Last September I sent my wife and our assistant to nearby Katsina, Nigeria on a shopping errand. Katsina is just across the Nigeria-Niger border and is less than an hour away. My assistant was going to see if replacement tires for our vehicle might be cheaper there, while my wife wanted to discover if they had cheese and few other hard-to-find items as Katsina is a bigger town than Maradi, Niger (where we shop). As an American, I needed a difficult-to-obtain visa to cross the border, whereas these two Nigeriens could enter Nigeria with only their ID, so I didn’t go.
When they returned from their trip, we learned that good tires could be found in Katsina, but my wife informed me that the food selection was much more limited than what was available in Maradi. She said that when she asked for cheese and some other “Western” items, the store owners replied that they used to stock them but no one bought them anymore. To me, this was an indication that Westerners and southern Nigerian Christians had largely left the area, since their tastes vary from the majority’s food preferences.
Once upon a time, you had a healthy foreign expatriate community in northern Nigeria serving as teachers and technical advisors to various development, health and agricultural projects with even a few missionaries there. Southern Nigerians who worked for the national government or who ran businesses were also once common in Nigeria’s north and these groups brought a Christian presence to the region that has been fiercely Islamic for the past 200 years.
Shortly after the 2012 New Year began, the extremist group Boko Haram gave the Christian population of northern Nigeria three days to leave that half of Africa’s most populated nation or be exterminated. This is no idle threat, as Boko Haram has already attacked many churches and killed hundreds of Christians since 2009. We’re now talking, however, of millions of Christian believers being at risk, even those who were born and raised in this largely Islamic area including believers whom are native to the land. Historically, several minority tribes in the north have embraced Christianity as well as thousands of Muslim background believers.
Many observers fear that a religious war will break out between Nigeria’s roughly 80 million Christians and a similar number of Muslims. We’re now getting daily reports of northern Christians being killed in their homes, at church or in public places in Nigeria. These stories are sparking reprisal killings in other parts of Christian Nigeria against Muslims.
Boko Haram’s name in the Hausa language means “Western education (Boko is the Hausa corruption of “book” ---which refers to government schooling) is forbidden (haram in Arabic)”. The name evokes a rejection of everything Western (Nigeria is a former British colony), particularly democratic government and its institutions. The movement idealizes a belief in a Muslim theocracy, where the Koran is the basis for both government and all education. It recruits many young men to carry out its attacks against its enemies.
We know Boko Haram is here in Niger, possibly using this country as a base to carry out violence in Nigeria and then sneaking back across the border. So far, there’s been no similar type of religious violence in Niger, but I did hear of a missionary in eastern Niger who lives near the Nigerian border not far the center of Boko Haram being warned that the group knew about him and his work.
The early Church theologian Tertullian wrote that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”, though the RCA’s own Vern Sterk is quoted in a mission history text as saying “… persecution negatively affects the growth of the church… Probably the most common and widely recognized negative result …is the reversion of Christians”. When faced with death or choosing the abandonment of their faith and/or homes, many Christian believers throughout history have taken one of the latter options.
So which will be it be? Will the faithfulness and bravery of northern Nigerian Christians win the hearts of their countrymen as the senseless killing of Boko Haram continues or will the 90-year presence of Christianity in Hausaland and Borno be a footnote in church history as a bloody religious war wipes it out? Please pray for this region and for the Church’s witness here.
 Quoted in “From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions”. Ruth Tucker. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 2004.