By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and the continent’s largest democracy. Home to approximately 200 million people, it is blessed with abundant human and natural resources, with a rich mix of over 250 ethnic groups and over 500 spoken languages.
Recently, however, northern Nigeria has seen increased instances of violent attacks and escalating acts of terrorism. The southern part of Kaduna state, in particular, has been the epicenter of a rash of attacks, with at least three occurring in July alone. Nigeria’s northeastern region has also been plagued by terrorist attacks carried out by the extremist Boko haram organization, which has killed thousands and displaced approximately two million people. These various factors, coupled with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, make for a grim situation.
In an interview with Vatican News, Mr. Emeka Umeagbalasi, the board chairman of the International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law (Intersociety), spoke on the situation in northern Nigeria, stressing the need for a government for everyone irrespective of ethnicity or religion.
Born in 1969, Emeka Umeagbalasi is a graduate of security studies and holds a Master's degree in Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution. He is also a human rights activist and the convener of the Coalition of Human Rights and Democracy Organizations (SBCHROs), a group of over twenty rights and democracy organizations in Southeast Nigeria. Mr. Umeagbalasi is also a Catholic.
Pope Francis’s closeness
Pope Francis, at the Angelus address on Saturday, 15 August, prayed for Nigeria in the wake of the violence and killings in the north of the country.
The Nigerian Bishops’ Conference (CBCN), in a statement dated 8 August, said that they are “tired of this situation” of increasing insecurity, especially in southern Kaduna. They called for a stop to the killings in the country, and urged all Christians to join in a 40-day prayer of one Our Father, three Hail Marys, and one Glory Be to the Father each day, ending on 1 October - Nigeria’s Independence Day.
Disproportionate Christian casualties
“Nigeria is a country of roughly fifty percent Muslim and fifty percent Christians,” Umeagbalasi pointed out, adding that the country also has a multiplicity of ethnicities. It is therefore expected to be “governed secularly and pluralistically.”
However, said Umeagbalasi, the attacks from the Boko haram militants, Fulani herdsmen, and other terrorist groups in the region “have destroyed over 17,000 churches since 2009.”
To remedy this, the current government administration has to examine its very foundations and corporate motives, as to whether it has “come to govern everybody irrespective of the citizens’ religion and ethnicity,” he said.
“The government can rewind,” he stated. “The government can go back to the drawing board and start from the foundation, reorganizing the entire establishment to give it a true picture of a pluralistic Nigeria.” For this to happen, he explained, no faction should be given preferential treatment by the government.
Umeagbalasi also lauded the Pope’s recent fatherly gesture of praying for Nigeria, saying that “it means that the Pope is not oblivious of what is going on in Nigeria.”
Southern Kaduna attacks
Kaduna state, the focal point of recent attacks, straddles Nigeria’s religious and ethnic divide.
Northern Kaduna is predominantly Muslim and Hausa-Fulani, while the south is largely Christian and populated by several ethnic groups. Relations between the North and South have been strained, owing largely to competition over resources and tensions of a political nature. Unfortunately, these tensions have sometimes resulted in violence.
The spate of recent attacks, according to Umeagbalasi, are part of a bigger picture. He pointed out that, while the focus of recent attacks is presently southern Kaduna, other states have also suffered violent attacks. He gave the example of Plateau and Benue states where he says 158 and 152 people have been killed respectively. “Even Igboland where Christianity is concentrated is not spared,” he added.
Umeagbalasi pointed out that for the violence to end in northern Nigeria, the government has to evenly distribute “the composition and concentration of all the public security and policing structures,” and not put them in the hands of members of one ethnic group or religion.
“Kaduna is composed of roughly sixty percent Muslims and forty percent Christians,” Umeagbalasi said. Therefore, it would be expected that "all these particular socio/cultural factors are reflected" in state government and security.
The International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law (Intersociety) was founded in 2008 with the vision of campaigning “vigorously for the promotion and advancement of democracy, accountable governance, rule of law, civil liberties and public security and safety.”
Mr. Umeagbalasi said he hopes the organization he leads will become a formidable voice with the capacity to represent effectively what is going on in the country “on the local, national and international level.”