Written by : Claudio Fontana
(ZENIT News – Oasis Center / Milan, 11.06.2022).- Sadly, violence in Nigeria isn’t something new, especially when it comes to Christian victims. However, the massacre last Sunday [June 5] in Ondo state, considered by many as “as one of the safest and most peaceful” states, indicated a worsening of the security crisis in the most populous African country. Hence, very surprising is the little attention paid to it by newspapers, including specialized magazines, such as Jeune Afrique or The Africa Report.
Let’s try, in so far as possible, to reconstruct the events, the motives and the consequences.
Last Sunday [June 5], during the Mass of Pentecost, at least four armed men broke into the Catholic parish of Saint Francis Xavier in Owo, Ondo state. Although, as the Wall Street Journal reported, there is no official count of the number of people that lost their life in the attack, the shots and explosions killed more than 50 people, including several children. Estimates of eyewitnesses, reported by Al Jazeera, are even more troubling, speaking of 80 victims. Adelegbe Timileyin, a local deputy, spread the news that the terrorists had also kidnapped the priest that was celebrating the Mass, but Augustine Ikwu, spokesman of the Ondo diocese, denied this.
To date, no one has claimed authorship of the attack. For several years now, Nigeria has been the scene of violent attacks against Christians by Jihadist groups such as Boko Haram, but up to now they were primarily limited to the north of the country. To have an idea of the “safety” of this area, it’s useful to compare it with the north-eastern state of Borno, epicenter of Boko Haram’s insurgency. According to the conclusions of the “Nigeria Security Tracker” project of the Foreign Relations Council, which has registered all the victims of the violence, caused either by Jihadism or activities of the security forces or be rebels with autonomist pretensions, there have been 794 victims in the state of Borno since the beginning of the year. In Ondo, during the same period, there were 10 victims (figure prior to June 5).
Hence, such a serious attack in the south of Nigeria implies a significant increase in the terrorist groups’ capacity of penetration. As many have pointed out, violent clashes occur over the use of increasingly scarce resources between communities of Fulani shepherds and farmers and peasants. However, these confrontations are exacerbated by ethnic-religious differences. The Fulani are, in fact, Muslims, whereas the farmers are, in the majority, Christians. But this isn’t the only possible explanation. The state of Ondo borders with the state of Kogi, where the south-western Africa Province of the Islamic State (ISWAP) acts (an attack last week left two people dead). ISWAP arose as a split within Boko Haram, with which it maintains a violent confrontation, to the point that the former head of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, died during a military confrontation with ISIS’ local branch.
According to Confidence MacHarry, a security expert with headquarters in Lagos, and quoted by Al Jazeera, the ISWAP is attempting to spread to the state of Ondo, and now even the Nigerian Government is posing the hypothesis – which must be taken with the benefit of doubt – that ISWAP is the organization responsible for the attack in Owo. Over the last three or four years, said MacHarry, the Nigerian Intelligence Forces were able to frustrate the Islamic State’s plans to carry out large-scale attacks, but now, they have “let down their guard,” which made the attack possible. Therefore, it doesn’t seem that it was Boko Haram, the main “natural” suspect of this sort of violence in Nigeria, which was responsible for the incident. However, this doesn’t mean that the attack didn’t have a religious connotation, said Ebenezer Obadare, the principal investigator of the Foreign Relations Council. In fact, it’s worrying that now it’s not only Boko Haram that uses these tactics to terrorize the local Christian community.
Moreover, as David Curry, President and General Director of “Open Doors” recalled in the Wall Street Journal, the local Christian community was trying to recover from the commotion caused by the beating to death of Deborah Samuel, a young Christian “guilty” of sharing with a WhatsApp group the message “Jesus Christ is the greatest.” “He helped me to pass my exams.” Or, to mention another recent case, the abduction of Father Stephen Ojapa and his assistant, whose fate is still unknown. Hence, says Curry, it’s important that President Biden include Nigeria again in the list of especially critical countries with religious persecution, although it’s not at all clear what consequences (probably none) that decision would have.