A Compromised Call To Unity? 90% Of Boko Haram Victims Are Muslim, Says President Buhari

In a eulogy published on 3 February, Nigerian President Mohammadu Buhari stirringly expressed the country’s need for religious unity in the face of the threat posed by Boko Haram, before he controversially claimed that 90% of the Islamist terror group’s victims are Muslim. He was writing to commemorate the death of Reverend Lawan Andimi, who was abducted from the north-eastern state of Adamawa and executed by Boko Haram on 21 January. Buhari described the terrorist group as ‘fractured’ and stated that their only remaining aim was to incite religious division between Islam and Christianity.

Buhari’s own statistical claim, however, has itself been divisive. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) called it an “unfounded, false, provocative and misleading assertion.” CAN had recently protested against the killing of Christians in the North East of the country, suggesting that the government is not doing enough to prevent such attacks. Kwamkur Samuel, CAN’s Director of Legal and Public Affairs, demanded the source of Buhari’s statistics, affirming that “the sole purpose of Boko Haram is the killing of Christians and the Islamization of Nigeria.” He also speculated that the president’s statistics could have been skewed if deaths of Boko Haram members were counted as Muslim deaths: 18,950 of the total 37,530 deaths between 2011 and 2018 (recorded by the Council on Foreign Relations) were Boko Haram members.

Frankly, it is a shame that Buhari made such a stark and uncompromising statistical truth-claim in his article, because it means that the rest of the content has been largely ignored – and will possibly continue to be – by churches and interdenominational groups in Nigeria. Buhari’s central, driving motivation seems to be the attainment of unity in his country. He stated that “we cannot allow them [Boko Haram] to divide good Christians and good Muslims from those things that bind us all in the sight of God: faith, family, forgiveness, fidelity, and friendship to each other.” This is indisputably positive and constructive. However, his somewhat defensive description of Boko Haram’s targets – what he called a ‘battle for the truth’ – was unwise in political terms. The increasing number of attacks on mosques since 2015 are enough to show that the threat is not merely towards Christianity. Focusing on the importance of the religious identity of victims thus conveys a mixed message amongst calls for togetherness.

Since Buhari’s election victory in 2015, which was supported by Christian leaders because of the Muslim president’s promise to eradicate terrorism, Boko Haram’s activities in the country have been severely reduced. However, in that time, Buhari has been criticized for an overly lax response to Christian deaths and attacks on churches, as danger from a different threat, the Fulani herdsman, increase. In April 2018, President Donald Trump stated that these attacks must stop, when he met with President Buhari in the White House. Despite the laudable and considerable progress in the fight against Boko Haram, a recent report from Open Doors, a charity committed to supporting persecuted Christians worldwide, ranked Nigeria as the second-most violent country for Christians (after Pakistan).

CAN’s angered response to Buhari’s statement demonstrates the importance of political sensitivity and forethought in the pursuit of peace, and the cultivating of togetherness in Nigeria. Even if the statistic is correct – which is uncertain – citing it as a response to the outcry of Nigeria’s 93 million Christians for a beloved pastor’s death, was unwise. This soundbite will take the headlines. Despite this, the rest of Buhari’s words generally constitute a beacon of hope as to Nigeria’s future as a united front against victims of atrocious violence, regardless of their religion.

Joel Fraser