Seldom in recent memory has the Western world seemed more united than on January 11, 2015, when an estimated 1.5 million people, including forty-four world leaders, flooded the streets of Paris to protest the atrocities carried out by Islamist terrorists at the offices of the French weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Who can forget the impressive show of unity—with the notable absence of the top constitutional officers of the United States—as Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders locked arms and marched side by side in an anti-terrorism rally along the Boulevard Voltaire?
Yet while masses marched in Paris to protest the vicious murders of seventeen persons, including twelve journalists, a catastrophe of far greater proportion was unfolding on the “dark continent” of Africa. On January 3—just four days before the Paris attacks—in the fishing towns of Baga and Doron Baga on Lake Chad in northeastern Nigeria, the jihadist terror group known as Boko Haram carried out its deadliest attack to date. The soldiers defending the area could not repel the incoming insurgents, who burned Christian churches to the ground and slaughtered more than 2,000 people, including children and women. Some of those fleeing the surprise attack drowned in Lake Chad as their overcrowded boats capsized and they tried to swim away from the melee.
Musa Alhaji Bukar is a senior government official in Borno state, where these towns are located and where Boko Haram is said to have some 15,000 soldiers deployed at its command. He told the BBC, “The indiscriminate killing went on and on and on.” This was Boko Haram’s most horrific act of terrorism yet, and while it was reported in the Western press, it drew nothing like the attention given to the Paris attacks. No one organized an international protest against the African massacre. No national leaders flew to Abuja to stand in solidarity with the people of Nigeria. (Secretary of State John Kerry did pay what one Nigerian leader has called a “face-saving” visit several weeks later.)
Boko Haram is a strict sect within Sunni Islam which originated in 2002. In the Hausa language, Boko Haram is loosely rendered as “western education is prohibited”—a common theme in Islamist movements around the world—but the group’s full name in Arabic means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” Its first leader, Mohammad Yusuf, was killed by Nigerian security forces in July 2009. Since then, Boko Haram has regrouped and grown much stronger and more radical under its current leader, Abubakar Shekau. For several years—until 2013, by which time the killings already numbered in the thousands—the United States Department of State refused to declare Boko Haram a terrorist group. Last summer Shekau declared his own caliphate in Africa, an obvious parallel to ISIS leader al-Baghdadi’s declaration of the same in the Middle East. The connection between the two groups is unclear, but a similar pattern of extreme brutality and the use of Islam to justify it is striking.
Boko Haram wants to “cleanse” Nigeria of Christians and impose its strict version of sharia law there. But in this process, it has also attacked moderate Muslim communities, burning mosques and murdering imams and sheikhs who dared to oppose its tactics of terror. Nigeria’s presidential election, originally scheduled for this past Valentine’s Day, has been postponed until March 28, the day before Palm Sunday. In the meantime, President Goodluck Jonathan and his government, with the assistance of a newly assembled multi-national African military force (under the aegis of the African Union), are trying to bring stability to the country. They hope to degrade the capacity of Boko Haram to wreak havoc—something they have not been able to do over the past five years.
Most people in the West had never heard of Boko Haram until April 14, 2014, when the group kidnapped 276 girls between sixteen to eighteen years of age, most of whom were Christians, from a high school in the Borno village of Chibok. A concerted effort to recover the abducted girls was launched with the #bringbackourgirls campaign, an initiative supported by Michelle Obama and Angelina Jolie, among other celebrities. Malala Yousafzai, Pakistani teen activist and 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner, has called for a more intentional response to this tragedy: “If these girls were the children of politically or financially powerful parents, much more would be done to free them,” she said. “But they come from an impoverished area of north-east Nigeria and sadly little has changed since they were kidnapped.” U.S. drones were reportedly deployed to help in the search for the kidnapped girls but to no avail. More than 200 of them still remain in captivity. The global outrage over the Chibok abductions was intense but short-lived. The attention of the world’s press soon waned. In the meantime, the kidnapping, forced marriages, and abuse of others have continued unabated.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation. It also has the largest Christian population on the continent. More than 50 percent of Nigerians are identified as Christians—almost 90 million people. As the attacks have accelerated in recent weeks, leaders from various Christian denominations in Nigeria have called on their Christian brothers and sisters in the West, along with all people of goodwill, to speak out against the mounting violence in their country.
Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama is the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria. Last September, the conference issued a statement, “While Nigeria Bleeds and Burns,” which called for prayer and solidarity in the face of “the burning and sacking of whole villages and churches and rectories” amidst “the mass slaughter of fellow Nigerians.” Kaigama is based in the city of Jos, which last month suffered attacks by three female suicide bombers, one of whom was said to be just ten years old. Boko Haram has increasingly turned to the recruiting of young women for suicide missions, as they can hide explosives under their hijab garments and thus manage to get through security checks. The bishops urged the government of Nigeria to be more resolute in resisting Boko Haram and in correcting corruption and abuse in its own ranks. Archbishop Kaigama also called on the international community to show the same concern for Nigeria that it demonstrated for the victims of terror in Paris. “We need that spirit to be spread around,” the archbishop said. “Not just when it happens in Europe but when it happens in Nigeria, in Niger, in Cameroon.”
Another influential voice with the same message is The Right Reverend Nicholas Okoh, archbishop of Abuja and Primate of the Church of Nigeria, who presides over the second largest province in the Anglican Communion. The Church of Nigeria is one of the most dynamic and fastest-growing churches in the Anglican world with 161 dioceses and more members present in church on any given Sunday than the entire Church of England. Like Kaigama, he too has criticized the West for too long ignoring the serious threat Boko Haram poses for Nigeria and for refusing to identify the religiously-motivated ideology that fuels its Islamist agenda.
A third witness is the Reverend Dr. Samson Olasupo Ayokunle. He is president of the Nigerian Baptist Convention, the world’s largest Baptist denominational body after the US-based Southern Baptist Convention and National Baptist Convention. Some 3.5 million baptized believers belong to more than 10,000 churches affiliated with the Nigerian Baptist Convention—and twice that many participate in weekly worship. Ayokunle also serves as the vice-president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, an influential ecumenical network with state and local branches throughout the country.
In recent comments to the Baptist World Alliance, Reverend Ayokunle pleaded with the international community to take a stronger interest in “the huge destruction going on in Nigeria.” Aware of the failures of colonialism in the history of Nigeria, he warns against making the same mistakes today. Ayokunle nonetheless calls for engagement: “The earnestness with which [the West] intervenes in the ISIL attack in Syria and Iraq, or the Taliban problem in Afghanistan, etc., is not shown in the case of Nigeria. Are these people less human than those being killed in other places where they have gone to directly intervene?” he asked. “My people are being killed like animals and the whole world is just watching.”
Twenty-one years ago, the beautiful country of Rwanda was ravaged by an episode of massive civil unrest that saw more than 800,000 people perish. The international community chose not to intervene. Such a studied non-involvement was motivated in part by racism, according to Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general who led the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda at the time. Four years after the killing fields in Rwanda had fallen silent, President Bill Clinton visited the country and spoke to some of the survivors. “We did not act quickly enough after the killing began,” he said. “We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become [a] safe haven for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide.”
The rampage of Boko Haram in Nigeria (and now in the neighboring countries of Chad, Cameroon, and the Republic of Niger) is not a replay of the tragedy in Rwanda. Both the scale and the context of the two horrors resist comparison. But the likely, if not yet formalized, alignment between Boko Haram and other terrorist regimes—including ISIS, al-Qaida, and developing threats in Libya and Yemen—portends even more instability in the region. In the long run, this may become a greater threat. Despite the differences, what President Clinton said in the wake of the Rwandan killings is no less relevant to the situation in Africa today: “We owe it to those who died and to those who survived who loved them, our every effort to increase our vigilance and strengthen our stand against those who would commit such atrocities in the future here or elsewhere.”
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University. He is the author of more than twenty books, including Is the Father of Jesus the God of Muhammad? He is also the host of a four-part video series comparing Christianity and Islam. For additional reading, see the 2014 Annual Report on Nigeria by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, and the London-based Chatham House study, Nigeria’s Interminable Insurgency? Addressing the Boko Haram Crisis. Dr. George may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.