By Rev. Fr. Stan Chu Ilo
Recently, Catholic bishops, priests, religious and laity marched the streets of the capital, Abuja, clad in black robes, to protest the senseless killing of thousands of Nigerians by Islamic terrorists, and the general insecurity in the country. I was moved to see even the recently retired Cardinal Onaiyekan, who at 76 should be enjoying a peaceful retirement, marching with the rest of God’s people against the insensitive government of General Buhari. These are troubling times in Nigeria. It is particularly troubling for the Christian population of Nigeria and painfully troubling for the Christian minorities in the North who have borne the brunt of this orgy of violence, destruction, intimidation, deaths, and religious persecution. The situation in the country is so dire today that the National Christian Elders Forum is calling on former Christian military leaders to intervene to save the country from Islamism. Many others are calling for foreign intervention to save Nigeria from a total breakdown of law and order. Many Nigerians, especially the endangered Christian groups, are left with no other option than to protect and defend their faith, the lives of their members and their churches in the face of radical Islamic terror attacks and banditry which continue with impunity under different guises.
The saddest aspect of all these is that Nigerians have seemingly resigned supinely to this unacceptable status quo. We cannot accept the normalization of misrule and destruction of lives and property in our country. Nor can we accept the continuing destruction of our national wealth, heritage and hard-earned freedom under the present dispensation. I am definitely sure that when the history of the present federal government will be written, one will no doubt include in Buhari’s cv the shameful fact that through his strong arm tactics, he dampened the verve and vibrancy of Nigeria’s civil society; he has undermined our bourgeoning democratic and civic culture which helped to put the last nail in the coffin of military dictatorship in Nigeria. He also rolled back the gains of many years of struggle to develop the kinds of political culture and political socialization which could have helped the nation on her painful path to democratization.
Sadly, we were shortchanged in the process as a succession of military generals have continued to run this country directly through the presidency or indirectly through the entrenched iniquitous systems which they still control today. It is through this system and structure of privilege and power that the military has controlled the federal government which has remained in the hands of a few thin top layer of men and women who swim in the comfort of our national wealth, while the majority of the citizenry are drowning in poverty or walking the dry lanes of hunger, anger, and despair. Our Christian faith calls us to pray, but it also invites us to be alert against the forces of evil and to actively work with men and women of goodwill from other faiths to resist evil, and bring about justice, sound morality, and the entrenchment of those values and social ethos which promote, protect and preserve the common good.
It surprises no one that General Buhari and his henchmen have largely ignored the recent protest. He has not responded to the protest with any assurance that things will improve except his usual empty and effete threats against the recent killings of over 50 Nigerians in Kaduna. The President has ignored the cries of these giant men and women of God. He seems unmoved and untouched by the sight of these religious leaders who in a typical Christian prophetic manner were wailing on the streets of Abuja because they have watched with horror the killing of many predominantly Christian people in Nigeria and the displacement of millions of Nigerians. They have also seen hunger, anger, despair and frustration spreading like wild fire among the poor and the middle class in this richly blessed land.
The silence of General Buhari to this public denunciation of his regime is the typical Buhari approach. He does not care. He does not feel any sense of obligation or accountability to any Nigerian more so to the Christian population for whom he has shown no love or respect except in 2014 when he was desperately seeking for their votes. Buhari’s only fidelity is to his Islamization mission. This is because for General Buhari upholding, expanding and entrenching Islam in Nigeria, and advancing an Islamic agenda in Nigeria are the most important task which he has set his mind on. This is his primary concern. As a result, he vigorously and brutally neuters all kinds of resistance to his agenda and muzzles the Nigerian press just as he once did as a military dictator in the 80’s. He protects Islamic terrorists by appointing Islamic commanders of troops who are sympathetic to Boko Haram and other terrorist cells in the North. Our president knows how to protect himself and those people and places he cares about, while using the state apparatus—the police, EFCC or the courts, and the military—to intimidate his critics or bring his opponents to their knees. His is a silent presidency, which speaks volumes in the carnage that this country has become—a land of graves, tears, misery, deaths, hunger, violence, fear, uncertainty and suffering. His vaulted war on corruption is a national parody, and his war on terror is a national deception.
