Late in the evening of November 28 last year, Habila Adamu was at home with his wife and kids in the Yobe state of Northern Nigeria when visitors stopped by. He opened the door, shocked to find gunmen wearing robes and masks.
They demanded he step outside and they peppered him with questions. What was his name? Habila Adamu. Was he a member of the Nigerian police? No. Was he a soldier? No. Was he a member of the state security service? No. He told them he was a businessman.
“OK, are you a Christian?” they asked.
“I am a Christian,” Habila said.
Initially fearful, Habila came to terms with the realization that it was the day of his death. He began praying for strength, forgiveness and salvation.
The gunmen wanted to know why he was not Muslim and told him they’d spare his life if he renounced his faith. His wife begged him to do what he needed to do to live. But he told them he was ready to die as a Christian. Before he could even get the statement out a second time, they shot him in the face.
Everyone thought he was dead. The gunmen began shouting Allah Akbar. His wife began sobbing. Even Habila was waiting for an angel to come and take him to heaven. Somehow he survived — the sole survivor of a Boko Haram attack on all the Christian men in his village.
Habila shares his story — as he did before a Congressional subcommittee on Tuesday and at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday — so that he can tell people that “To live in this world is to live for Christ, to die is gain.” That and, “Do everything that you can to end this ruthless religious persecution in Northern Nigeria.”
It’s the latter message that political Washington is paying attention to this week.
Washington’s New Posture Toward Boko Haram
Boko Haram is the colloquial name of “The Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad.” Boko Haram means something like Western education is sinful. The group seeks to establish a pure Islamic state ruled by sharia and to end Western influences. Launched shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the group has ramped up its terror attacks since 2009. Adherents are known for attacking Christians and their churches as well as government targets.
Habila and various other Nigerians and human rights observers were testifying before Congress as part of a years-long attempt to get Boko Haram designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Rep. Chris Smith, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, was pushing H.R. 3209, the Boko Haram Terrorist Designation Act of 2013.
On the day of the hearing, the State Department so designated Boko Haram and splinter group Ansaru.
It’s about time. President Obama has called the group “one of the most vicious terrorist organizations in the world.” And The State Department last year ranked it as the 2nd deadliest terrorist group worldwide after the Taliban. As CNN reported:
Afghanistan’s Taliban was by far the deadliest group in 2012, when it launched 525 attacks that killed 1,842 people.
The second deadliest group was Nigeria’s Boko Haram, a jihadist group that orchestrated 364 attacks last year that killed 1,132 people.
As Jacob Zenn of the Jamestown Foundation put it in his congressional testimony this week, “If Boko Haram is not [a foreign terrorist organization], then who is?”
Boko Haram has modeled itself after the Taliban. Two years ago it gave Christians three days to leave Northern Nigeria or be killed. Since then, there’s been a systematic campaign of religious cleansing.
In late September, Boko Haram opened fire on sleeping college students in Nigeria, killing 40 of them. Attacks on schools are so prevalent that Education Testing Services just this week indefinitely suspended both the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) in Nigeria “due to security concerns.”
Last year 47 churches were attacked. This year 53 churches have been attacked and 216 people murdered in them.
“September marked the highest death toll since 2009 with deaths in the region of 500 including a rush-hour ambush in which chainsaws were used to decapitate travelers, a school massacre, a military ambush and scorched earth raids on villages in Gwoza,” said human rights activist Emmanuel Ogebe in his testimony.
That month also saw a massacre of some 152 drivers and passengers who were taken out of their cars and had their identification cards checked before being slaughtered. And just this week 26 people were killed in raids on villages and 40 houses were torched in Boko Haram raids.
On Wednesday, the same day the U.S. designated both groups as terrorist, Boko Haram and Ansaru reportedly worked together to kidnap a French priest in Cameroon.
Boko Haram characterizes itself as a religious organization motivated by religious beliefs. Adamu Habila’s testimony of his interaction with Boko Haram shows the importance of religion. So do the bombings, beheadings and shootings of Christians, their churches, and other Nigerians who tolerate them.
But the State Department sees things somewhat differently. The Obama Administration isn’t as interested in looking at the religious motivation of Boko Haram as it is interested in getting Nigeria to think of all the other issues that might play a role in the conflict. Or as the Associated Press put it:
The Obama administration has urged Nigeria to develop a comprehensive approach to address the threat by creating a more professional security force, meeting the economic needs of the people in northern Nigeria, adhering to rule of law and government accountability.
Wednesday’s testimony from Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, barely mentioned religion. That she did at all was considered something of a small victory by interested observers. She said that Boko Haram and Ansaru attack “numerous Christians and an even greater number of Muslims,” though she didn’t indicate where she got her numbers. Then she talked about “regional and socioeconomic disparities,” and unemployment:
Boko Haram’s activities call our attention not just to violence, but also to poverty and inequality in Nigeria…
Good governance, healthy political competition, and equitable economic growth would go a long way to address all of these challenges. The strategy for countering Boko Haram should be, in other words, holistic.
This type of rhetoric is typical of the State Department. The previous Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, gave a speech the day after an Easter service bombing of a church in Nigeria that left 39 dead last year. He said:
I want to take this opportunity to stress one key point and that is that religion is not driving extremist violence either in Jos or northern Nigeria.
A U.S. foreign policy that encourages interpretation of religious violence as merely the failure of governments to provide services creates false incentives, said Ann Buwalda, executive director of Jubilee Campaign, which focuses on international religious freedom. If poverty or weak government services is the problem, the solutions tend to involve providing aid to the dangerous parties and areas, a subsidization that can reward and strengthen hostile forces more than combat them.
And oversight is key for managing the disbursement of large sums of cash and resources. For instance, USAID gives millions of dollars to Nigeria to support education:
The programs target public, Qur’anic and Islamiyya schools. Qur’anic schools focus on learning the Qur’an and Islamic values while Islamiyya schools integrate classes to build skills in reading local language and numeracy into the traditional Qur’anic curriculum.
Funding madrasas is a stated priority of U.S. aid, but critics suggest that the federal government has no idea what is being taught in Islamiyya schools. The curriculum subsidized by U.S. tax dollars could very well be funding inculcation of values at odds with U.S. foreign policy goals.
For it’s part, Boko Haram has attempted to reassure the State Department that religion does, in fact, drive its extremist violence. Just last week it released a video taking responsibility for the October 24 attack in the northern city of Damaturu that led to the deaths of 35 people. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau didn’t mention unemployment or poorly administered government services, but he did say:
This is a brief message to the world. We carried out the Damaturu attacks with Allah’s help, with Allah’s might, with Allah’s glory and with victory from Allah, the Creator.
There’s no doubt that the religious cleansing in northern Nigeria is a complex problem requiring a multi-faceted response. The testimonies of Habila and Abubakar Shekau speak clearly to the role religion plays in this conflict. Lest it waste taxpayer dollars or perpetuate the very problem it seeks to solve, U.S. foreign policy should not downplay the role that religion plays in the persecution of Christians and others in Northern Nigeria.
For his part, Adamu says he believed he survived so he could get the message out about what’s happening in Northern Nigeria. He asks that the 900 Christians killed this year alone by Boko Haram will not be forgotten.