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Nigeria: the most innocent, the most vulnerable

Mgr. Matthew Kukah

Young girls turned into human bombs to perpetrate cowardly murders, whole villages wiped out: Boko Haram action continues to devastate many parts of the vast country of Nigeria, rich in natural resources but divided by tensions, and hoping to find a new stability in the upcoming elections. An interview with H.E. Mgr. Kukah, Bishop of Sokoto, Nigeria

In recent months, Boko Haram terrorists have carried out some particularly violent attacks in Nigeria. Thousands of innocent people have been slaughtered, children and teenagers are being driven by their parents to act as suicide bombers, causing widespread massacre. How is Nigeria managing to cope with this unstoppable brutality?



In a situation like the one Nigeria is currently going through, the youngest and most innocent are the most vulnerable, especially here in the North, where families are very large, children are left to fend for themselves and too many of them are sent out to beg on the streets. Daughters are often given away in marriage at a very young age - between ten and sixteen. One girl who failed to carry out her suicide mission when she was stopped by the police admitted that her father had sent her to Boko Haram. Many of them may also have been kidnapped and indoctrinated. So let us not forget that these children are themselves the innocent victims of a situation that has arisen from acute unrest within the family. Terrorists operate outside any logical morality; there is no rational explanation for the evil they perpetrate. They operate by fostering a climate of fear; they export terror and seek to destroy anyone who is not like them.



After the mass killings that have been carried out in some of the villages, how are people living? Can you carry on living a normal life under threat from these violent fanatics?



Fear has perhaps abated a little for the moment. In the states where violent attacks are still common, most people try to go about their normal business. The situation seems to be improving and I hope that with the help of international forces we will see significant positive developments. At least, that's what we're hoping for.



In what ways do you think international intervention can resolve the situation?



In recent years Boko Haram has taken advantage of the fragile borders with Cameroon, Niger and Chad. These states are now prepared to take part in operations to combat Boko Haram in order to protect their own borders. They see that we have a common enemy. With their collaboration we can reasonably hope that we will soon be able to put a restraint on the violence of Boko Haram. It is also encouraging that we now know it's no longer an attack on just Christians, nor a clash between Christians and Muslims; it's about a group of terrorists who represent a common enemy to both Christians and Muslims. People are being killed regardless of their religious affiliation. In my visits to some parts of the North I have seen instances of collaboration between people of different denominations - further confirmation that Nigerians are uniting against their common enemy. Even the Shi’ites, for example, are not as divided from the rest of the population as they were previously. About three months ago I visited a few places in the State of Yobe, in the Northeast, where people are extremely worried about a possible invasion by Boko Haram; only one city in Yobe is now still under the control of the Islamic militias. The same is happening in other states; people are hopeful - not because the dying has stopped or because the threat is coming to an end, but because the international forces have been called in, finally, and they inspire confidence.



What's the situation like in your own diocese, in Sokoto? Are the people afraid, is there any threat of Boko Haram action there?



Sokoto is quite peaceful, or at least it seems to be. Tensions here are mostly on ideological grounds. The population is predominantly Sunni, with a Shiite minority. Non-Muslim communities have been through some dreadful experiences in most of the northern states, but incidents in Sokoto are rare. Crises are mainly internal to Islam, between the Sunni and Shiite populations. There are also tensions between the main governing party in the country - the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Peoples Congress (APC) - the opposition party. Non-Muslims are afraid they'll fall victim to some new outbreak of violence, as they did recently when shops and churches were destroyed. However, the head of the army, who returned to service in January and who is a Catholic, came to see me and reassured me that they are now prepared.



The elections originally set for 14 February have been postponed until March. Is this good for the situation in Nigeria?



They've been put back till the end of March and I think this is a relief for many people. This appears to be for technical reasons: only 60% of those eligible to vote received their electronic voting cards in time, which would have increased the risk of a low turnout. With the current atmosphere as tense as it is, whoever is elected will only be able to lead the country out of this climate of despair that we're witnessing at the moment if he has a majority consensus and is also recognised as the legitimate president by his opponents. He will have five years in which to make significant headway in resolving the terrorism problem.