huge job to do, but everyone should start at home. I have circulated your article to a lot of Christians for their consideration. Da godiya da yawa.”
That was an apt observation from an elder. It is my firm belief that government must take the lead, while both Muslims and Christians address problems of relating with each other in their communities. Government must tackle Boko Haram, not by bullets and arrests, but by negotiation as advised by its committee on the conflict. Fortunately, unlike Niger Delta militants, the group is not after material benefit. There is no reason why the government cannot dialogue with it, given the resources at its disposal. There are sufficient ulama that understand its logic and may succeed in realigning its understanding with mainstream Islam. There are also sufficient members of the group at hand that the government can use to reach out to its leaders.
Government must be even-handed in the manner it treats different communities in Nigeria. Money for one, bullets for the other will not breed peace. Prosecution to this and support to that is the differential treatment that encourages violent reprisals.
Other matters are political and a common ground to handle them can easily be discovered. There is nothing, once said the UN Secretary-General after the bombing of UN headquarters in Abuja last year, which cannot be amicably resolved through dialogue. Despite the reputation of the source of that advice, the Nigerian government has shown little interest to take it.
Among the duties of the Christian community in Nigeria, from my Muslim point of view anyway, is appreciating the frustration of Muslims with the escalation of violence against them in minority communities in Plateau and Kaduna States in particular. Horrific crimes have been committed. Silence over such atrocities by Christians, their support for the perpetrators or their manipulation of public opinion in the Christian-dominated media to shift blame to the victims only generates anger and retaliations. These conflicts are basically ethnic and political, but a religious identity is recruited to augment support for them. No true Christian will commit them. But when CAN or Christians generally justify them or manipulate them against Muslim victims, that will cultivate a fertile ground for suspicion among Muslims.
The Muslim community has an equally daunting task before it. It requires a unified voice that can express its spiritual and political aspirations. JNI and SCIA cannot play this role since its members – mostly traditional rulers – are government employees, unlike what obtains in the South or among the Christian community in the country. The Sultan, by virtue of his office, for example, cannot employ the militant posture of the CAN President, neither could any Emir. The demand for such a voice in the past did not exist for the simple fact that governance was better and the Muslim community did not face the multifarious challenges confronting it today. Frustrations about ill-treatment of some Muslim communities, like those articulated by Imam Shekau, must not be left to sediment so hard until people resort to violence.
Jointly, Muslims and Christians, especially in the North, need to find a common ground for social interaction. The gap between them in is becoming too much wide for stability. To reduce mutual suspicion and build trust among members of the two communities, avenues must be created for such interaction at all levels and spheres of human activity. Interactions in schools, offices, parks, cafes, games, resorts, churches, mosques, festivals, parks, cinemas, town meetings, and, of course, homes can all be revived to achieve this goal as it used to be before the late 1970s.
Both Muslims and Christians need to check the activities of extremists among them, people – mainly youths – with a surplus zeal to serve God but with little appreciation of the complexity of life and of contemporary Nigeria and lacking the wisdom to see things in different shades. They need to be guided accordingly by leaders of their sects and relevant authorities. Otherwise, they will continue drifting away from the centre until they reach a point where they dream of a whole world drowned in an ocean of human blood. Certainly, this will not please God who has described Himself as the Most Merciful.
Finally, we must all keep our guard against corrupt politicians, people who for their irresistible penchant to loot our treasury are always ready to exploit our differences and foment communal misunderstandings that often translate into religious crises. Northerners are more susceptible to these homo-viruses than others because religion in the region is the cheapest and most inflammable vector at their disposal. From Borno to Kwara, the realization that we are destined to live together forever is sufficient to bring us together against the wish of many that would love to divide us for their own gain.
The government may today succeed in subduing Boko Haram by arms or negotiation. But unless we meet the above challenges, another group will prop up tomorrow, among Muslims or Christians, to face us, once more, with similar or greater challenges.
By Dr. Aliyu U. Tilde