Nigerian archbishop: Religious persecution is ‘systematic’ in country’s north

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ROME – According to Archbishop Matthew Man-oso Ndagoso of Kaduna, in the 14 years since Boko Haram exploded on the scene in northern Nigeria, “We have been going from one problem to the other, without one being over before the other began.”

There are four main sources of violence, he said, speaking at a Zoom press conference organized by the German-based headquarters of the papal charity Aid to the Church in Need: 

  • Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist organization that believes Western education is evil, has “infested the country” with its violence, particularly targeting Christians, whom they see as foreign to the country. The group’s epicenter is in the north.
  • Banditry in the northwest region, an “old trade for some evil men,” has worsened in the last four years; bandits went from using “bows and arrows” to semi-automatic weapons, killing people and forcing thousands to flee.
  • “Mafia-like” organizations kidnapping people for ransom exist in the central part of the country. Many priests have become targets because these groups think people, in particular churches, are more likely to pay for their safe return. The number of people taken is so high that most are afraid to leave their homes, which in turn means people are not growing their crops, leading to hunger.
  • Clashes between mostly Muslim nomadic herders and farmers – both Muslim and Christian – have worsened in the middle belt of Nigeria (and throughout the Sahel region). 

“These things have made life in the country terrible,” Ndagoso said. “People cannot leave their homes, but they are not safe if they stay indoors either, nor are they safe in the roads. Not even in the air are people safe: Two months ago, the bandits attacked a plane on the tarmac, which means there were no flights into Kaduna, a hub for flights.” This lasted almost seven weeks, with flights resuming in recent days.

“Of course, the economy has also been affected, making life very difficult,” he said.

To make matters worse, the prelate said, “bandits and Boko Haram are said to have joined forces,” a theory that stems from a recent attack on a train that left eight dead and dozens gravely wounded.

All of these conflicts are made worse by the government’s inability to control the borders, Ndagoso said, particularly following the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011: “When he was overturned, guns were everywhere. With $200 US, you could get an AK47. It is the government’s job to ensure that these weapons don’t get into the country. If the Nigerian government had been serious, they would not have allowed for these guns to reach the people’s hands. And people don’t feel protected by the government, so now, when no one is feeling safe, all those who can afford it, buy weapons, carry them when they leave, keep them close when in their homes.”

The archbishop, vice president of the Nigerian bishops’ conference, didn’t hesitate to point a finger at whom he blames for all of it: “Who should be blamed? The government. Securing life and property is the government’s prerogative, either because they were elected to office or they got to it over the barrel of a gun. But our system has failed, it has collapsed.”

Is it about religion?

Religion and ethnicity, Ndagoso said, are two very sensitive issues in Nigeria, and people are always ready to use them at their convenience. For instance, if a Muslim Fulani herder enters the farm of a Christian, people will turn it into a religious-fueled conflict. Yet, he insisted, it is not: “Depending on the region, we’re talking about a Muslim majority Northwest or a Christian majority-Middle Belt – farmers. The Fulani don’t care;” they get what they want, kill those who try to stop them.

Anything, he said, can be turned into a religious issue in Nigeria, with a population of 206 million that is more or less equally divided between Islam and Christianity. If a Christian doesn’t get a job and a Muslim gets it, the first will be inclined to claim it was religious persecution.

It is the absence of good government that is causing this oversimplification of the root causes, he argued. 

“Do Muslims have an agenda to convert all Christians in Nigeria?” he asked. “Yes, and they have the right to propagate their faith. As do we. Every missionary religion has the right to propagate its faith.”

Yet when it comes to herders versus farmers, he insisted, it is not about “an agenda to Islamise Nigeria.”

Boko Haram, “a religious-based ideological group,” is another story. The organization is set on destroying everything they see as coming from the West, including Christianity – never mind that it was born in the Middle East. 

Boko Haram claims that the root of Nigeria’s corruption is in Western education, arguing that political leaders and those who run the nation studied abroad. “They believe Western education has failed us, so from their onset, they want to impose their own religion; they are terrorists.”

The group found fertile ground in Nigeria’s northern region, where “religious persecution is systemic.”

“People are not pursued with a knife all the time, but there are unwritten laws that limit Christian’s freedom to practice our religion,” Ndagoso said. “You are not free to get land, pay for it, and build a church on it. Pastors are not free to preach the Gospel, and no Christian teaching is allowed in public schools, while Islam is taught with state funds.”

It takes two to tango

Asked about what the international community can do to help, Ndagoso went beyond the customary request for prayers and humanitarian aid, saying that “it takes two to tango.”

“Our leaders steal our money and take it to the West: To Switzerland, to Paris, to London,” he said. “If the West didn’t accept the money, it would stay home. If European countries sent back to Africa the money stolen from our countries by our leaders, I believe, they would collapse. Our leaders have mansions all over, they travel by jets to visit those who are suffering, and then go and take loans from western countries to steal those funds too. I think the Western countries are accomplices to it.”

“If you steal a goat and you take it to the market but no one buys it, you won’t steal again the next day,” Ndagoso argued. “But if people do buy it, soon you feel bold, steal a cow. And before you know it, that person steals an entire herd.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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