A Innocent Beginning

In 2002 Muhammed Yusuf created a religious complex that had an Islamic school and a mosque in Maiduguri, the capital of the northeastern state of Borno. Not many could have envisaged that the establishment would turn-out to be a shrouded cradle for Nigeria’s future nightmare.The school was particularly popular with poor Muslim families from across Nigeria and neighboring Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. It wasn’t the first time such a religious complex had been established in Nigeria, but its teaching was conceived by some to be dangerous. These early warnings the government treated lightly.

Yusuf’s teachings were relatively aggressive. He created, by his evangelism, the consciousness that he would form a state that purely ran on sharia law. He was ambitious to see the Nigerian government give way for this “ideal” Islamic state. Yusuf began to initiate violence against those he felt were opposed to his aspirations, particularly Christians and the government.

The core principle of his teachings was that Western education was evil, since some of its teachings did not align with the preaching of the Koran in certain matters. During an interrogation with security operatives before his reported execution on July 30, 2009, Yusuf said, “All knowledge that contravenes the teachings of Islam is prohibited by the Almighty . . . sihiri [sorcery or magic] is knowledge, but Allah forbids it; shirk [polytheism] is knowledge, but Allah has forbidden it; astronomy is knowledge, but Allah has forbidden it.” He added that the theory of Darwinism was false and opposed to the teachings of Islam.In an interview with the BBC in 2009, He claimed that the Western style of education was an attack on the sanity of Islam.

As the years rolled by, attendance at the religious complex grew rapidly. Its teachings, too, grew and acquired a dangerous radicalism. The ulama, an association of Muslim clerics and scholars, warned the government about the threat posed by the activities of the religious complex: its members have drawn its students mainly from unemployed youths and the poorest of the people.

The group’s official name is Wilayat Gharb Afriqiyah: “People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad.” The name Boko Haram is usually translated“Western education is forbidden.” Haram is from the Arabic ḥarām, “forbidden”; and the Hausa word boko, meaning “fake,” is used to refer to secular Western education.Ordinarily, Boko Haram has also been translated as “Western education is sin or evil.”

Yusuf, who hails fromJakusko in Yobe state, northern Nigeria, smartly exploited the bad governance in Nigeria and preached hope for the largely vulnerable, uneducated, and suffering masses. By way of his rhetoric, he won the hearts of the poorest of the people, and many dedicated their lives to serving his goals. Paul Lubbock, a scholar of the University of California, Santa Cruz, says that Yusuf was influenced by the teachings of Ibn Taymiyyah and was a strong follower of the 1960s Egyptian preacher Shukri Mustafa, who taught that only strict application of Islamic laws can result in justice.

Reverend Hilary Achunike, a professor of religion at the University of Nigeria, believes that the rise of Boko Haram was as a result of existing religious intolerance in Nigeria. His thought is woven around the premise that the government did quite poorly in enforcing laws that upheld religious freedom in Nigeria and this made it pretty easy for Boko Haram to rise untamed.

In the latter years Yusuf decided to relocate his operations to the hinterlands, away from the probing eyes of security operatives and the government. He recruited and trained jihadists to conquer and Islamize Nigeria in villages round Maiduguri. From those villages attacks were sparingly launched across some northern states prior to 2009; but the security operatives quenched those insurrections “like a smoldering charcoal facing a buoyant rainy spring.”However, this strategy was only reactive, not preventive.

Through those years of propaganda the government was silent. That silence was not a good silence. It was the kind of silence that neglects responsibility. It was this silence that made Nigerians live with this hatching terror for seven years, and the government was never careful about this and at times even appeared swayed by the wordy sophistry of its founder. Before long, Boko Haram had members in Bauchi, Gombe, Yola, Adamawa, and Taraba states, and its headquarters was Maiduguri, the capital city of northeastern state of Borno, Nigeria.

“When it started, we conceived it to be a little threat: we [Department of Religion] wrote seminar papers on it, but through the years it has grown into a huge threat to all,” says government official Achunike today.

Violence Goes Viral

On July 26, 2009, Boko Haram for the first time went fully violent in a series of uprisings that fluttered across several states in northern Nigeria. Several reports confirmed that close to 1,000 persons died. The Nigeria security operatives arrested the leader and founder of the sect, Muhammed Yusuf. He was summarily tried and executed on July 30, 2009, although there were calls for the government to resist the enticement of such hasty killing. This seemed like a victory and had the deception of signaling an end to the activities of the group. The efforts to repress them further resulted in the massive arrest of Boko Haram members and the destruction of their headquarters and mosque in Maiduguri, Borno state.

Sadly, it seemed as though the death of the leader birthed revived terror. Abubakar Shekau, who served as deputy to the late leader, took over and forced a prison break that resulted in freeing more than 700 Boko Haram prisoners in September 2010. Its purpose of creating of an Islamic state in Nigeria by toppling the federal government of Nigeria was not threatened, but it was tested by the resistance of the Nigerian military. In 2013 the United States designated Boko Haram a terrorist group. And in 2014 it established a short-lived caliphate in its controlled territories in Borno state, as well as Adamawa and Yobe.

According to Amnesty International: “The conflict between the military and the armed group Boko Haram continued and generated a humanitarian crisis that affected more than 14 million people.”

In 2015 Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, pledged allegiance to ISIL in an audio tweet circulated via the official Twitter account of the sect @BOKO_HARAM. ISIL’s spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani confirmed the alliance and claimed that the group was an expansion of ISIL in West Africa.

Boko Haram has carried out numerous series of attacks on worship centers, government offices, schools, homes, villages, public functions, police stations, and army barracks, including the attack on United Nations building at Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city in 2011, and the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from the Government Secondary School in the town ofChibok in Borno state on the night of April 14-15, 2014, among others.

