At the end of their third plenary assembly in May 2019, the Catholic Bishops of West Africa decried the horrors of terrorist attacks and violence in their region. “Authentic religion respects the sanctity of life and does not impose itself on anybody,” they observed, and called on their governments to “guarantee security of life and property on the continent, especially in the West African sub-region.”
At the beginning of the year 2020, four seminarians were abducted in the Archdiocese of Kaduna, in Nigeria. One has since been released, albeit with severe injuries, highlighting the risks and fear of attacks that Christians in Nigeria continue to endure. The Diocese of Maiduguri, at just over 50,000 square miles the largest diocese in Nigeria in terms of land mass, has borne the brunt of violence and attacks in the last 10 years.
Father John Bakeni, the diocesan secretary, speaking on behalf of Bishop Oliver Dashe Doeme, told CWR that the violence points to a “clear and planned campaign of persecution against Christians in Nigeria.”
CWR: Please tell us more about the recent kidnapping of seminarians in Nigeria. Which diocese were they from and what exactly happened?
Father John Bakeni: The unfortunate incident of the kidnapping of four major seminarians happened on the 8th of January, 2020 at the Good Shepherd Major Seminary in Kaduna. The Good Shepherd is the provincial major seminary in the Archdiocese of Kaduna. The gunmen came in the evening of 8th and started shooting sporadically while they made their way into the seminary hostel. The first two rooms they went in, they found the four major seminarians and whisked them away.
CWR: Is there any group that has claimed responsibility for the abductions? What efforts are being made so far by the government to find the seminarians?
Father Bakeni: No group has come out to claim responsibility. The region has been infested with kidnappers for quite some time now. As regards the major seminarians, am not aware of any government efforts [other] than the usually ranting and propaganda.
CWR: In recent years, we have seen reports of violent attacks on Churches and other public places, some occurring during important dates like Christmas and Easter. How would you describe the prevailing security situation in Nigeria?
Father Bakeni: The current security situation in Nigeria is very bad and is getting worse by the day. Lives are lost on a daily basis either because of Boko Haram terrorist attacks, kidnappings, abductions, armed robbery, or banditry. The attacks on places of worship, to be fair, are on both churches and mosques. But in recent times, we see the selective killing and murder of Christians by either Boko Haram or ISWAP [ISIS or Daesh in West African Province].
CWR: Is there a campaign of persecution against Christians in Nigeria? If so, why do you think there is little media attention to the issue?
Father Bakeni: There is a clear and planned campaign of persecution against Christians in Nigeria, and this is done in many facets of life, especially for the Christians living in the Northern part of Nigeria. The forms of persecution include political exclusion and discrimination in appointment to government positions; denial of land to build places of worship; denial of job opportunities and access to economic opportunities.
CWR: What are the impacts of the Boko Haram attacks in your diocese?
Father Bakeni: The impact of Boko Haram on the Diocese of Maiduguri is enormous. As a diocese, we have suffered both physical destruction and loss of lives. Since the year 2009, as our records show, over 5,000 Catholic faithful have been killed. Nineteen schools have been vandalized and destroyed, four health clinics destroyed and burnt down, and three convents ransacked, destroyed, and burnt down. About 20 rectories have been vandalized and destroyed, 22 parish churches destroyed and burnt, and over 200 outstation churches ransacked and destroyed, in addition to vehicles, motorcycles, and other church equipment. Our people are psychologically traumatized because of their losses.
CWR: In your view, what are the key threats to freedom of religion in Nigeria and the Sahel region?
Father Bakeni: The key threats to freedom of religion in Nigeria and the Sahel region are the Islamists themselves, but fundamentally the governments in this region are failed governments. We also have the issues of religious bigotry, lack of rule of law, and bad and corrupt leaders.
CWR: How would you describe the response of the Nigerian government in improving the security situation in Nigeria?
Father Bakeni: I would describe their response as lukewarm, nonchalant, and lacking seriousness. The government is not ready to end the conflicts and address the security challenges confronting the nation. There is so much propaganda and too much talk, but little to no action on the ground.
CWR: What more would you recommend the government and other stakeholders to do to address the situation?
Father Bakeni: They need to come together and forget their differences and put the interests of Nigeria and Nigerians first. They should tell themselves the truth and stop this game of self-deception. There must be honesty, sincerity, accountability, and patriotism. Our biggest enemy in all this is the monster called corruption.
CWR: In your view, what is the long term solution to providing justice and peace for all in Nigeria?
Father Bakeni: The first thing is to have the rule of law in place. Secondly, we must strengthen our democratic institutions and they must be seen to deliver the dividends of democracy for every citizen. We need to have a National Dialogue Conference to discuss and decide how we want to live together as Nigerians.
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A large part of the problem is that Nigeria’s President Buhari is and ideological and religious sympathizer of the rebels. This is part of the reason the Trump administration put immigration restrictions on Nigeria. The country is a mess and unlike the French who tend to make efforts to keep order in their former colonies, the British do nothing. Just another result of rapid and unprepared decolonization in the post WW II era.
This is just horrible. What should we do to stop this tragedy?