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African Christians face martyrdom

Kidnappers and armed gangs target Nigerian clergy


Clergymen lower the white coffin of a priest allegedly killed by Fulani herdsmen in north-central Nigeria in May, 2018 Getty Images/Photo by Emmy Ibu/AFP

African Christians face martyrdom

The Rev. Emmanuel Ojeifo, a Nigerian Catholic priest, attended a Zoom video call with his seminary graduating class in June. They cracked jokes and veered into more serious conversations. Two weeks later, Ojeifo learned the Rev. Christopher Odia—one of his classmates on that call—was kidnapped and killed hours later by abductors in Nigeria’s southern Edo state.

“I kept asking myself if it was real that Father Odia is dead,” Ojeifo said. “I couldn’t come to terms with it.”

Nigeria’s northern region is at the center of insurgent attacks and mass kidnappings blamed on armed criminal gangs. But Nigerian clergy are reporting targeted kidnappings this year that extend beyond the regular pattern of attacks in the North. 

Nigeria’s Daily Trust newspaper tracked 32 clergy kidnappings between January and July this year across 12 of Nigeria’s 36 states. Eighteen of them were Catholic priests. Authorities often blame unknown gunmen, a tag that security analysts say allows violence to continue unchecked. 

“It is necessary for us to distinguish who the perpetrator groups are versus just lumping everybody together, and for us to know exactly what their motives and their intentions are,” said Jumoke Ayandele, a research fellow at New York University’s Center for the Study of Africa and the African Diaspora.

Ojeifo said another priest who survived a kidnapping said his abductors explained that clergy are “soft targets.” A Methodist prelate kidnapped in May in southeast Abia state and later released after church members paid a ransom identified his abductors as Fulani herders. Samuel Kanu-Uche said the gang leader explained he joined the kidnapping business to provide for his family after losing his parents. 

Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, said several Nigerian Christian leaders, particularly in the North, see the ongoing attacks as an effort to force Christians out of the region. Suspected Islamic extremists went door-to-door this week and kidnapped 36 people in a predominantly Christian village in Kaduna state. 

The clergy killings are a piece of Nigeria’s larger security crisis. Nearly 40 people remain in captivity, held by gunmen who attacked passengers on a major train linking the capital, Abuja, to Kaduna state back in March. Education authorities in Abuja shut down all schools this week over fears of impending attacks. 

Shea called on the United States and the international community to pressure the Nigerian leadership to act. For Ojeifo, such times call for greater courage from Christian leaders. “The age of martyrdom has come back to the church in a very concrete way in Nigeria, and when we read the lives of the early martyrs, how they were slaughtered, how they were killed and attacked, we just see that this is what we are living through in these days,” he said. 

World Radar

AFGHANISTAN: After the Taliban banned girls from secondary education, they are turning to secret schools run by women, NPR reported earlier this month. One such school is in the home of a woman living in Kabul, who teaches a small group of girls with her cousin and a friend. Since the Taliban returned to power almost a year ago, it has barred about 850,000 girls from school to maintain the tradition that girls stay at home until they are married. Only a fraction of those girls attend secret schools or cobble together their education by other means, such as religious schools and tutoring centers.

EAST AFRICA: Acute food insecurity will afflict over 50 million people across Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Uganda this year, reported the Intergovernmental Authority on Development last week. “Conflict, climate extremes, economic shocks, rising costs and now the impact of the conflict in Ukraine on food and energy prices are pushing millions towards starvation,” said Michael Dunford, the World Food Program’s regional director for Eastern Africa. Eight areas of Somalia will be at risk of famine if widespread crop and livestock production fail. In West Africa, northwestern Nigeria is also grappling with an escalating malnutrition crisis.

BRAZIL: A court charged three local men last week with the murder last month of British journalist Dom Phillips and Brazilian indigenous expert Bruno Pereira. Phillips was in the Amazon forest conducting research for a book with Pereira’s help. According to prosecutors, the suspects—brothers Amarildo and Oseney da Costa de Oliveira and Jefferson da Silva Lima—decided to kill the pair after Pereira asked Phillips to photograph them in their boat as they were fishing illegally. Pereira and Phillips were shot dead and their bodies were burned and buried. Amarildo and Lima have confessed to the crime, while witness testimony indicates Oseney may have also participated.

CHINA: The Chinese military has become more aggressive over the past five years, warned Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. During his trip to the Indo-Pacific to meet with defense chiefs about the China threat, Milley said on Sunday that the number of intercepts by Chinese aircraft and ships in the Pacific region has increased significantly over that period. U.S. military officials have also raised alarms that China could invade Taiwan, a democratic self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own territory. Taking lessons from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Taiwan conducted its annual military exercises this week against simulated Chinese attacks. 

TUNISIA: In a Monday referendum, Tunisians approved a new constitution that grants President Kais Saied sweeping powers, a move critics fear will usher in a return to autocracy. In 2011, Tunisia ousted dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and held its first free election. The new constitution—passed in a referendum that opposition groups boycotted and that ended with the low turnout of 30.5 percent—no longer divides power between the Parliament and the presidency. It allows Saied to rule by decree and makes him almost impossible to remove from office. Still, Saied’s supporters welcome the change, which they see as a way out of political turmoil.

Africa brief

My occasional sports fascination returned with the World Athletics Championship that ended Sunday in Eugene, Ore. Tobi Amusan became the first Nigerian to win gold in the women’s 100-meter hurdles on Sunday. The 25-year-old also beat her record-breaking mark in the semifinals, finishing the race in 12.06 seconds. Despite questions over the event’s timing system, Amusan’s victory and tears during the medal ceremony resounded back home in Nigeria and elsewhere. I received a WhatsApp message from a college friend from Uganda who said, “You could think I was Nigerian the way I was cheering her on.”


Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD’s Africa reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University–Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria.

@onize_ohiks

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