YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a global campaigner for religious freedom, has called for continued prayers for Nigeria after the release of four students and their teacher who were kidnapped in August.
The gunmen also killed one man and burned down a local church during the raid in the northwestern state of Kaduna. On Saturday, the victims were freed.
“We welcome the efforts that led to their release as we were among the organizations calling for action in their case.” said CSW’s Kiri Kankhwende.
“We must continue to pray for Christians and other vulnerable communities in Nigeria. Pray the children of all communities whose lives have been devastated by violence, and for the safety of Christian leaders, who are increasingly being targeted for abduction, and for wisdom and strategy as they lead their congregations at this difficult time,” she told Crux.
Following are excerpts of her interview.
Crux: How do you react to the release of the school kids and their teacher?
Kankhwende: We welcome the efforts that led to their release as we were among the organizations calling for action in their case. We wish them a swift and full recovery from their ordeal.
Please, walk us through the circumstances of the kidnapping.
The children and the teacher Christiana Madugu were kidnapped from the Prince Academy secondary school in the Damba-Kasaya Community in Chikun Local Government Area (LGA), Kaduna State, on August 24.
Local sources report that large numbers of suspected Fulani militants arrived in the community on motorcycles at around 7:45 in the morning. The attackers also broke into the Aminchi Baptist Church, which they set ablaze after destroying musical instruments and the public address system, before abducting other villagers. One person, Benjamin Auta, was killed during the incident. Mr. Auta leaves behind a wife and baby.
The four children and the teacher remained in captivity, even after some money was paid for their ransom. However, days after CSW’s offices in Nigeria and the UK had publicized their continuing captivity and called for action to ensure their release, news came through on the evening of October 11 that they have finally been released.
It’s not the first time school kids are taken by gunmen in Nigeria. What do you think is driving this phenomenon?
There are several sources of abductions occurring in Nigeria in which children are targeted. The abductions from Prince’s Academy are part of a wider campaign of violence that has plagued central Nigeria for over a decade, and which has seen particular intensity in southern Kaduna since January 2020.
These communities have a long history of “clashes” between sedentary primarily Christian communities and Fulani herders, often over competition for land, which have been exacerbated by desertification, land encroachment and other factors. In the past these were referred to as ‘farmer-herder clashes,’ with protagonists generally using sticks, stones, machetes, and at worst, Dane hunting guns.
However, the current violence is taking place with such frequency, organization and asymmetry that ‘farmer-herder clashes’ is no longer an adequate descriptor.
Religion and ethnicity now appear to be the principle rallying points for the Fulani militia. As a result, these killings and kidnappings are considered part of a campaign of “ethno-religious cleansing.”
Elsewhere in the northwest of Nigeria, armed gangs, who are again primarily Fulani in origin, are involved in abductions for ransom, among other violations. Their victims are largely from the predominantly Muslim Hausa farming communities in the North West, although some recent abductions have targeted Christians.
Other abductions specifically target non-Muslim schoolgirls for forced conversion and marriage without parental consent. This occurs in most of Nigeria’s Sharia states, and particularly, although not exclusively in rural areas. This source of abduction predates the more widely reported abductions by the terrorist factions. It is carried out by ordinary members of the public, who tend to hide behind traditional authorities and religious institutions, which may or may not have condoned or encouraged their actions. Such abduction occurs despite strong legal provisions in Nigerian that penalise abduction and defilement of minors.
In early May 2020, the Hausa Christian Foundation (HACFO) reported that between March 23 and May 6, eight Christian girls had been abducted in three states and subjected to forcible conversion and marriage.
Some of those who have been kidnapped, especially by Boko Haram, were being forced to change their Christian faith. What do you think about people who are kidnapped and refuse to convert to Islam?
CSW is regularly inspired the bravery displayed by many Christians under the most daunting circumstances.
One particularly powerful and well-known case is that of Leah Sharibu. In February 2018 she was abducted along with 109 others from her school in Dapchi by terrorists belonging to the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), an offshoot of Boko Haram. She was just 14 years old at the time.
The next month, following government negotiations, all of her surviving classmates were able to return, but Leah, the only Christian among them, was not released because she refused to convert as a precondition for freedom. In October 2018, the terrorist group declared she would be their slave for life and that “it is now lawful for us to do whatever we want” with her. Since then there have been reports, which remained unconfirmed, that she may have given birth to a child after being “married” to an ISWAP commander.
It is our contention that references to “marriage” when describing Leah’s current circumstances are not only erroneous, but also unacceptable. Use of this term cannot obscure the fact that a minor, whose rights to freedom of religion or belief, education, parental care and liberty and security of person, among others, are being abused comprehensively, has been enslaved and violated in a manner amounting to a war crime, on account of her religious belief.
Leah is still in captivity, having illustrated incredible faith and resilience in the face of a dangerous and violent sect. Her story is among many examples of incredible tenacity and courage that inspire CSW to continue appealing to the Nigerian government to do everything in its power to secure her release, of others still held by terrorist factions, and to address the many sources of instability and violence in the country in a comprehensive and effective manner.
What do the recent kidnappings tell you about the Nigerian government’s response to the spate of hostage taking in Nigeria?
It is clear that the Nigerian government is not doing enough to protect vulnerable communities in the country. In some instances, in southern Kaduna, CSW has even received reports of security forces being aware of impending attacks but doing nothing to prevent them.
The abduction of children in particular is a sad indictment of the failure of the Nigerian authorities to protect the most vulnerable in society. The most recent abductions also underline the vital need for those in authority to create safe educational environments for children in order to ensure the right to educational for all, in line with Nigeria’s obligations under national, regional and international law.
What should Christians do in respect to the continued kidnapping?
We must continue to pray for Christians and other vulnerable communities in Nigeria. Pray the children of all communities whose lives have been devastated by violence, and for the safety of Christian leaders, who are increasingly being targeted for abduction, and for wisdom and strategy as they lead their congregations at this difficult time.
Nigeria is currently experiencing unprecedented levels of lawlessness that are negatively impacting the lives of citizens everywhere, regardless of religion or social standing.
The current state of affairs is perhaps best captured by activist Aisha Buhari, who has described the lack of security and ongoing loss of life as “heart-breaking […] yesterday’s victims were once survivors. Today’s victims were yesterday’s survivors and tomorrow’s victims would be today’s survivors.”
Pray for the peace of Nigeria, and for reconciliation and deliverance. The sheer scale of the violence and the abductions can be overwhelming, but we believe in a God who can and who will intervene in the midst of their suffering.
We can also encourage parliamentarians here in the UK and elsewhere in the West to raise these ongoing issues with their governments so that they in turn can pressure the Nigerian authorities into taking concrete action to address the situation, and can offer assistance where possible.