The very same year Bishop Oliver Doeme took charge of the Diocese of Maiduguri, in the northeast of Nigeria, a small Muslim sect transformed itself into what would become a savage terrorist group, ravaging peaceful communities and kidnapping hundreds of teenage girls. For years he watched as Boko Haram overran security personnel and forced the diocese to close 25 parishes.
Things are much better in Maiduguri at the moment, a change the bishop attributes largely to divine intervention, including a vision he had in 2014 where Jesus handed him a sword, which turned into a rosary, encouraging the bishop’s already deep Marian devotion. “The war was won on bended knee”, he says, during an online press conference organised by pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
That was when the tide began to turn against the terrorists. Since 2020 there have been hardly any attacks by Boko Haram, and thousands of terrorists surrendered and gave up their weapons. Only three of the 25 parishes remain closed and most of the displaced people have returned to their homes. But with the situation almost back to normal at home, it is the rest of the country that worries Bishop Oliver Doeme now.
“To a large extent we can say that the north-eastern part of the country is more peaceful than other parts, because Nigeria is now in crisis, and we are experiencing a lot of evil forces in our country. You have the Fulani herdsmen attacking Christian communities, you have the bandits attacking communities and taking people away. The Church is not spared. In different parts of the north, priests have been killed. So, the crisis may be subsiding in the northeast, but not in other parts of the north and even in the south.”
“THE GOVERNMENT HAS LOST ITS GRIP”
The bishop has little doubt that blame for the situation lies squarely with the current Government. “We have never experienced what we are experiencing now. People are suffering, hungry. The government has lost its grip on the situation, things are a shambles, but we are a people of hope, and we know that God will support us. Buhari is the president at the moment, but tomorrow he will be gone, and we hope for a compassionate new president, who will have the people at heart and who can unite them”, says Bishop Oliver, adding that “we know that God is strong and as long as we continue to turn to Mary victory will surely be won, because we are a victorious people, we are a hallelujah people, we are a resurrection people.”
Meanwhile, as life in Maiduguri returns to normal, the diocese is tending to the trauma and wounds the terrorists inflicted upon the population. Education is the main weapon in this new fight.
“This is a priority for our diocese, especially for the refugees who have returned. We have taken it upon ourselves to make sure the children get an education, from primary school even, if possible, to university. This is key to defeating Boko Haram. When people have training to secure their livelihood, then they don’t go and kill people.”
Priests play a very important role in helping the local population, but the diocese is also concerned with the psychological well-being of its clergy. “One of the programmes we have begun is trauma counselling for the priests. Our priests were invited to this trauma counselling and they returned very joyful and very thankful. Our female religious also went and returned strengthened.”
FINDING THE COURAGE TO FORGIVE
One of the most important areas in which the diocese invests is in promoting forgiveness, especially now that many Boko Haram members are being reintegrated into society. “On 13 May, the feast of Our Lady of Fatima, we reconsecrated our diocese to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. People feel spiritually uplifted, and encouraged, and it makes them ready to forgive, because that is a very important component of our care for people. People carry grudges against Boko Haram members who killed their loved ones, but they now have the ability to forgive. They see Jesus hanging on the cross, having forgiven his executioners, and they, too, gain the courage to forgive.”
Aid to the Church in Need has been a key partner in helping fund many of the projects the diocese is carrying out to restore dignity to its people and strengthen peace in the region. Many of the returning families require support to rebuild their lives, since the federal government has, according to the bishop, not lived up to its obligations in this field. These projects range from material and psychological support for returnees, scholarships for children, financial aid for widows and orphans and also for priests and religious. “We are very thankful to ACN for this help”, says Bishop Oliver.