Religious Freedom in Nigeria: You Either Die or Survive

Under the leadership of Abubakar Shekau, the group became more radical and specifically targeted worship centers and marketplaces, and thousands were made sheep for the slaughter. A great wave of sadness, fear, and resignation swept across the land. Men hid their names and counted their words in public and prayed with their eyes wide enough to peer at distant dangers. The people’s faith gave way to their fears. Many fled their homes; many more deserted their worship centers.

“There were times people were afraid to go to church on Sundays or mosques on Fridays. At some point Christians were hiding their religion. In fact, there were no freedoms of worship; there’s this fear. Otherwise, why is there security personnel permanently posted in churches?Religion is practiced with fear even today,” said Aliko Ahmed, who works at Maiduguri, the hub of Boko Haram attacks in northeast Nigeria.

The 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative from the United States of America and the Stefanus Foundation, based in Nigeria, report that 13,000 churches have been abandoned, closed down, or destroyed; 2,000 children have been abducted; and 10, 000 boys have been forced to join Boko Haram.

The constitution of Nigeria made provision for the freedom of religion. Sections 38(1), (2), and (3) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended, upholds the right of an individual, either alone or in community with others, in private and public, “to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.” Subsection (3) of section 38 of the constitution provides that “no religious community or denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of that community or denomination in any place of education maintained wholly by that community or denomination.”

Since 2000, 12 states in northern Nigeria have adopted criminal law to the jurisdiction of sharia (Islamic law) courts. Sharia has been in force for many years in northern Nigeria, where the majority of the population is Muslim. However, its application prior to the 2000 was limited to personal status and civil law. Many human rights groups have continued to raise concerns as to whether this would not result in the violation of the rights of people to practice their own religion in those states. In some of these states, conversion from Islam to any other religion is a capital offense punishable by death. Most of these states have used the state apparatus to repress the expression of religious liberty by any faith-based groups. This has included the killing and mass burial of more than 370 members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, according to a commission of inquiry report.

Professor Hilary Achunike, a religious scholar, perceives that the problem with religious freedom in Nigeria is that the government is reluctant to enforce the constitution, and various religious groups have exploited this weakness to target and kill perceived rivals. He concludes that reluctance is the most dangerous threat to the freedom of religion in Nigeria.

“Boko Haram started like the Fulani herdsmen who go about killing people and parading AK-47 guns, but none of them is placed under arrest, though this is illegal in Nigeria. It was the same reluctance of the government that allowed Boko Haram to spread,” he quipped.

The Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, has been vocal about the threat the sect poses to Christians living in the north. According the secretary general of CAN in Nigeria, Reverend Musa Asake, “Boko Haram is already a threat to religious freedom in Nigeria. They have already caused a lot of damage to the worshippers, and that will likely continue. Worshippers in the north cannot do anything about it. This is their home and they have no other place. Its either you die or you survive.”

A resident in Maiduguri, northeast Nigeria, confirmed that “the rate of church attendance has dropped drastically. In fact, two years back, many Christians stopped going to church because of the incessant attacks on the churches.

“In my church,” he continued, “many members have left. Sometimes either church or mosques services are stopped or hurriedly rounded off: but when attacks become intense, the service is terminated.It was difficult for individuals to agree to go to their worship centers,” he said, and preferred to remain anonymous for fear of attack on him and his family or church.

The U.S. Commission on Internatonal Freedom of Religion’s 2017 report said that “religious freedom conditions in Nigeria remained poor. Fears of ethnic and religious domination are longstanding; given that religious identity frequently falls along regional, ethnic, political, and socioeconomic lines, it routinely provides a flashpoint for violence.”

The reports adds that “escaped Boko Haram abductees, human rights groups, and news accounts report that Boko Haram forces Christians to convert or die.”

In 2016 Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the group’s new leader as pronounced by the Islamic state media, has declared that its primary goal would be to target and destroy churches.Barnawi’s announcement was made known through the Site Intelligence Group that specializes in observing extremist Web sites. In a widely circulated report he accused charity organizations working in Nigeria of using their roles in delivery relief to refugees to spread Christianity, which is perceived to be a conspiracy from the West.

Attacks have persisted despite the improvement in security in the past several years.Security is provided in the worship centers by the police and the local civilian joint task force (known as C-JTF). Despite the collaborative efforts of security operatives and local volunteers, security is still inadequate because there are too many worship centers to guard.Worship centers conduct searches of worshippers at the gates, and unfamiliar faces are denied access to the church or mosque premises.

Resident in northeast Nigeria confirm that the activities of the sect has largely suppressed preaching in open spaces, and the populace are afraid of discussing anything about their faith in public. This, accordingto Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka, is death of freedom of religion.

“Religion is also freedom of expression. People want to express themselves spiritually. And they also exercise the right to try to persuade others into their own system of belief. Those nations that say it’s a crime to preach your religion are making a terrible mistake. All they’re doing is driving underground other forms of spiritual intuitions and practices,” he said, referring to the activities of Boko Haram in an interview published by The Telegraph.

Security is central to religious freedom, says Mukhtar Dan’Iyan, an Africa and Middle East public policy and security expert. He says that since Boko Haram wants to “wipe out all nonbelievers,” the government should create an effective framework to protect worship centers, the most practical way of restoring freedom of religion in the affected states.


Article Author: ​Orji Sunday

Orji Sunday is a freelance journalist, public speaker, and essayist. He is a former editor of the campus magazine for the University of Nigeria. He writes from Nsukka, Nigeria.