Catholic Bishop from Boko Haram Region: We Have No Idea but Forgive

Stephen MamzaBoko Haram is a jihadist group based in northeastern Nigeria, also active in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon. Estimates of the group’s membership varies between 7,000 and 10,000 fighters. The group initially had links to al-Qaeda, but in 2015 it pledged formal allegiance to the Islamic State.  Jihadists killed more than 13,000 civilians in attacks occurring mainly in northeast Nigeria. Upwards of 1.5 million people have been displaced in the violence.

Stephen Dami Mamza, the Catholic bishop of Yola in northeast Nigeria, whose diocese was seriously affected with the activity of Boko Haram, tells in his interview to about the jihadists, forgiveness and the situation in the country. Your diocese is situated in the northern part of Nigeria, while the majority of Christian population lives in the South. How many Christians are in your region?

Yes, the majority of Christian population lives in the South of Nigeria. But Christians are majority of Nigerian population. And Christians consists about 55-60% population of my region. But I think that the political power, the economical power, and also the traditional power are in the hands of the Muslims. That is why the Christians even if they are in majority feel marginalized. And what are the relations between the Christians and Muslims?

In the past we had never had many problems. We lived in a good neighboring, like brothers and sisters. And it is only in recent times, especially with the advent of Boko Haram, that things have started changing. If it’s not we would have no many problems. When did Boko Haram start its activity?

They exploded their activity in 2009. And in 2009 there were so many attacks across the North of Nigeria. Especially in North East of Nigeria, because the activity of Boko Haram actually started in Maiduguri in North East of Nigeria, in the capital of Borno State. There are three states that have been affected by the activity of Boko Haram. And even the former president input the state of emergency in these states. These states are Borno, Adamawa and Yobe. And I’m from Adamawa State. My home town was also affected with the activity of Boko Haram. Since August last year my home town, the local government and the whole of northern part of my state were occupied by Boko Haram. And it’s only about two months ago that my home town was by God bless liberated. How many people were killed by Boko Haram?

They killed so many people. We don’t have exact statistics, but people are talking about 15 000 or so. But I’m sure that there have been more than 15 000 people killed with the activities of Boko Haram. Have you personally or your relatives been affected by Boko Haram?

Yes, I was affected with the activity of Boko Haram, because my home was overrun by Boko Haram. My brother was killed. Three of my cousins were killed. My uncle was killed. Many of my relations were also killed. So almost everyone in North East of my state was affected either directly, or indirectly with the activity of Boko Haram. I have not been personally attacked by them, but so many people were killed I had known. How could you describe Boko Haram activists? Who are they?

They are people who think that they are fighting for Islam. Boko Haram means: Western education is sinful or is something that should be forbidden. Because Boko is the word for Western wisdom, and Haram is Arabic word for something sinful or abandoned. Not all the Muslims are in support of Boko Haram. But Boko Haram activists are so much convinced about their own activity that they are seriously fighting for Allah and they are ready to risk their lives in order to die for what they are fighting for.

Stephen Mamza1 Under what reasons do people join Boko Haram?

People join Boko Haram for so many reasons. Firstly there are real fanatics who want to find fulfillment of their fanaticism. And secondly there are some poverty reasons. Two years ago it was told that Boko Haram members were recruited with amount of $3000 for each. If you give $3000 for somebody who has never seen $100 he is ready to do whatever you tell him. So these are some of the reasons why people join Boko Haram. There is a lot of poverty and unemployment in our country. People are poor, they are not employed and they are waiting for anybody who come and hire them for whatever. And they are ready to give them assent. There are so many well-educated people within Boko Haram. Why do they join it and take part in its crimes?

Yes, there are even well-educated doctors, who are highly professional and have joined Boko Haram. There are as well engineers and other professionals, who joined Boko Haram. It’s very difficult to understand their reasons. But I think they join to fight in the name of Islam. Some of them were probably indoctrinated right from their childhood since they were growing up. Actually, it’s very difficult to really understand why a person joins such kind of activity. The reasons can be different for the faithful, community or even for a particular individual. And there are also those who are actually forced to join Boko Haram. It’s common when Boko Haram occupies a village they force everyone to go for training and then to fight for Boko Haram. There are those who joined willingly, who was forced to join by their parents and adherents or by Boko Haram themselves. Does Boko Haram control any territory in Nigeria now?

At the moment there is no particularly local government occupied or controlled by it. But in the past they were controlling a lot of local governments in the North East. When military got new equipment in order to fight Boko Haram they were able to reconquer most of those local governments. And the places where Boko Haram is concentrated now are the Sambisa forest. And it’s very huge forest. We are talking about the square of hundred kilometers. They live in this forest and from time to time they go to a city or a village, attack it and go back to the forest again. And the members of Boko Haram are highly sophisticated. They’ve got not just guns but also tanks and aircrafts and different other kinds of weapons to fight. You said that Nigerian army had got new weapons. And why didn’t they get it before?

