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Nigerian violence is chiefly about religion, says Kwashi

07 September 2012

ANDREW BOYD

Encouraged: the Most Revd Dr Benjamin Kwashi, photo­graphed in London

Encouraged: the Most Revd Dr Benjamin Kwashi, photo­graphed in London

THE Archbishop of Jos, Nigeria, the Most Revd Dr Benjamin Kwashi, said on Friday of last week that the sectarian violence conducted by Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group, was not primarily because of "political marginalisation", but was "specifically against Christians".

In the past, Dr Kwashi has cautioned against pinning sectarian violence in Nigeria on religion. In 2010, he suggested that conflict in Jos was the the result of social problems, carried out by "frustrated, unemployed young people" (News, 27 January 2010).

However, speaking to the Church Times in London last week, during a visit co-ordinated by Release, a charity for persecuted Christians, Dr Kwashi said that Boko Haram had introduced a "totally different" approach. "If these attacks were on the rich, corrupt politicians, Boko Haram would have a huge following. But [its] approach is specifically against Christians . . . against the Federal Government of Nigeria. It is attacks on the poor people. On the helpless people. On children. On churches." This could "hardly be termed as a movement of the poor people against a corrupt nation".

Dr Kwashi condemned the failure of the United States to perceive the true causes of the violence. Before a visit to Nigeria made by the US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, on 9 August, a spokesman for the US State Department said that, while Boko Haram did not command the support of most Nigerian Muslims, "there is an environment created for them, because in the north there is a sense of political marginalisation . . . a sense that they are not getting the same kinds of social and economic benefits and services as other parts of the country."

Last week, Dr Kwashi said: "I am very upset that the United States is not seeing the issue as it is. It is seeing it more as if . . . it's because of poverty, it's because of injustice. If it is because of poverty, could not all the monies invested [by Boko Haram] in weapons and sophisticated training . . . be reinvested upon the people?

"Look at the destruction upon schools, upon institutions, upon banks. Is that the way to solve poverty? I'm not impressed, whichever way the United States wants to describe Boko Haram, because they really are creating more problems, as far as I can see."

Attacks by Boko Haram have left more than 1400 people dead in Nigeria since 2010. The last major attack was on 6 August when 19 people were shot at a church (News, 10 August), although no group has claimed responsibility. Dr Kwashi welcomed the apparent lull in the violence, and said that the announcement that the government was talking with some members of Boko Haram via "back-room channels" was "good news": "We get to put faces and names to this sophisticated operation."

The press, he said, was guilty of "misrepresentation" in saying that Christians were behind reprisal attacks on Muslims: "Where reactions have come, they come from people who were not in church." The representation of disputes between indigenes and settlers as a religious conflict was also "incorrect", he said. Land issues "definitely" exist, but had been "unfortunately intermingled" with religion.

The "number one" priority for the Nigerian government must be tackling corruption, he said. Nigeria is ranked 143 out of 193 countries on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index: 63 per cent of its people admit to paying a bribe, and in a public poll the police have been deemed to be "extremely corrupt". Human Rights Watch reports that security agents have detained people without charge or trial, and been implicated in extra-judicial killings of Boko Haram suspects.

"Criminality must be dealt with, whoever commits it," Dr Kwashi said. "It would seem that the Nigerian Government is not listening to people until they get bad. Then they get the attention and ear of the government, and that is not right."

Education and transport must also be a priority, he said. "Nigerians have researched this; they are on the desks of the government; they should start implementing them." While the Nigerian economy grew by 6.7 per cent last year, 92 per cent of Nigerians live on less than two dollars a day, and unemployment is 23.9 per cent.

Last year, Dr Kwashi said that solidarity with Nigeria was "missing" in the Anglican Communion. On Friday, however, he said that he had been "greatly encouraged" by the personal support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and by the motion moved by the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Justin Welby, and passed at the General Synod in February, which requested that the British Government support those in Nigeria seeking to protect religious minorities.

"We don't care that not a pound or a penny has come into it: that is immaterial," he said. "But the cares of this nation and Church, being prayed for, is a huge encouragement . . . to say that we are not alone and have not been abandoned."

His message to Christians in Britain was to "keep praying" for Nigeria, which "has a lot of potential for the good of all".

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