KIDNAPPINGS that are affecting families in north Nigeria — sometimes accompanied by multi-million-pound ransoms — are receiving scant publicity, the Nigeria country manager for Tearfund, Paul Mershak, said this week.
Mr Mershak described on Monday how children as young as four, and mainly under ten, were being kidnapped by armed groups who broke into houses in the middle of the night. “It is common in different parts of the country, especially North Central. It’s a huge issue. . . If it is given a kind of publicity, maybe something can be done about it.”
It is now more than a year since 100 girls were kidnapped in Yobe State, north-eastern Nigeria, by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. A Christian girl, Leah Sharibu, who refused to convert to Islam, remains captive.
Even when young women abducted by Boko Haram were rescued, Mr Mershak said, those who had become pregnant during their ordeal were being “stigmatised by their own communities”. Meanwhile, young boys pressed into the group, and those who had joined willingly, had been rejected rather than integrated back into society.
Successive presidents have vowed to bring security to Nigeria, where Islamist violence is on the rise. Anglican bishops are among those who have been kidnapped and held ransom, and, last month, a priest, the Revd Anthony Idris Jata’u, was found murdered (News, 15 February, 15 March).
In his essay “The Great Unravelling” for the Nigerian magazine Republic, Chris Ngwodo described how the state no longer enjoyed “a monopoly on violence”; and communities were “increasingly militarizing themselves and resorting to ‘self-help’.”
This month, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States ordered the Nigerian government to investigate the mass killings and destruction that occurred in Benue State in 2016, to prosecute the perpetrators, and to compensate the victims. It is understood that around 500 people died in attacks by Fulani militiamen. The Court found the Nigerian government in “violation of their obligation to protect the human rights of the Agatu community and prevent its violation”.
On Monday, Mr Mershak said that members of the government were “doing their best. It’s only that their best is not able to protect every citizen.” The style of recent killings in clashes with Fulani herdsmen suggested that Boko Haram had infiltrated groups, he said.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide argues that the narrative of “communal clashes” has been “rendered obsolete by the sustained, asymmetric, and orchestrated nature of the current violence, which can be described legitimately as ethno-religious cleansing”.
Mr Mershak agreed that persecution could not be ignored, but said that “it would be very difficult to begin to pinpoint and say ‘This is the major cause.’” Peace-building, with a focus on community dialogue, had become a “cardinal” aspect of Tearfund’s work in Nigeria, he said. During the recent election period, the charity had paid for giant billboards to be displayed, and radio advertisements played, emphasising that Nigerians would remain “brothers and sisters” regardless of the outcome.
The fact that the reaction to the electoral result was “not that sharp and violent like we used to experience” was testament to the success of this work, he suggested
Meanwhile, in the town of Gwoza, the former headquarters of Boko Haram, work is under way to address the “suspicions” harboured by those are beginning to return after being displaced. Many suspected “that their neighbours who did not leave were responsible for whatever happened to them”, Mr Mershak said.
In order to avoid a “false peace”, people needed to “put things on the table and find solutions to their own problems by themselves, rather than allowing people to come from outside to dictate to them the kind of thing they want and the way they want to stay together”.
Despite having the largest economy in Africa, unemployment in Nigeria stands at 20 per cent, and nearly half the population live in extreme poverty. Just 36 per cent of the electorate voted in the recent election.
Mr Mershak is keen for the churches to increase their advocacy work. Inequality had widened over the years, he said, “because of issues of poor governance”. Politicians could “easily make promises, and then, when they get into government, they get busy, they forget some of those promises. . . Sometimes, they get disconnected from their communities.”
Through its church- and community-mobilisation process, Tearfund was “targeting key church leaders who have big churches very close to the seat of government in Abuja”, he said.
He went on to say that Nigeria had been “strategically placed and strategically blessed by God. If the Church is able to take its rightful place in governance, we are going to do much better. The potential is there, but the Church is yet to really find its footing and its meaning in the society.”
There was a pressing need, he said, to “connect the Church and the communities and the government, for the potential that is there in the country to be well untapped. . . We are trying our best, but we are not yet there. . . By the grace of God, in the next two to three years the story of Nigeria will be different.”