The former president was appplied by different countries, especially from Europe and North America in order to support Nigeria to fight Boko Haram. Particularly with weapons. But the West refused to send weapons to Nigeria. Even when Nigeria wanted to buy the weapons, they refused. It was said that there is abuse of human rights by the military. And I think that was the reason why our military was not able to handle the issue of Boko Haram earlier than now. But in the recent time before the former president handed over power they were able to get new weapons in order to fight Boko Haram. And I don’t know from which country they were able to get them. But they took them not from America and not from Europe. As soon as they got weapons within one month Nigerian military reconquered all the places which Boko Haram had occupied. So the primarily problem was the lack of weapons.

And I was not surprised that the former president was not supported by the West in fighting Boko Haram because of what happened about two years ago. The issue of gay-marriage was brought to our parliament, it was discussed and it was anonymously agreed by all the members of Lower House and Upper House that we didn’t accept this. And the president signed it in the law. And right from this moment our president was hated by the West. So we were not surprised when he was not supported to fight Boko Haram. Former Nigerian president was Catholic, and you have a Muslim president. Has the situation improved or got worse since that?

Unfortunately, the situation has become worse. The killings which we are experiencing now under new president Buhari is much more that what we experienced under president Goodluck Jonathan. We thought that the problem with the president who is also a Muslim would be solved easier, but unfortunately things became worse. There has never been a day after Mr Buhari became a president of Nigeria that we’ve not been attacked. The next day after his inauguration was the day when attacks started. So things have become worse, killings have become worse since the new president came. And it’s really surprising because we thought that things would become better. The only thing is that Boko Haram is not able to go and colonize a particular area and occupy it as they did it in the past. They only remain in the forests or in the communities where they operate and kill people. This year Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS. How do you think, will it somehow influence the situation in Nigeria?

We were really oppressed when they pledged loyalty to ISIS because they can get more weapons and more support. But I think all the African countries are now united in order to fight Boko Haram. I mean they will not be able to act as they did in the past. Again, we didn’t get support from our neighbors when we fought Boko Haram. Even some African countries like Chad and Niger supported Boko Haram. And now Chad has been attacked by Boko Haram, Niger has been attacked by Boko Haram, Cameroon has been attacked by Boko Haram. So they are united against Boko Haram, since before it was just the Nigerian problem. And now it’s not just a Nigerian problem, it’s an African problem, it’s a worldwide problem. And maybe that is why the West decided to support Nigeria now, because they discovered that it would not only affect Nigeria, but would also affect the West either, directly or indirectly. In case if Boko Haram is defeated, how should those who participated in Boko Haram activities and committed crimes be treated?

I think it will also be a very big challenge. Especially in the areas which were overrun by Boko Haram. There were those in the villages and towns occupied by Boko Haram who cooperated with them, especially among the Muslims. They welcomed Boko Haram, supported them, assisted them in destroying churches and destroying houses. It’s especially a big challenge for us – religious leaders. We have a very big task that should be approached. We should preach reconciliation, preach forgiveness so that we were able to live in peace and unity. Because now Boko Haram is not a friend of anybody. They also kill Muslims. They kill everybody they see nowadays. They kill either Christians, or Muslims. They also attack churches and the mosques. So Boko Haram is a common enemy for true Muslims and for Christians. And it’s a high time for Christians and Muslims to understand that Boko Haram is a common enemy. So the Christians and Muslims should put their hands together in order to fight Boko Haram. What do the Muslim theologians think about Boko Haram? Were there any theologians who supported Boko Haram?

The majority of Muslims in Nigeria now don’t support Boko Haram. The problem was in the beginning when Boko Haram started. Even Muslim religious leaders didn’t come out openly and didn’t condemn the activities of Boko Haram. And we felt being betrayed. Even publically they were saying “No, these are our children, our sons and so on”. And those things started affecting them. I think if right from the beginning the Muslim leaders and the Christian leaders  were able to come up together in order to say no for Boko Haram we might have succeeded long time ago. But, unfortunately, that was not done. And now I think everybody is saying Boko Haram is an evil activity. Are the Christians ready to forgive their Muslim neighbors who participated in Boko Haram crimes?

It’s a very very difficult situation. As I told you my brother was killed, three of my cousins were killed, my uncle was killed, also my relations were killed. It’s not easy to say “Ok, I forgive” or just like that. Definitely we have no idea but forgive. But there should be a mechanism according to which those who are known to have been participated in Boko Haram should be punished. If they are punished I think somebody will get a piece of mind on it. It’s not easy for people to go back to the village, where you see that this person killed your father, this person killed your brother or son. And you should live in peace with him without anything being done to him. It encourages violence. It encourages crime. And if they are punished it will be easier for religious leaders to preach the Gospel of forgiveness. And also for us to understand that not all Muslims are involved in activities of Boko Haram. So Muslims were even more affected than Christians. More Muslims have been killed than Christians since the activity of Boko Haram started.