ABUJA, Nigeria – The United States and other western nations have ignored the religious motivation of the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram and must understand the theological dynamics in Nigeria in order to curb terrorism in the western African country, the archbishop of Nigeria’s Anglican Church told Baptist Press.
For a long time, “the United States did not come out to say anything about Boko Haram,” Nicholas Okoh, primate of the Church of Nigeria, said in an interview. “They kept talking about economic problems, [saying] that Boko Haram is fighting because of economic problems. That is not true … The United States deliberately ignored the fundamental issues of religious ideology.”
Based in northeast Nigeria, Boko Haram has killed an estimated 10,000 people since 2002 with an escalation in murders recently. In April the group received wide media coverage for kidnapping 273 schoolgirls, 219 of whom remain missing and may be enslaved as wives of Muslim men. Loosely translated, the phrase Boko Haram means “Western education is sinful.”
Nicholas Okoh, a leader in the worldwide conservative Anglican movement, urged the U.S. government to support the Nigerian government “strongly” in its fight against terrorism so that it can “combat Boko Haram to a standstill” and force peaceful negotiation.
Boko Haram’s two central beliefs are that western-style education should be abolished from Nigeria and that the nation should be governed by Sharia law, an Islamic system of government based on the Koran that imposes, among other things, harsh penalties on Muslims who convert to Christianity. According to one estimate, Nigeria is 50 percent Muslim and 48 percent Christian.
The U.S. State Department’s 2013 announcement to the media that it had designated Boko Haram as a terrorist organization said only that it is “a Nigeria-based militant group with links to al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb.” The announcement contained no further mention of Islam or Sharia but did reference “the legitimate concerns of the people of northern Nigeria.”
Okoh, a leader in the worldwide conservative Anglican movement, acknowledged northern Nigeria faces economic problems and injustice, but he said such problems are not isolated to one region of the country. In addition, Boko Haram has never expressed economic motivations or claimed to be fighting for justice in northern Nigeria, he said.
“Some of the economic facilities, employment opportunities are visible in the northeast,” Okoh said. “Boko Haram has destroyed all of them. So if they were actually interested in economic progress, they would not go around destroying what offered some economic succor to our people.”
Okoh urged the U.S. government to support the Nigerian government “strongly” in its fight against terrorism so that it can “combat Boko Haram to a standstill” and force peaceful negotiation. He admitted though that negotiation cannot occur if Boko Haram continues to demand only universal Sharia law and an end to western-style education.
Among the indications that negotiation may be impossible are Boko Haram’s statement that it will not talk to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan unless he converts to Islam and the group’s statement that the government has no authority to offer it amnesty, Okoh said. Boko Haram regards itself as the reigning power with authority to offer the government amnesty, he added.
Okoh also said neighboring countries must stop funding Boko Haram.
Currently the Nigerian government is using "moderated force" without conducting a full scale military operation against the terrorist group, Okoh said. The goal, he noted, is to determine Boko Haram’s agenda more fully and draw them into discussions.
Meanwhile, Nigeria’s Christians have prayed, fasted and held meetings with their Muslim neighbors. But neither Christians nor moderate Muslims have been able to curtail Boko Haram violence, Okoh said.
“God created every human being equal and free,” he said. “Boko Haram tries to deny people freedom – freedom of worship and freedom of the expression of their religion. This is not what God asks us to do. Religion is a gift of God, and people should be allowed to express it. Therefore, forceful abduction of people or forceful conversion is outside God’s will … God does not force us to follow Him. He only makes us willing to follow Him.”
No one should think Boko Haram is serving God, Okoh said, especially in light of its kidnapping of children.
“Children are precious in the sight of God,” he said. “And to go to a school and abduct children and take them into the bush and to divert the course of their destiny is something we think is against God.”
Okoh asked Christians in America and other western nations to understand Nigeria’s plight and call on their governments to help.
“Christians in the West first of all need to encourage western governments to see Boko Haram as a very deadly terrorist organization…,” Okoh said. “And they also need to support the government of Nigeria in every way possible so that the government will be able to combat Boko Haram.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.)