In marching in protest, clad in black, a sign of mourning and grief, and through their powerful utterances, the Nigerian Catholic bishops have spoken truth to power and unmasked the destructive and deceptive agenda of General Buhari. They are rightly confronting this complex and painful situation not only through this prophetic action of publicly protesting this unfortunate status quo, but also by developing clear lines of battle to confront this monstrous situation facing Christians and other Nigerians. While the National Assembly and the Judiciary have been neutralized and whereas the opposition party has been eviscerated and lacks any ideological and operational divergence from the ruling party, the Nigerian populace appeared to be voiceless and powerless until now when our bishops rose up to their prophetic responsibility. The Catholic Church in Nigeria has taken up the gauntlet of fighting the excesses and lawlessness of the ruling cabal and is holding the president to account. His day of reckoning has come and he cannot escape the harsh judgement of history today and into the future.
The cries of the Catholic bishops in Nigeria are the cries of God’s people in Nigeria against the misrule of this government led by General Buhari. Buhari’s Islamic zealotry and fundamentalism have driven him to neglect every other aspect of our national life and values, all of which help to keep the country together. Many people see the stolen mandate of the people of Imo state, executed through the Supreme Court of Nigeria, as a good example of the strategy of the presidency to dip the Koran in the River Niger and in the Atlantic. How could one explain that one of the first acts of the illegitimate governor was to invite the rented Igbo Muslim group in Imo State for the presentation of the Chief Imam of Imo State?
Truth be told, General Buhari came to power claiming to lead from the front against Boko Haram, but in truth the attacks have intensified under his leadership. Indeed, there are suspicions that there are many Northern Muslim leaders who may actively be sympathetic to these murderers and are aiding or abetting them. How could we explain that a Nigerian fighting force that was able to defeat the rebel movements in Liberia could not fight Boko Haram? General Buhari has failed to protect the lives and properties of Nigerians as the Catholic bishops have said and no one sees how Nigeria can improve under Buhari. Perhaps, General Buhari has no intention of fighting Islamic terrorism for the very reason that these killers are his people who share with him the same faith, conviction and mission.
Buhari is the darling of the poor and landless motley crowd of unlettered and uncultured Northern Muslim youth, who in their millions provide the support base for his sad and unacceptable government. Indeed, many sophisticated Muslims outside of this conscienceless husk of humanity, who dance for General Buhari, are ashamed of this Buhari-led government under whose charge Nigeria is witnessing the worst level of violence, massacres, kidnapping and terror attacks that have ever been seen in Nigeria. The Catholic bishops also point to the suffering and pain of God’s people in Nigeria under the insensitive Buhari-led government. Sadly, despite the enormous wealth of Nigeria, majority of our people are suffering from grinding poverty, which is spreading like a wildfire in the land. Indeed, with more than 70% of Nigerians living in poverty, with an unemployment rate of over 27% and a life expectancy of less than 55years, Nigeria was declared two years ago as the poverty capital of the world. This sad social condition has led to restlessness and restiveness among the young people and a rising frustration and anger among so many people.
The problem of Nigeria is much more convoluted than one insensitive, haughty, and visionless leader at the helm. Nigeria, like most other African countries, live on a false foundation which reflects the crisis which continues to unravel in the post-colonial states of Africa. The crisis which we face cannot be resolved until we honestly analyze our situation and collectively seek a new form of federal arrangement for living together in Nigeria. This new arrangement should guarantee equal access to social mobility to every Nigerian and allow people to flourish and worship their God without being impeded by state fiats and state-sanctioned religious persecution and discriminatory policies and programs. Such an arrangement will make it clear that the resources of the state should not be used to promote any religious system and ideology and that every part of the country should contribute in baking the national cake rather than milking the rest of the nation dry. My contention in this essay is that the Islamist agenda of the present Nigerian president, Mohammadu Buhari, which has led to the persecution of Christians in Nigeria and the rise in Islamic terror acts in Nigeria are the immediate cause of the current national ennui. They are also the reason for the travel ban on Nigeria for the first time in our national history by the U.S and the impending related travel restrictions which might be imposed on Nigeria by Canada, Britain and the EU who share similar security protocol with the U.S.
Most Christians clearly perceive an Islamist and anti-Christian agenda in the policies and programs of the present federal government. One can see this naked Islamic agenda in the appointment of only Muslims to key positions in the apparatus of state by General Buhari in a flagrant violation of the principles of the federal character. For the first time in the history of this country, Muslims are heading the three arms of government including the two chambers of the Federal Legislature; Muslims also head all the four arms of the armed forces in Nigeria.
