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Nigerian President downplays religious differences

30 November 2018

President Buhari says that more unites than divides the country


Roadside posters promote Muhammadu Buhari, the President of Nigeria, in advance of presidential elections due to take place in spring 2019

Roadside posters promote Muhammadu Buhari, the President of Nigeria, in advance of presidential elections due to take place in spring 2019

THE President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, has spoken out against those who “seek to divide” Muslims and Christians and “politicise religion”.

President Buhari, who is campaigning for re-election in February, writes in today’s Church Times: “As People of the Book, I believe that there is far more that unites Muslims and Christians than divides them. . . We must resist the temptation to retreat into our communities, because if we do, we can only look inwards. It is only when we mix that we can reach new and greater possibilities.”

President Buhari says that some in the country “seek to divide Nigerians — and our two great religions — and to do so for their own advantage.

“I stand accused — paradoxically — of both trying to Islamise Nigeria while also being accused by Boko Haram terrorists as being against Islam.”

The President argues that he has made efforts to improve the plight of Christians in Nigeria: “Since my administration has been in power, Boko Haram has been significantly and fatally degraded; I have befriended church leaders and church groups both within and outside our country; my Vice President has addressed and opened dialogue with Muslims up and down our land.”

He also asserts that clashes between farmers and Fulani Muslim herdsmen, which have killed hundreds (News, 6 July), are caused not by religious differences but by “temporal” matters.

“At the heart of this discord is access to rural land, exacerbated both by climate change and population growth. Sadly, there are some who seek to play fast and loose and so make others believe these are not the facts. When religion is claimed as the cause — and by those who know it is not — it only makes finding a resolution more difficult.”

The Archbishop of Jos, Dr Ben Kwashi, said on Tuesday that, at the start of his term of office, President Buhari had shown “a definite willingness to deal with Boko Haram”. But the terrorist group had returned in the past six months, he said, “with vengeance and successes in the north-east” of Nigeria.

“Turning Nigeria into a Muslim state is the stated desire of Boko Haram. The President is governed by the constitution of Nigeria to be fair and just to all, and uphold the secular state of Nigeria.

“The President has a task to protect all citizens on an equal basis, but Christians and churches have been most attacked and left unprotected in many parts of the central regions of Nigeria. The consistency of these attacks has raised the question as to whether the President is willing to protect Christians.”

The Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, the Rt Revd Dr Josiah Idowu Fearon, a former Bishop of Kaduna in the mainly Muslim north of Nigeria, said on Tuesday that it would “take over a decade to deal effectively” with Boko Haram.

“From my observations, based on the facts before us, President Buhari has been consistent in dealing with the group. He declared them a terrorist group not representing Islam — this is a welcome development.

“With all the territories under their control before this administration having been taken back now and many displaced Nigerians returning and schools being reopened, I would say that President Buhari is dealing effectively with Boko Haram.”

The Religious Freedom in the World Report 2018, published last week by Aid to the Church in Need, says that President Buhari’s government has made “some inroads” into weakening Boko Haram in some regions of Nigeria.

But it continues: “Still, there are no compelling reasons to assume that the Nigerian military has defeated Boko Haram, as President Buhari has repeatedly announced during the period under review. The opposite actually seems to be the case. The BBC, for instance, reported 150 attacks in 2017 — which is 23 more than in 2016.”

PAMen march alongside a lorry bearing the coffins of people who were killed by Fulani herdsmen, in the city of Makurdi, in Benue state, Nigeria, in January this year

Regarding the clashes between herdsmen and farmers, Dr Idowu-Fearon said that he did not think that religion was “the main reason” for the clashes. “My understanding is that bad governance, lack of equity, justice and fairness with the lack of jobs for our youth are main reasons, while religion is a cover.”

Dr Kwashi, whose home was raided in the summer by Fulani herdsmen, said that there were in fact “very few cases” of clashes between herdsmen and farmers.

“What has happened far more frequently is the massacre of poor farmers in unprotected rural villages of mostly central region of Nigeria. The [Fulani] herders are armed, organised, and well-trained to kill. They attack unprotected villages and freely kill women, children, old and young, in a most gruesome style of murder.

In a statement issued by Release International on Tuesday, Dr Kwashi said that the Fulani herdsmen had “targeted the Christian settlements in the north-east and central regions of Nigeria. The people they are killing are unarmed Christians and subsistence farmers, literally the poorest of the poor.

Most Christians feared that the attacks would worsen in the run-up to the general election, Dr Kwashi said. “Many, many Christians, especially in the north, are afraid they might get wiped out.”

A briefing published this month by Christian Solidarity Worldwide rejects “the narrative [of] the attacks on Christian communities across the country as ‘farmers/herdsmen clashes’”. It says that, since 2011, herdsmen have destroyed more than 500 churches in Benue state alone.

“How can it be a clash when one group is persistently attacking, killing, maiming, destroying; and the other group is persistently being killed, maimed, and their places of worship destroyed?”

CSW accuses the federal government of being “so immersed in this false propaganda and deceit while forcefully pushing the policy idea of establishing cattle ranches/colonies on the ancestral farming lands of the attacked communities for the Fulani herdsmen as the only solution to the problem.

Addressing an interfaith peace conference in the capital city, Abuja, last month (News, 26 October), the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “When I hear of Nigeria’s difficulties and problems, whether it be terrorism, or economic hardship or the deaths of farmers — too often Christian farmers — I am deeply distressed. . .

“When injustice and violence are perpetrated, especially in the name of religion, it is the responsibility of political and religious leaders to speak out and condemn that injustice and violence.”

Read the comment piece here, and our leader comment on Nigeria


Case study: Forced to convert.

LIFE was pretty good for Catherine Farda in Baga, a fishing town in north-east Nigeria — until Boko Haram insurgents overran her community, one of the largest Christian towns in the region, at the start of 2015 (News, 16 January 2015).

After days of gunfire battle between the insurgents and the Nigeria military, Baga was captured by insurgents, who went on to kill about 2000 civilians.

Catherine Farda, a Nigerian Christian woman (pictured), and her family, were forced to flee their home, and to convert to Islam, after attacks by Boko Haram

On the day that Mrs Farda says she does not like to remember, the Boko Haram jihadists, who seek to establish an Islamic caliphate in north-east Nigeria, burst into her town and shot at everything in sight. They burned houses and churches, and killed civilians.

Mrs Farda and her husband, Yerima, managed to escape — but their freedom was to be short-lived. After the insurgents established a caliphate in Baga, they launched an attack on the town in which the family were then living, Kayamari — famous for its local palm-wine burukutu — at night.

“That night, they came with machetes and guns, moving from house to house, asking people to renounce their faith,” Mrs Farda says. “The people who accepted Christianity were slaughtered. I could hear the noise of my neighbour’s husband, who was killed because he accepted his faith instead of Islam.”

Mrs Farda and her husband had to make what she calls the hardest decision in their lives: they succumbed to the insurgents’ demands and accepted, under duress, becoming Muslim.

“I still feel bad that I denied Christianity that night, but I didn’t have any choice because of my children. I don’t want to die and leave them suffering in the hands of the jihadists,” she says.

Mrs Farda, her husband, and their three children — two daughters and a son — were held captive under the insurgents’ caliphate in Baga, where they learned the Qur’an and Arabic.

One night, Mrs Farda strapped her young son to her back, and escaped with her daughters and husband. The family trekked for three days from Baga to Madagali, a journey of 324 kilometres by road. At Madagali, they met the Nigerian army, who found them a place in one of the refugee camps in Maiduguri.

Festus Iyorah is a freelance journalist based in Lagos, Nigeria.

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