I’ve just returned from another visit to Jos at the north end of Plateau State in middle-belt Nigeria. Here, despite the proliferating Christmas decorations in homes and churches, peace on earth and goodwill between communities continues to be in short supply and, across northern Nigeria, the church is facing an existential threat from the violence and intimidation of Islam in its various forms.
I travelled in the company of Baroness Caroline Cox and members of the team from her Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) charity for the first time. The Baroness is seventy-seven but her drive, energy and zeal for travelling to help oppressed people in remote and dangerous locations show she clearly considers herself thirty years younger.
In Jos we met with Ben and Gloria Kwashi, the Anglican Archbishop and his wife – an essential engagement in a Christian visitor’s itinerary as it is never less than inspirational. We visited Gloria’s school for 400 orphans where, for a third of the children, the lunchtime bowl of mixed rice and beans with added nutrients is the only meal of the day. Education of these precious orphans is taken seriously by Gloria and her dedicated staff of seven, not only as a Christian imperative but also as a vital route out of poverty.
We had dinner too in the archiepiscopal home and joined in night-time prayers with the fifty five orphans who Gloria also has rescued to live with them.
“Good night children,” said Archbishop Ben after leading the prayers. The fatherly but diminutive spiritual colossus stood in front of the youngsters holding the rudimentary archbishop’s staff they had made for him from branches of a nearby tree in one hand, while blessing them with the other.
“Good night Daddy Kwashi, goodnight Mummy Kwashi,” they chimed in unison. The orphans have nothing, but, surrounded by the warm and disciplined Christian love of the Kwashis, they have everything. It was difficult to join in the prayers thanks to the lump in my throat.
I’ve blogged before about the inter-communal violence generated by Fulani Muslim herdsmen migrating from the Sharia states in the north onto Plateau land belonging to Berom Christian villagers. Ostensibly the Fulani are searching for grazing pasture for their cattle although their motive seems also to do with Islamic expansionism.
On the fourth day of our visit and protected in convoy by two police armoured cars bristling with guns, we were taken to a distressing recent example of the phenomenon. The farmland belonging to and surrounding the Berom village of Sho in Barkin Ladi local government area, some 30 minutes’ drive outside Jos, has been occupied by force by Fulani herdsmen. Since September 2013 twenty-four of the Berom villagers have been massacred, ten of them on 7th July of this year. As a consequence they live in terror, unable to enter or exit their village or cross their own adjoining occupied farmland except under armed military escort. Their school and church have been destroyed.
We met the head man and villagers in the village square and heard their stories. They were grateful that outsiders – perhaps especially foreign ones – were being made aware of their plight. Fear and distress was in their eyes as they explained they are isolated, grieving and desperate, living in poverty without access to their farmland food source.
It wasn’t clear why the authorities have not attempted to rectify the situation except that justice is in short supply in northern Nigeria. And it wasn’t clear either how we as outsiders could help except by publicising their predicament. I left Sho with a heavy heart.
I also visited an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp run in dilapidated school buildings in Bukuru south of Jos by the under-funded but resourceful Stefanos Foundation and it’s energetic CEO, Mark Lipdo. Primarily the camp comprised Christians from the Gwoza area of Borno State in the north east of Nigeria, close to the Cameroon border.
Until the second half of the last century, Gwoza was peopled by primitive and frequently warring tribes. Then, after the Second World War, the colonial authorities allowed British and other missionaries into the area. These were doctors, nurses and teachers as well as evangelists, and they built health clinics, schools and in due course churches. The first indigenous convert, Inshaya Hutuku, became a Christian in the early 50s (he is still alive today) and the early trickle of converts grew to a steady stream. By 2013 there were over 200 churches in the thriving Gwoza council area.
But twelve months later, by the middle of 2014, there were almost none.
Boko Haram, who last year killed more people than ISIS and who this year pledged allegiance their brutal Iraq/Syria counterparts, moved into the area in April 2014, killing, kidnapping, burning and destroying churches and homes. On 2 June last year the militants perpetrated the infamous Gwoza massacre wherein up to 500 males were slaughtered. Then on 24 August Boko Haram declared Gwoza town the headquarters of their Islamic Caliphate. An acquaintance of mine, an elderly Nigerian minister, narrowly escaped death by scrambling up into the hills and hospitalising himself in the process through a heavy fall. His home was burnt out.
Many escaped the slaughter in Gwoza with only the clothes they stood in. Over 450 are now living in the IDP camp I visited, surviving on church generosity and handouts organised by Stefanos. The conditions are pitiful, the drafty rooms are cold during the December nights, most of the refugees are desperate to return home to Gwoza as soon as possible and there is limited cause for optimism for them. While the military under the new Federal ‘hard man’ President Muhammadu Buhari, together with increasingly effective civilian vigilante self-defence groups, are gaining some push-back against the militants across Borno State and elsewhere, there is little prospect that families can return to and rebuild their lives back in Gwoza itself in the near future.
Ben and Gloria Kwashi and Mark Lipdo – like many other Christians in northern Nigeria – are faithful, courageous, visionary and inspirational. They spread hope, joy and generosity in the darkest of places, and it is certainly appropriate to highlight and celebrate their endeavours at Christmas time when we remember the true Light who came into the world.
But the tide is flowing strongly against them. Through violence, persecution and discrimination, over the centuries and especially over the past decade Islam has chased Christianity out of the heartlands of the Middle East as well as across North Africa. The signs are that the same is happening in northern Nigeria.
So despite the joy of Christmas, rising militant Islam means it’s a bleak mid-winter for many believers there and indeed around the world.
If you are moved to help them, you can donate via HART. Your money will be well spent.