This article first appeared at religionunplugged.com
(OPINION) “She was a playful child,” says Rebecca Sharibu, whose beautiful daughter Leah was abducted by the crazy boys of the Boko Haram insurgency in Northern Nigeria.
A flicker of a sad smile crosses the harrowed face of this fine 49-year-old woman as she remembers her loving little girl. Sitting opposite me in a defiant blue cotton bandana, in a Westminster Abbey restaurant, she toys listlessly with a lukewarm plate of sea bass that I hoped would remind her of the fish they love to eat at home.
This is a face so deeply etched with pain that I hardly can bear to look into those eyes that have longed beyond longing to see once more the loved child whose whereabouts she does not even know.
Leah Sharibu was just 14 when Boko Haram militants burst into her school in Dapchi, Yobe State in Northeastern Nigeria, two years ago this week (Feb. 19 2018) and seized 109 Muslim girls and her, the only Christian. Five girls died. 104 were later released. Rebecca has no idea why they took Leah and has heard absolutely nothing since– just a rumor from a girl who escaped who met someone who had seen her.
Two years on Rebecca is in London bravely and without a word of English handing in a petition with more than 12,000 signatures to the Nigerian High Commission, meeting MPs and petitioning the government to force Buhari’s hand. He’s the latest apology for a president, whose promises to get Leah freed have proven worthless.
His attitude is perfectly parodied by the High Commission in Northumberland Avenue: a vast edifice of a building reflecting all the pomp and swagger of Britain’s reign in the country, but now operating like the merest rogue builder, door scuffed, unfixed wiring festooning the exterior, and a paltry white intercom screwed to the door post that no one seems to be answering. The door remains implacably shut. It is damp and cold on the pavement outside, and Rebecca stands facing the door, her face like thunder, tears dripping off her chin onto her black coat while supporters pray and sing hymns and raise their banners to the sky.
Country of concern
Nigeria remains a “country of concern” on the U.S. State Department’s watch list, even while basket-case Sudan comes off it. Open Doors’ World Watch List has Nigeria at 12th place among the world’s worst offenders for persecution of believers. It will remain so, so long as Leah and literally thousands like her remain in captivity. Leah bravely refused to renounce her Christian faith, in an act of defiance that had Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka in tears as he addressed an assembly at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. with a poem he had written about her.
She will be a slave “for the rest of her life,” according to reports, presumably married off to a militant, never to train to be the nurse she wanted to be. But her mother can take comfort from the fact that U.S. presidential nominee Ted Cruz knows about her; feisty human rights lawyer Nina Shea at the Hudson Institute knows about her; British MP Fiona Bruce and the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion and Belief Rehman Chishti, himself a Muslim, know about her.
“The more voices are raised the more you get those who are supposed to be doing their work [held] accountable,” says Gloria Puldu, President of the Leah Foundation, based in Jos which organized Rebecca’s trip, and who translates Rebecca’s every word.
Surprisingly to some, it was missionaries with the American and Canadian-founded SIM (formerly Soudan Interior Mission) and Jos-based ECWA (Evangelical Church Winning All) that encouraged Gloria to set up the foundation. Nowhere on the radar of world affairs, missionaries are at the bottom of the world, gently and prayerfully prodding life into the inert accountability structures of our disunited secular nations, linking the oppressed with newer beacons like PSJ, a vital advocacy ministry of the Nigerian-based Redeemed Christian Church of God.
“Those of us who are educated should begin to speak, they told me,” says Gloria, a strong woman who has taken on the burdens of her friend. She has set up an office in Jos, the capital of Plateau state in the middle belt of Nigeria, which was a copper and tin mining town, and a so-called “white highland” where the British ran the administration until independence in 1960. It’s a communications hub for the north.
The usual narrative runs that it is strategically located between the mostly Muslim north and the mostly Christian South, but it’s not true. The north has a huge Christian population, thanks to the missionaries, whom the administration allowed to set up schools. Adamawa, where Gloria comes from, is 50-50 Christian and Muslim, and “we all used to get along,” she says. Something changed that, and scholars are at odds over the reasons. “Now we can’t trust anyone,” says Gloria.
The reasons are manifold. As with the West Side Boys of Sierra Leone during the civil war there, or the Lord’s Resistance Army that used to plague Northern Uganda in the name of spurious half-learned ideological cant, atrocity is a kind of coinage that earns international attention, and too often vast amounts of development funding ends up lining the pockets of the rulers who foment violence.
On the other hand, observers look north and west where a hard-line Islamist reading of the Qur’an has given rise to monstrous out-growths of ISIS and al-Qaeda, all with a menacing pot-pourri of initials like ISWAP that mean very little on the ground. This together with a hangover of a Western education in the Cold War-era that academic Mervyn Hiskett blames for “glorifying jihad,” earns the Sahel and West Africa the dubious honour of being “the new frontline against terror.” Cold-War-era scholarships to SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) and Al-Azhar University in Cairo taught the founders of Boko Haram to justify their ambitions to revive the sclerotic Sokoto Empire, whose Sultan was executed when Lord Lugard conquered the Caliphate in 1903. There is talk of its revival.
Boko Haram recognizes no western boundaries and even shoots at point blank range any Muslim girl caught working for the Red Cross or similar. Apostasy in a Muslim is worse to them than Christianity in a “kafir” or infidel. Expert Dr. John Azumah points out that mainstream Muslims have condemned all of this:
“The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia described Boko Haram as misguided and intent on smearing the name of Islam while Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi of Iran called Boko Haram ‘savages who do not deserve to be called human beings,’” Azumah wrote in his article “Boko Haram in Retrospect” in the Journal of Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations.
So what can be done, besides pray? Gloria believes state governors can unilaterally organize military protection, as has happened with considerable success in Lagos, not waiting for the federal government to move. She believes that pressure must build to make it impossible for Nigeria to prevaricate on its mandate to protect all its people. Mervyn Thomas, CEO of CSW who organized Friday’s vigil, believes that war is in the wings unless Christian leaders continue to restrain their beleaguered people.
Gloria is hopeful because she is a Christian. With God all things are possible. In the realm of realpolitik, it is not so certain. A PSJ staffer shows me a picture on her iPhone of the president being sworn in for his second term. This time, it’s not the Quran on which he’s swearing his presidential oath. Instead he is carrying a so-called “shariah bag,” indicative to some observers of a resolve to establish Islamic law throughout Nigeria. The article beneath the picture explains how the 1989 Abuja Joint Conference of Islamic organizations established certain political priorities, including making Nigeria the center for the Islamization of Africa, with principal offices in London.
But geopolitics of such a kind seems remote from the dignified grief at my quiet table in a corner of Britain’s most hallowed edifice. Is it geopolitics, or the vicious opportunism of a lawless gang freewheeling on the thermals of post-colonial reconstruction that has broken this mother’s heart, and sent shockwaves through the political hearts of London and Washington?