Nigerian Christians are facing grave persecution in Nigeria, especially in Northern Nigeria. According to The Guardian, using data from Open Doors, a Christian charity, 7000 Nigerian Christians were killed in the first year of President Buhari’s administration in 2015. With such a frightening number, this Christian charity declared Nigeria as the most dangerous place to live as a Christian because, “there were more recorded killings of Christians due to their faith in Northern Nigeria in 2015 than in the rest of the world put together.”
In 2019, things got worse for Christians in Nigeria, according to Open Door’s 2019 report reviewed in Christianity Today. Open Door tallied that 3,731 Nigerian Christians were killed because of their faith, almost double the 2,000 deaths the year before—and comprising 9 in 10 of all the World Watch List’s reported martyrdoms worldwide. Open Doors also cited 569 attacks on Nigerian churches and 29,444 attacks on homes and shops, compared to 22 and 5,120 the year before, respectively. The charity also noted that the reasons for the killings is because of ‘the religious cleansing to eradicate Christianity’, from Northern Nigeria.
In 2019, the US State Department listed Nigeria along with Sudan and Nicaragua as countries which condone ‘severe violations of religious freedom.’ The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) agrees with this assessment given these frightening numbers. CAN’s data indicate that Christians make up presently 95% of people being held in captivity by Muslim terror groups. CAN in December, 2019 accused the federal government of paying lip service to releasing Christians held in captivity and addressing the rising cases of religious persecution of Christians. Nigeria is now rated along with countries like Iraq, Haiti, North Korea and Congo as a volatile and fragile state in the 2019 Fragile States Index.
President Buhari and his fellow Northern Islamic supremacists must take responsibility for creating, abating and fostering this monster of Islamic terrorism and for failing to stem its rising and violent tide. Rather than calling the Fulani ‘herdsmen’ as terrorists and Islamist and waging a war on them, the solution the president offered was RUGA as if he didn’t know that these men are not cattlemen. When any leader projects the false ideal of Islamic supremacy, he is indirectly promoting a way of life, and ethics of conquest and Jihad which can be implemented at the level of praxis by impressionable, unlettered and unemployed Muslim youth. Indeed, it was the Northern political elites who launched the campaign to introduce Sharia in most of Northern Nigeria in a foolish show of political grandstanding. They were the ones who began to question the ideals of a workable and manageable secular state in Nigeria and etched the anti-secular Nigeria and anti-Christian mentality in the consciousness Muslim youth in the North. The hatred for Christianity which spurns violence against Christians in the North; the discriminatory policies and practices against Christian minorities in the North in education, employment, air time in public radio or television, and the imposition of Sharia over non-Christians are all the result of a supremacist ideal championed by President Buhari’s fellow Northern Islamic supremacists.
We must admit that the Nigerian state has been held in bondage by Islamist generals like Buhari. Some of the greatest crises which have faced Nigeria since the end of the Civil War have been brought about through the misrule of Muslim generals from the North. First, it was Generals Babangida and Abacha who represented the twin peak of evil, corruption and violence in Nigeria whose cups horror over flew with blood, deaths, heart-wrenching poverty, suffering, and destruction of our national institutions of governance, the severing of the our national bonds of unity and friendship, and distortion of our social ethos. The OIC crisis was triggered off by Babangida’s attempt to play the Islamic card as a way of entrenching himself in power. He was, however, met with the fiercest resistance by Christians led by the inimitable Cardinal Okogie. The same toothy general created the crisis of June 12, which eventually led to the regime of Abacha. Abacha himself, a fervent Islamist ran an administration of graft and greed. Under his painful and frightful regime, Nigerians saw the astronomical increase in the level of violence and state sanctioned deaths including the judicial killing of Ken Saro Wiwa and his comrades in the fight for environmental justice and self-determination of the Ogoni people and the minorities. These Northern Muslim generals who have ruled this nation for more than two decades since 1983 have been the most corrupt, brutal, greedy and divisive bad state actors ever to live in Aso Rock. This is not to say that we have not had bad Christian leaders in Nigeria. Corruption is endemic to Nigeria and it taints all people and all religions in our land. The lack of unity in the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) is a clear example of what happens when Christian leaders seek to line their pockets or to promote their selfish quest for money or power to the detriment of the evangelical mission of the Lord. The Nigerian Christian community is not speaking with one voice and an Islamist regime at the center of power is exploiting this disunity among Christians.
