ON 6 MARCH 1987, a young Christian was preaching in Kafanchan, some three hours’ drive away, at an open meeting at the College of Education. A young Muslim girl was passing and accused the Christian of making some reference to the Qur’an. She shouted, “Allahu Akbar!” and accused this Christian preacher of desecrating the Qur’an and insulting the Prophet. So a fight began that night. This was 170 miles away, further from us than Sheffield is from London.
By 9 March, the tension had reached Zaria and Katsina. It was difficult for me to believe that something so remote could affect us. But it did. The following day, in the afternoon, they started burning churches and destroying property belonging to Christians. And the rioting went on for 72 hours.
IT BEGAN with a phone call: “We think one of the churches is on fire.” “Where?” “Sabon Gari.” That was close to the army barracks, just three miles away. “Are you sure?” “Yes.” I tried to get through to the police, but the phone just kept ringing. Nobody was picking it up.
There were signs that things were getting out of hand. The phones were buzzing with other reports of burning churches.
People came, bearing news that grew worse by the hour. Some said they had seen churches on fire in Samaru, a short drive down the main road. Then a professor from the university said he could see fires everywhere. He suspected that many churches were being burned. Word came that the chapel at the university had been set ablaze. That was even closer. The professor was visibly angry. He and others had tried to get through to the police, but couldn’t. So I tried to raise the police commissioner. I couldn’t get through. Then the divisional police officer. It was impossible.
By now the phone was constantly ringing, and a steady stream of worried people were turning up at the door. We had to abandon our plans for a prayer meeting. People were telling me: “A Baptist church has been burned.” I said, “Where?” Then another Baptist church. Then an Anglican church, and then another, from all over town. What had begun hundreds of miles away was at our door. What I kept hearing was, “I don’t believe it, it’s just not true. This cannot be happening in Nigeria.”
As more people discovered where I was [for his own safety, Ben had been moved to the house of Dr Gani, a respected member of his church], leaders of different Christian denominations arrived, asking, “What should we do?” I was barely into my thirties, and some of these professors and doctors were old enough to be my parents. They were senior in every way. But they were waiting for my order or a word. And they were ready to retaliate or commit revenge.
Before long there were 30 of them, crammed into that parlour, all shouting, “This is wrong! Ben, tell us, what shall we do? We are ready to take these people on. We’re going to fight! We must defend ourselves! We must take up arms! We can’t let them burn our churches and our homes.”
I said, “No, you can’t talk like that. We can only do what the Lord asks us to do.” But what was the Lord asking? As more kept coming, along with their demands, I knew I had to find out. I excused myself, went to a guest room in Dr Gani’s house, locked myself in, and prayed.
STILL the people kept coming. They were asking Dr Gani, “Where’s Ben, where is our chairman?” And Dr Gani would say, “He’s praying.” As the good doctor was fending off the steady stream of people knocking on his door, demanding to know what should be done, I was pacing my room alone, with the same question: “Lord, what should I do? The people are asking me. What should I say to them? What will happen?”
I was afraid. The whole world seemed to be waiting on me. But I had no word for them. “Lord, please, give me a word.” I prayed that again and again until I got tired of begging for the same thing. I would pace, get on my knees, then pace again. At times I was flat on the floor, prostrate. This went on for two hours. And then I realised: when God goes quiet, it is often because He has already spoken.
When I finally emerged at 3 a.m., the crowd had almost doubled. I knew what I had to say would fail to please those who were waiting. I wrote something down on a piece of paper, handed it to one of the CAN officials, and said, “Go and type this up, and I will sign it.” It said, “Dear Christians, this letter is from me. The Lord says, ‘Do nothing.’” And I signed it. As simple as that.
They were saying, “What?” “That’s what the Lord said.” The sermon I had preached at the polo field only a few weeks earlier had come back to me in a flash. Exodus 14.13-14: “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. . . The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
I knew this was God. It might not have been what anyone wanted to hear, but I was sure it was what God wanted us to do. “Stand still and do nothing.” In the midst of my prayers, the confirmation came.
I asked one of our men to make copies. We rolled out several hundred, and distributed them to all the churches in Zaria that night and the following day. I was well aware, in writing those words, that I could have been ordering people to surrender to their deaths. In fact, that’s what some said. Some couldn’t believe I had written this. They recognised my signature, but thought I’d given it under duress. Some even thought the government had bribed me to say this.
But the amazing thing is that the people believed me. They believed me and they trusted me. After I signed the letter I went back to prayer, begging God, “Let there be no bloodshed, let there be no killing.”
YES, there were a few deaths. Some were injured, and some pastors were beaten, but it could have been much, much worse. It quickly became clear that what the militants had hoped for was not happening. The intention behind these attacks was to provoke Christians to retaliate, resist, or take revenge. The extremists were hoping that we would provide them with the excuse and justification for more violence.
If Christians had acted with revenge, that would have resulted in the widespread arrest of church leaders. The government would have declared martial law. But that opportunity was lost to the extremists because our response was to obey God and do nothing. Instead, the attacks became an embarrassment to the extremists.
This is an abridged extract from Neither Bomb nor Bullet — Benjamin Kwashi: Archbishop on the front line by Andrew Boyd, published by Monarch Books at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70).