•Situation not good for Nigeria – CAN
•Why they are soft targets – Experts
By Luminous Jannamike, Abuja
It’s quite a herculean task to get one’s head around how many Christians have been attacked, abducted and killed already in 2022. Though one might hear about individual events like the Owo church attack, it is quite tough to get a sense of the scale.
After terrorists set off explosives at St. Francis Catholic Church in Owo, Ondo State two weeks ago, the blood of 38 innocent worshippers who were murdered in cold blood was splashed on the ground around the whole of the church.
The Owo attack, according to eye witnesses, featured an unusual amount of planning and coordination characterized the violence as multiple gunmen inside and outside the church shot parishioners before escaping in a getaway car.
Painfully, the attack on St. Francis Church was not the only one that jolted Christians in Nigeria. In fact, more than 100 worshippers were killed that week across the country.
A few days before the Owo incident, suspected militants killed 32 Christians in an Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) parish in Kajuru, Kaduna State. After the attack, the church members could not attend service due to the trauma. The attackers reportedly arrived and left on inconspicuous motorcycles.
In Plateau State, which borders Southern part of Kaduna State, two Christian students were killed after Sunday service when suspected terrorists visited the school hostel at night and killed the two male students.
Barely seven days ago, 11 Christians were murdered in Benue State’s Igama community in Okpokwu Local Government Area in what many consider as religious persecution.
When the Prelate of Methodist Church Nigeria, His Eminence Samuel Kalu Uche, and two of his acolytes were recently abducted by armed men, his congregation of nearly two million people quickly mobilized over a N100 million ransom for their release.
In five bags, the representatives of the church stashed local currencies to the tune of N20 million each and dropped off at a designated place which the kidnappers picked up later in a truck without number plate.
The money was the price to free the three clerics who were taken at Umunneochi in Abia State while on their way to catch a flight to Lagos.
Four days before Kalu-Uche was abducted, armed men broke into a church in Katsina State and kidnapped a Catholic priest and his assistant, Fr. Stephen Ojapa, MSP and Fr. Oliver Okpara, respectively. Their abductors also took away two boys who were in the church worshipping.
It is currently unclear where they have been taken to and what their condition is.
It is equally uncertain if the kidnapping of the two priest was connected to the attacks on multiple Catholic church parishes in the North following the arrest of suspects in the murder of Deborah Yakubu, a 200-level Christian student of Shehu Shagari College of Education in Sokoto who was beaten and stoned to death by Muslim students because she had declared her faith in Jesus amidst allegation of blasphemy two weeks prior.
The lawlessness of kidnapping, fuelled by economic crisis, police inaction and government’s alleged refusal to intervene, has claimed the lives of many priests and other men of God.
In April, contradictory claims circulated about Father Joseph Akete Bako’s fate more than a month after his kidnapping at St John’s Catholic Church, Kudenda in Kaduna State on March 8.
There were stories that Father Bako had died in the bandits’ den although a number of contrary reports suggested he was still alive until his death was announced by the Catholic authorities on April 24.
The month of March likewise saw a spate of kidnappings where clerics were soft targets. Rev. Father Leo Raphael Ozigi, parish priest of St Mary’s Church, Sarakin Pawa Village, Niger State was abducted on March 27 and later released, and Father Felix Zakari Fidson, of Zaria Diocese, was also kidnapped on March 24.
With little faith that security agencies could end the continued abduction of clerics and their followers in parts of the country, the situation is causing untold trauma among Christians and the agony is reaching crisis levels.
In the past 84 months, the menace of kidnapping and other related crimes has escalated to endemic levels in the country.
Heavily armed bandits, many of whom are said to be ethnic Fulanis, are waging their own form of Jihad; killing, abducting and terrorizing worship centers and educational institutions owned by churches as well as impoverished communities in the North and Middle Belt regions.
The violence has continued unabated and the attacks and palpable insecurity have also spread from the North to the southern Nigeria.
According to revelations made by the abducted Methodist Prelate, one of the militants who held him hostage said their collaborators had settled into the nooks and cranny of southern forests.
Freedom of Worship
Sunday Vanguard investigation reveals that Nigeria closed the year 2021 with the ignominious reputation of being the country most hostile to Freedom of Worship.
According to the Open Doors’ 2022 World Watch index on global killing of Christians, “2, 500 Christians were abducted between Nov 2020 and Oct 2021 as against 900 abducted in the previous year”
The index stated that for the 15 months from January 2021 to March 2022, Nigeria saw a total 6, 006 Christian deaths.
In the same vein, the International Society for Civil Liberties & the Rule of Law reported that 2021 ended disastrously for Christians in the country and their sacred places of worship having recorded the killing or abduction of at least 25 Christian clerics and attack or destruction of between 400 and 420 churches.
Already, for the first five months of 2022, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has reported the abduction of no fewer than 10 Christian clerics.
Decrying the ugly trend which is sweeping through the country, the CAN President, Rev. Samson Ayokunle, disclosed that in two instances of the 10 abductions of clerics this year, the victims were killed by their captors unfortunately.
“If a great servant of God of the Methodist Prelate’s caliber could be kidnapped on a major road without any resistance from the Police, it speaks volume of what our security architecture has become”, Ayokunle, who spoke through his media aide, Pastor Adebayo Oladeji, said.
“This is no more a country one can be proud of. No reasonable government can continue to leave the citizens in a terrible state of insecurity as we are presently. “This situation is not good for our nation at all”.
To analysts, clerics are among the most vulnerable segments of the country’s population, and their itinerary can be easily monitored and tracked, and this makes them soft targets for attacks.
Mr. Illia Djadi, an expert on Freedom of Religion and Belief in sub-Saharan Africa, said: “The abduction of the Prelate is the latest in a series of kidnappings which have become an epidemic in Nigeria.
“The issue of security is the central issue for Nigerians. People from all walks of life, from army officers to young children, can be abducted.”
But Rev. Fr. Evaristus Bassey, a former Director of Church and Society Directorate, Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, abduction of priests, pastors and other Christian clerics is part of an agenda perpetuated by religious fundamentalists whose goal is to convert the nation to Islam.
“This forms part of the whole Islamic agenda by extremists in northern Nigeria,” Bassey said.
“The government is weak, and they know this. That is why they use every opportunity to push their agenda of attacking Christians.”
President Muhammadu Buhari, a Fulani Muslim from the North, has been accused of protecting his kinsmen and not doing enough to condemn their crimes. The Catholic Bishop Conference of Nigeria once met with Buhari to express concerns over the rising insecurity in the country and, in one of their public statements, called for his resignation.
There are increasing signs that Islamic extremist groups have begun working together as Boko Haram, ISWAP, Fulani militants a.k.a. bandits are evidently acting in cooperation with one another to widening the impact of their violence.
After each kidnapping incident, a network of negotiators emerges, including clerics, former militants and security forces personnel.
For instance, Sheikh Ahmad Gumi, an influential but controversial Imam and government critic based in Kaduna, has close connections with bandits and has acted as a go-between in several cases of kidnappings.
However, Dr Ubong Evans Abraham, a lecturer at the Sociology Department, Nigeria Police Academy, Wudil, Kano, explained that the prevalence of kidnapping in Nigeria is as a result of laxity in the law implementation process to prosecute offenders.
Consequently, he suggested that the issue of ransom payment by victim’s cronies to kidnappers should be seriously condemned.
“Government also should endeavour to create employment for the teeming population of youths as this will assist to check the proliferation of the kidnapping,” he said.
Despite the incessant abductions of clerics and attacks on the followers of Jesus, Christians in the country remain optimistic as they vow to continue professing their faith no matter the challenges that come with doing so.