ABUJA/JOS, Nigeria – On Thursday, Nigerians marked the 500th day since the kidnapping of almost 300 mostly Christian schoolgirls from the remote town of Chibok by Boko Haram, the radical Islamic terrorist group held responsible for more than 17,000 deaths here since 2009.
It’s long been frustrating for Nigerians that their armed forces, with 200,000 active duty troops, 300,000 paramilitary personnel, a budget of $3.25 billion, and a history of successful peacekeeping operations in neighboring countries, has been either unable or unwilling to get Boko Haram under control.
The fact that most of the Chibok girls remain missing 16 months into their abduction is the single most damning symbol of that failure.
The pain of their absence is keenly felt. Earlier this week, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was in Abuja, the national capital, and held a session with political and civil society leaders in which one speaker urged him to help return stolen assets to Nigeria.
Cardinal John Onaiyekan, the legendarily outspoken leader of the local Catholic community, then stood and said, “There are many things that need to be returned … for instance, we need our girls back!”
The line elicited howls of approval.
In Christian circles, the fact that Boko Haram is still operational despite the seeming mismatch with the army has bred suspicions that politicians may have encouraged inaction in order to gain votes or to terrorize their enemies, and that some military personnel may either be on the payroll of Boko Haram or sympathetic to its agenda.
In mid-August, Nigeria’s new no-nonsense president, a former army commander named Muhammadu Buhari, vowed all that would change.
Buhari promised to wipe out Boko Haram “within three months,” and especially for Christians, it’s tempting to want to believe it. Yet for many, the war that defines their attitude isn’t so much the one between the government and Boko Haram, but rather the one that pits hope against experience.
Often, that translates into skepticism vis-à-vis Buhari’s pledge.
“I think it’s just a typically empty political statement,” said Samson Tsok, who lives in the north central Nigerian state of Plateau that’s been an epicenter of Muslim/Christian clashes for the past 15 years.
“I don’t believe at all that something like Boko Haram, which has been around for years, can be eliminated in three months,” said Tsok, a member of the Church of Christ in Nations, a Protestant denomination in Nigeria with a following of more than 2 million.
Tsok said he’s lost an uncle and a close friend amid the violence, both killed by elements of the military which, he charged, are in league with radical Islamists.
“I see the military in three categories: Those who’ve been bought off by the Muslims to kill, those who are religious extremists themselves who are propagating jihad, and those who are afraid,” Tsok said.
Based on his personal experience, Tsok said, “I don’t have any confidence in the military.”
Other Christians seem more inclined to hope.
“With some degree of political will and less corrupt practices, I think they can go a long way,” said Catholic Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos.
“With terrorists you can never say you’ve wiped them out, because if you kick them out of one place they surface somewhere else,” he said. “But we can minimize the damage, reduce the mental torture people experience, the fear and terrible anxiety.”
“I think there is a real desire to conquer Boko Haram, and with good planning, good arms, good intelligence networks, and God’s assistance, I think Nigeria will get out of the woods,” Kaigama said.
Many Nigerians have been surprised by Buhari’s apparent earnestness to take the fight to Boko Haram, given that he’s seen as a deeply serious Muslim, almost ascetic, who’s been suspected in the past of sympathizing with Islamic conservatives seeking to impose Shariah law in northern Nigerian states.
Yet in recent months, Buhari has directed Nigeria’s military to step up operations in the country’s northeast, where Boko Haram has its origins. He’s announced plans to increase arms production, recalled retired soldiers into active duty, and vowed to hire almost 10,000 new police and security personnel.
In an especially popular move, Buhari has asked military commanders to play a personal role in the anti-Boko Haram effort, relocating to the front lines and even taking part in raid themselves.
Recently a senior army commander said that aggressive military campaigns in the northeast have reduced Boko Haram to a band of “wandered and bandits,” no longer capable of controlling any physical territory.
On the other hand, there’s also evidence that Boko Haram has not yet lost its bite.
On Tuesday, two suicide bombers believed to be part of Boko Haram carried out attacks in the northeastern Nigeria city of Damaturu that left five people dead, including an explosion at the city’s main bus station.
There are also concerns that Boko Haram militants may be taking refuge across Nigeria’s borders with Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, and that regional cooperation in tracking them down remains uneven.
The Rev. Neimon Gowon, an Anglican priest in Plateau state, says his experience has taught him to be skeptical, charging that when Christians are under attack military personnel often fail to respond.
“The soldiers just stand there, they are spectators, as Christian women and children sing cries of death,” Gowon said in an August 25 Crux interview.
“They are like cameraman, just spectators, while Christian communities are attacked,” he said.
Dalyop Davou Jugu, an Evangelical Christian whose father and younger brother were killed three weeks apart in separate attacks last October, was equally dubious.
“If the government actually had a plan, they wouldn’t be announcing it in the media,” he said. “They would develop a strategy in secret and implement it.”
“The real plan of the government,” he said, “is not to do anything.”
Janjok Yusuf, also an Evangelical, says his experience tells him the same thing, claiming that he’s been beaten up by off-duty soldiers who join bands of radical Muslims in their spare time.
“I was attacked three times,” Yusuf said, “and later I saw the same guys walking around in army uniforms.”
Raphael Okoroc, who was among the injured when Boko Haram detonated a car bomb outside St. Theresa’s Catholic Church on the outskirts of Abuja on Christmas day in 2011, said the military and the government could have prevented the tragedy.
“They [Boko Haram] had announced there would be attacks, but no one did anything,” he said. “I was driving from my house to church, and there was no security.”
Based on that experience, he said, he’s skeptical about new promises to crack down.
On the other hand, the Rev. Yakubu Pam, an Assemblies of God leader, expressed a more balanced view.
“I believe Buhari is serious, but the networking of Boko Haram has already mutated in Nigeria and he may find it difficult to accomplish what he’s trying to do,” Pam said.
“Some of his soldiers are actually for Islamization,” Pam said, “and when they find out he’s serious they will work against him.”
For Tsok, the litmus test of the government’s seriousness isn’t making pledges but delivering on them.
“I live in a place where anyone can see these Boko Haram guys moving around at night freely, without any fear,” he said. “You ask me if I believe these promises, and I say I’ll believe it when I see it.”