“As the attacks have accelerated in recent weeks, leaders from various Christian denominations in Nigeria have called on their Christian brothers and sisters in the West, along with all people of goodwill, to speak out against the mounting violence in their country.”
Seldom in recent memory has the Western world seemed more united than on January 11, 2015, when an estimated 1.5 million people, including forty-four world leaders, flooded the streets of Paris to protest the atrocities carried out by Islamist terrorists at the offices of the French weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Who can forget the impressive show of unity—with the notable absence of the top constitutional officers of the United States—as Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders locked arms and marched side by side in an anti-terrorism rally along the Boulevard Voltaire?
Yet while masses marched in Paris to protest the vicious murders of seventeen persons, including twelve journalists, a catastrophe of far greater proportion was unfolding on the “dark continent” of Africa. On January 3—just four days before the Paris attacks—in the fishing towns of Baga and Doron Baga on Lake Chad in northeastern Nigeria, the jihadist terror group known as Boko Haram carried out its deadliest attack to date. The soldiers defending the area could not repel the incoming insurgents, who burned Christian churches to the ground and slaughtered more than 2,000 people, including children and women. Some of those fleeing the surprise attack drowned in Lake Chad as their overcrowded boats capsized and they tried to swim away from the melee.
Musa Alhaji Bukar is a senior government official in Borno state, where these towns are located and where Boko Haram is said to have some 15,000 soldiers deployed at its command. He told the BBC, “The indiscriminate killing went on and on and on.” This was Boko Haram’s most horrific act of terrorism yet, and while it was reported in the Western press, it drew nothing like the attention given to the Paris attacks. No one organized an international protest against the African massacre. No national leaders flew to Abuja to stand in solidarity with the people of Nigeria. (Secretary of State John Kerry did pay what one Nigerian leader has called a “face-saving” visit several weeks later.)
Boko Haram is a strict sect within Sunni Islam which originated in 2002. In the Hausa language, Boko Haram is loosely rendered as “western education is prohibited”—a common theme in Islamist movements around the world—but the group’s full name in Arabic means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.” Its first leader, Mohammad Yusuf, was killed by Nigerian security forces in July 2009. Since then, Boko Haram has regrouped and grown much stronger and more radical under its current leader, Abubakar Shekau. For several years—until 2013, by which time the killings already numbered in the thousands—the United States Department of State refused to declare Boko Haram a terrorist group. Last summer Shekau declared his own caliphate in Africa, an obvious parallel to ISIS leader al-Baghdadi’s declaration of the same in the Middle East. The connection between the two groups is unclear, but a similar pattern of extreme brutality and the use of Islam to justify it is striking.
Boko Haram wants to “cleanse” Nigeria of Christians and impose its strict version of sharia law there. But in this process, it has also attacked moderate Muslim communities, burning mosques and murdering imams and sheikhs who dared to oppose its tactics of terror. Nigeria’s presidential election, originally scheduled for this past Valentine’s Day, has been postponed until March 28, the day before Palm Sunday. In the meantime, President Goodluck Jonathan and his government, with the assistance of a newly assembled multi-national African military force (under the aegis of the African Union), are trying to bring stability to the country. They hope to degrade the capacity of Boko Haram to wreak havoc—something they have not been able to do over the past five years.