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OMI Mission and the prevailing violence
07/02/2012 Nigeria

Since the first bomb explosion on 1st October 2009 at the Eagle Square in Abuja, one can no longer count how many other bomb explosions the country has witnessed. Responsibility for most of these explosions, if not all, has been claimed by the extremist Islamic sect tagged Boko Haram (Western education is forbidden).

Generally based in the north-east of Nigeria (Borno State), the activities of the Islamic sect have now spread to the north-central states of Kaduna, Kano, Jos and Abuja and to the north-west states like Adamawa among others.

In Plateau State where the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate are working in the archdiocese of Jos, the very volatile situation that has prevailed since 2001 has now been compounded by several bomb explosions on relaxation centres, Christian churches and other nocturnal attacks on local and rural communities essentially of non-Muslim extraction. Plateau State is in the north-central region of Nigeria and 90% of the population is Christian. The neighboring states are essentially Muslim. Conflicts between Christians and Muslims have claimed several lives and destroyed property worth millions of naira.

The strategic location of our two Oblate communities in Plateau State perhaps is shielding us from having a direct sad experience of this mayhem. We live in Jebbu-Bassa and Bassa which are located about 20 km away from the city centre and in the same vicinity as a big military barracks. Often victims seek shelter in our area and in the barracks since military personnel are deployed from the barracks to areas of violence. Some consider the military barracks as the proverbial biblical wall of Jericho for us, the inhabitants of Jebbu-Bassa and Bassa! How long will this last? As it is said in Plateau State, it is not where you live that matters but where you were when the crisis started: one could be at the wrong place at the wrong time.


Nigerian policemen watching as university students fleeing
from the violent religious clashes are being evacuated to Abia State
in eastern part of the country in a bus provided by the state government in Jos.

Despite this situation, our Oblates have continued to work with the Christians and non-Christians including Muslims. In our work in the parish and at the Oblate Centre, we encounter Muslims and non-Catholics. We collaborate in the areas of peace talks, education, community building and social development. Our Mission has drilled wells for the village communities where Muslims and Christians live together. We have just opened a nursery-primary school in the parish premises where children of different religious backgrounds attend. We have encouraged and organized several meetings with members of the different religious communities to ensure a peaceful cohabitation amongst them. Muslims have always come to visit and work in our communities whenever necessary. While this remains possible in our small communities, the situation is more delicate elsewhere.

The state security seems to be overwhelmed by the gravity of the sad and heinous attacks and counter attacks. On several occasions, the security agents have themselves been targeted and are still one of the major targets of the sect, the reason being that the security agents arrested and extra-judicially killed their leader in 2009.

The Church is not spared this ugly situation. The climax came on Christmas day, with coordinated attacks on five churches across the north, including a Catholic church in Madalla, Niger State, near Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory and a Mountain of Fire church in Jos, Plateau State. These accounted for several deaths and numerous injured persons.

Before then in Plateau State, measures had been taken around the churches and in the cities to ensure some safety of the worshippers and the inhabitants. People are no longer allowed to enter the church building with bags or hand bags. Church members and all who enter the church premises are screened with gadgets. Those who own vehicles can no longer park them near church buildings. Improvised security men (mainly the youth) mount guard around the church premises before, during and after Church activities. Most of the night activities in churches are cancelled in some more exposed and volatile areas in the north. There are security check-points everywhere in the city and along major highways. But of what efficacy are these measures in the face of a suicide bomber who forces his way into a crowd of church members as they enter or leave the church and detonates his improvised explosive device)?

What is more worrisome in the present situation is the fact that the President of the country has openly confirmed that this Islamic sect has infiltrated the government, the judiciary and the security. What else could be so disturbing? Just recently, the presumed master-mind of the Christmas day bomb blast at St. Theresa Catholic church in Madalla (over 43 people died and over a hundred wounded) was arrested in a Borno State government house in Abuja, the capital. But unexplainably, he escaped police custody! And to think that most of the government’s plans to eradicate this group have often been revealed, even before there execution!

As it stands now, one of the options for a lasting solution is for the authorities to promote dialogue among all the ethnic and religious groups that form the Nigerian state, in order to draw a road map for our continued corporate existence as a nation. Our founding fathers had a vision for the country; we must revisit that vision and ascertain if it is still valid and applicable for all the components of the Nigerian nation. (George Chidi IHEANACHO)