In July, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari arrived in the United States for his first Presidential visit to D.C. President Buhari’s visit came just seven weeks after an historic electoral victory over incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, which marked the nation’s first successful and peaceful transition of power from an incumbent to an opposition party.
This success took center stage as President Obama sat down with President Buhari on Monday to commend him on this achievement. But looming over Buhari’s visit and his recent electoral victory, is Boko Haram’s renewed bloody campaign.
The visit included a series of several high-profile meetings with President Obama, senior members of the Obama Administration and Congressional leaders. Framing these dialogues is a surge in Boko Haram-related violence throughout Nigeria and into neighboring Chad and Cameroon despite increased presence and funding of multi-national security forces.
As such, much of the official visit and its media coverage has focused on the expansion of US-Nigeria military cooperation in countering Boko Haram. Yet this is only one piece of the puzzle.
There is, however, a great resource that continues to go ignored and untapped in countering violent extremism—namely the brave and resilient communities on the frontlines of the violence. And if we are to take a more holistic approach that addresses the underlying causes of terrorism, as asserted by President Obama and Buhari, then there should be a greater concerted effort to develop a strategy that ensures accountability of military forces to local communities and puts civil society leaders and peacebuilders at the center of countering violent extremism.
Even though displaced to Yola, Jos, Abuja and many places in between, the Church of the Brethren Nigeria (EYN) have already begun to rebuild. During these weeks the region has experienced increasing attacks from Boko Haram, which has left more than 625 more people dead since President Buhari’s inauguration. To be sure, they have felt the acute brutality of Boko Haram. Their hearts are still heavy from the loss of the 273 Chibok girls, most of whom were members of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (EYN), taken by Boko Haram. Since 2009, more than 1350 women and children have been kidnapped, confirmed 10,000 EYN members killed, over 280,000 members displaced, and 70% of EYN churches burned or abandoned due to the conflict.
As the violence spread in the fall of 2014, EYN Liaison Officer, Markus Gamache, opened his home to displace family friends and others. Soon 50 people were living in his 2-bedroom home located in Jos. As the violence spread and the needs grew, Markus developed the vision for an interfaith camp to relocate both Muslim and Christian families while demonstrating how people of different faiths can live in peace. Working with an interfaith group called Lifeline Compassionate Global Initiatives, Markus started with a plan to build 10 homes to help those living in his home. By the spring of 2015 the list grew to 100 families, even as the construction on the first 62 homes, sanitation, water well and kitchens are completed.
When the EYN Church headquarters near Mubi where over run by Boko Haram in October 2014, displacing all national church leadership and the related Bible College staff and students, the loss and shock of the situation was more than overwhelming, we wondered if the Church would continue. With support coming from the US Church of the Brethren, EYN leadership soon found new footing and created a crisis response team. In an impressive show of resiliency and leadership the EYN team have provided relief to thousands through the remaining church structure of districts. Under the inspired leadership of Reverend Dr. Samuel Dali, EYN president, construction is underway for care centers that will support those displaced from the current crisis and future violence in Nigeria. The Church is not only helping serve those in need, it is imagining how to better serve beyond this crisis. An impressive effort with displaced staff and only 30% of the Church body intact.
Yet in the face of such tragedy, our faith and relationship with the Church of the Brethren US and the Swiss and German Mission 21 has united us, fortifying our resolve to live together in peace. Indeed, over the last year, Church of the Brethren has raised $3.1 million dedicated to a five-year plan for crisis response in the affected areas. In our efforts, thousands are receiving food and shelter, EYN’s Peace program is providing trauma healing workshops for pastors, women’s groups, and lay leaders to help those suffering from spiritual and emotional trauma, and a special interfaith relocation project is building homes that will house more than 100 families or 800 people.
Through these efforts of response, recovery, and rebuilding we have strengthened our communities and connections with our Muslim kindred and brought hope to a people that have been brutalized. Many times over the populations in the northeast have felt abandoned by their government and international community.
Improved diplomatic relations between the most populous country in Africa and the USA may help Nigeria fight its insurgency more effectively, but only to the extent that the relationship encourages a more holistic response to the Boko Haram insurgency–and not one focused exclusively on the battlefield. This insurgency will only end when there are real and robust attempts to tackle what is at the root of Boko Haram’s insurgency: political and economic marginalization, corruption, inequality, and abuses committed by political elites and military personnel without recourse. While this visit might not yield any substantial initiatives or agreements in the short term, ideally this initial diplomatic visit could serve to more clearly define the long-term, shared work to be done eradicating the conditions that bring about groups like Boko Haram.
And while state diplomacy and cooperation is an important bulwark against terrorism, the responsiveness and flexibility of civil society cannot be underestimated as an integral part to the solution. Therefore, we encourage both Administrations to consider a more prominent role for civil society and religious organizations in developing a more holistic and regional approach to counter Boko Haram.
Office of Public Witness
Church of the Brethren