Indeed, some of the Christian preachers and prophets who are dancing around Buhari today and making prophecies in his favor show that corruptive tendencies and the unconscionable quest for power do not have any particular religious preference; it is rooted in the false and sinful human desire to pursue empty and filthy lucre. However, in the context of this essay, we must affirm in uncertain terms that in my own estimation, the worst crises and the worst times which Nigeria have faced since I was born after the War have been during the first Buhari regime with his austerity measure and draconian laws; during the Babangida regime culminating in the annulment of June 12 elections and the disappearance of the Gulf War windfall; and during the Abacha regime with his extrajudicial killings and the clinical corruption of that stone-faced general, and now under the second General Buhari with his clear Islamist agenda and insensitivity to the yearnings and aspirations of Nigerians.
Nigeria needs to break away from these military generals and their acolytes because they are destroying this country. The authoritarianism and centrism of these so-called military-civilian Presidents and their vengeful distaste for opposition are unmatchable in their destruction of diversity, human rights, transparency, accountability and democratic culture as is evident in the present regime as well as during the last years of the Obasanjo presidency.
Nigerians have accepted that this nation belongs to all of us. We need to make it work or find a way to break it up to manageable units in order to preserve and promote the common good from which all should drink as from a well pool. General Buhari still has three more years to redeem himself. He needs to abandon his Islamist agenda by embracing diversity in religion and diversity in worldviews and diversity in the search for solutions to our national problems. He needs to keep his promise to Nigerians to fight corruption, restore our crumbling public service, reduce our mounting national debt, and take seriously the battle to wipe away Boko Haram. He must overhaul the military high command and the police and lead the military to defeat Islamic terrorism in Nigeria which will lead to the release of the Chibok girls and thousands of our people who are being held in bushes and forests. He needs to connect with the yearnings of all Nigerians. He should not simply be preoccupied with pleasing his fervent and teeming uneducated Muslim youth in the core North who see him as their new Mullah who has hoisted the Islamic flag on all the institutions and structures of the state. The state funds being poured to support Islamic expansionist projects and pilgrimages have not contributed anything in improving the health, education, and food security of Nigerians. Many frustrated Nigerians are calling for the resignation of General Buhari; many wonder how he could have won a national election with his bad record and failure to connect with Nigerians outside his core North.
This is the 21st century. While many countries in Africa like Kenya, Ethiopia, Botswana, Rwanda, South Africa and Ghana are developing structures of constitutional democracy, and embracing multicultural practices and inclusive policies and programs which can heal their nations and bring people together, while strengthening the institutions of governance, growing their economies, developing wind energy, and infusing capital into the market to boost the economy and encourage start-ups and entrepreneurship, Nigeria is lagging behind on all fronts. This is because of a failed political class and the domination of our politics by incompetent and unqualified people beginning from the presidency who are foisted on us because of their place of birth and creed. Thus, our elections are a continuing vicious cycle for pauperizing our people which disenfranchises the exploited and long suffering poor Nigerians. Nigeria is being mismanaged by a president who lacks the vision, the large-heart, the caring disposition, and the big mind to engage with the complex challenges facing the country. This is why he has narrowed his concern to a very shrinking Islamic eschatological and supremacist worldview, agenda, and political chicanery.
Like all other Islamist supremacists who played the religious card with the lives of Nigerians and the destiny of this potentially great country, General Buhari will lose at the end of the day. He must take to heart the words of wisdom of President Sisi of Egypt on New Year’s Day 2015, when he gave a famous speech at Al Azhar University in Cairo, the most prestigious center of learning in the Islamic world. President Sisi bemoaned the fact that Islam has become a source of worry to him because it is now being identified with many atrocities associated with fear, danger, murder and the destruction of the world. He then warned his fellow Muslims that it is not possible that 1.6 billion Muslims should want to kill the rest of the world’s inhabitants – that is 7 billion – so that only Muslims will occupy the world. He went on to call for ‘a religious revolution’ and reform within Islam, which will stamp out the kind of Islam which seeks to conquer or destroy non-Muslims and even fellow Muslims through acts of terror and violence. These words of caution need to be repeated to the hearing of our president so that he will see the futility of his Islamism and commit himself fully to pulling this country from the brink of anarchy and war.
Stan Chu Ilo is a professor of African studies and World Christianity, DePaul University, Chicago, USA and Honorary Professor of religion and theology, Durham University, Durham, UK.