Editor's note: The following is a joint reflection on the recent Boko Haram kidnappings of school girls in Nigeria, written by Ron Geerlings, Christian Reformed World Missions’ West Africa Regional Director since 1987, and Peter Vander Meulen, World Renew’s Regional Director for West Africa from 1988 through 1995.
As we saw the news reports of kidnapped school girls near the Nigerian town of Maiduguri something nudged me from deep in my memory. The absolute remoteness of the place near the deep forests and Cameroon hinterlands, the look of the school – it was familiar.
A few days later, after talking with Nigerian staff, looking at maps, and reminiscing with Ron Geerlings (CRC World Missions Regional Director for West Africa) the reason for my deja-vu was clear: I had been there – I spent several days in the area during the early 1990s visiting one of World Renew’s (then called CRWRC) partners in agricultural development.
As the facts came in, the connections strengthened. The girls – who are mostly Christian – are largely from families who are members of the Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa Nigeria (EYN), a Nigerian denomination that grew out of Church of the Brethren mission work. EYN is a thriving, growing church known for its peaceful, simple, and productive approach to life. The Christian Reformed Church has partnered and invested in this church and in this remote spot in Nigeria. We supported effective, Nigerian-led programs in Agriculture and HIV-AIDS.
Even in the 1990s this was not a safe place. Smugglers, arms traffickers – every manner of shady enterprise found its isolation and proximity to Chad and Cameroon attractive. But church bombings and mass murder – by Boko Haram, vigilantes, and government forces – and now kidnappings were unimaginable then.
So this is personal – not just to Ron Geerlings and me but to the CRCNA. I remember this area, its farmers, and church leaders. We have been at schools just like the burned-out shell you see on the news.
As Ron Geerlings and I talked about what happened and the CRC connection we noted that this particular incident is not really a strange anomaly. It is rather the result of a host of negative factors that, taken together, have for years dragged down the people of a country that is among the wealthiest and best educated in Africa.
This is systemic and long-term.
Nigeria has 170 million people, hundreds of ethnic groups, borders drawn by colonial powers and nearly a 50-50 mix of Christians and Muslims. Oil accounts for 95% of Nigeria's exports and the money generated flows down through federal, state, and local governments. The competition to control the money at each level can be fierce and charges of corruption and unfair distribution are common. Given these realities, Nigeria had its share of development, political, and justice issues before Boko Haram came on the scene. And given their complexity, these issues will remain after the threat of Boko Haram has been eliminated.
For example, Nigeria needs to be more transparent and just in dividing its resources. Nigeria needs to address the brutality and ineffectiveness of its security forces. And Nigeria’s peace-loving Muslim communities need to be more effective in opposing those that are bent on holy war.
At some point, we as global citizens need to reflect on why it has taken so long for the world to take note of Boko Haram, a terrorist group that has taken credit for attacks on schools, churches, mosques, security forces, media, and the United Nations over the last five years. Is it compassion fatigue and information overload, or is it a lack of compassion and of looking the other way? Some day we may need a clearer answer to the question of who has been supporting Boko Haram through these years. In the future we may continue to explore and debate the roles that poverty and climate change played in creating fertile ground for Boko Haram recruitment.
But with Boko Haram’s recent kidnapping of secondary school girls, world awareness and alignment for action is suddenly high. North, South, East and West, Christians, Muslims, left and right now agree that the actions of this terrorist group are diabolically wrong. Even other terrorist groups are distancing themselves from Boko Haram's atrocities.
Nigeria’s leadership has been shamed into unprecedented action, including requests to other nations for assistance in rescuing the girls and in confronting Boko Haram. Let us support our governments in providing the assistance that Nigeria requests. Let us keep praying for the girls and their families. And let us keep attention on the issue so that Nigeria is held accountable to rescue the girls and to bring their kidnappers to justice.
For more information, prayer requests, and legislation you may want to support in the US, go to the Church of the Brethren website.
[Image: Flickr user Tomoaki Inaba]