NIGERIA – “Islamic aggression takes different form in Nigeria”
Bishop Charles Hammawa is the head of the Diocese of Jalingo, located in the eastern part of Nigeria’s so-called “Middle Belt.” The population of 2.3 million is about equally divided between Muslims and Christians, 450,000 of whom are Catholic, with 10 percent of the people belonging to traditional religions.
The bishop expressed his concern about what he labelled “suspiciously persistent” attacks by well-armed Muslim Fulani herdsmen on Christian farmers. He also discussed the growing influx of Muslim settlers taking possession of land taken from these farmers. During a recent visit to New York, he spoke about this with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
ACN: Boko Haram appears to be curtailed, and there are fewer attacks by the group. However, you have reported another manifestation of Islamic extremism in the form of these attacks by Fulani herdsmen on Christian farmers.
Bishop Hammawa: That is my suspicion – that jihad is taking a new course. It looks like a problem between herdsmen and farmers. In the past, things would settle down after a clash. But I have seen cases of herdsmen not just letting their cattle graze but taking over the land – and Muslim from the north coming in to settle there. It appears to be a strategy to deliberately populate areas with Muslims and, by the sheer weight of superior numbers, influence political decision-making in the region. It is not the extreme violence of Boko Haram, but another way of capturing Nigeria for Islam. And this crisis has been sustained for the past three years in our region. It’s also suspicious that the herdsmen have access to sophisticated weaponry. There appears to be some financing of the Fulani aggression, which has left numerous dead, destroyed many communities and displaced thousands of people.
ACN: Are Muslims and Christians in competition in the “Middle Belt,” where neither religion has the upper hand?
Bishop Hammawa: Both faiths are committed to gaining new followers. The difference lies in the approach. Christianity uses persuasion through preaching. For Islam, it can be the case of a kind of coercion – the understanding that if you want to get anywhere in government, you have to be a Muslim. For example, the office of traditional rulers is presented as belonging only to Muslims, which prompts some Christians eligible to the throne to convert to Islam.
ACN: In this regard, how do you rate the policies of President Muhammadu Buhari – is he being fair to Christians?
Bishop Hammawa: I have some doubts. He is very cautious and a little bit slow in condemning the Fulani crisis, for example. I wish he would be stronger in making firm statements in this matter and take concrete action in combating Islamic extremism. My worry is that, although Boko Haram members have been killed or are awaiting trial, the organization is laying low, with members hiding out in various places. Violence could readily flare up again.
ACN: What is the solution, in your view, to putting a real stop to Islamic extremism?
Bishop Hammawa: We keep saying that dialogue must be the solution. But the parties do have to come to the table with a sincere willingness to live in peace. Also, it must be acknowledged that many of the rank-and-file of Boko Haram had been neglected by the Muslim elite in the north for a long time. These youth and adults have not been properly educated, because Western education has been rejected; they have been living in the margins of the society, with only a fundamentalist Islamic formation. They are filled with anger and they have nothing to lose. Meanwhile, the Muslim elite send their children to be educated abroad! No wonder, Boko Haram eventually targeted Muslim leaders as well.
ACN: Do you and your priests use your homilies to address these issues?
Bishop Hammawa: We avoid inflaming hostilities; we preach peace and reconciliation; we urge Christian farmers not to retaliate—at most, we encourage them to defend themselves; but we cannot tell them to go and fight—that would violate the spirit of the Gospel. There definitely is a great fear of persecution among Christians, which brings some of them to compromise or hide their faith. Those who remain steadfast deserve our utmost support.
ACN: Are local authorities, such as the police, of any help?
Bishop Hammawa: Unfortunately, corruption and bribery hamper security efforts. Corruption, of course, is rampant all across Nigeria.