Nigeria 2023: Clergymen bear the brunt as insecurity woes persist

By Ben Ezeamalu

Posted on Thursday, 16 February 2023 19:02, updated on Friday, 17 February 2023 11:41
Clergymen stand to pray at the grave side of 17 worshippers, including two priests killed by suspected Fulani herdsmen for burial at Ayati-Ikpayongo in Gwer East district of Benue State, northcentral Nigeria on May 22, 2018. (Photo AFP)

A new report by the research firm, SBM Intelligence, states that at least 145 clergymen were attacked and 30 priests kidnapped across Nigeria in 2022. At least six priests were killed.

On the weekend of 5 February, information filtered into a southern Kaduna village, in Nigeria’s north-west, of an impending attack by bandits during Sunday Mass at the local Catholic Church. Quickly, the men evacuated the women and children to safer locations while they stayed behind. They also tried to warn the Catholic priest, who comes to celebrate the Mass from the neighbouring village, to stay away.

The priest refused.

That Sunday, the priest celebrated Mass in the village church. Only the men were in attendance while the women and children remained in safe havens outside the community.

“The truth is that the work of God must continue. And, again, we tag this as persecution,” the priest tells The Africa Report. He requested not to be named because he had not been authorised to speak to journalists about the matter.

“Even if we are worried, we have to do it. After all, the Bible has warned us it’s not going to be easy. We are holding on to faith.”

According to the report by SBM intelligence, the worst hit in the attacks, the Catholic priests, were subjected to near-daily abductions with ransom demands set at an average of N50m ($110,000) per priest, the report states.

Confidence MacHarry, SBM Intelligence’s senior analyst, says the focus on priests is because of their ransom value.

“The ransom [payment] is almost immediate – within a week,” MacHarry tells The Africa Report.

Widespread insecurity

As Nigerians go to the polls on 25 February to elect a new president, insecurity across the country remains a major concern.

Boko Haram and ISWAP continue to launch isolated attacks in the north-east and parts of north-west, bandits control a swathe of territory in the north-west, farmer-herder clashes persist in the north-central, while criminal groups unleash terror on people and government facilities in the south-east.

Unease persists over whether the heightened insecurity could force the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to shift the election. The electoral body, however, remains adamant that the election will go on as scheduled.

About 4,545 people were killed by non-state actors while 4,611 were kidnapped in Nigeria in 2022, according to an analysis of violent incidents in the country by The Cable newspaper.

  • One of the most gruesome attacks of 2022 happened on 5 June when gunmen attacked a Catholic church in Osun State, south-west Nigeria, killing 40 people and wounding nearly 130.
  • About a week earlier, gunmen had kidnapped the head of the Methodist Church in Nigeria, Samuel Kanu-Uche, and two other priests on a highway in south-east Nigeria. They were freed two days later after paying N100m to the kidnappers.

In the south-east, attacks on INEC facilities and police stations continue to raise concerns. There were 26 incidents of attacks on the electoral commission’s offices in the region between 2019 and 2022, according to data released by INEC. Over 20 police stations were struck in the first five months of 2021, with several police officers killed.

‘Targeted attacks’

But attacks on the clergy raise fears of a targeted persecution of Christians, especially in Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria where a bulk of the incidents were recorded.

“There was a particular incident in Niger State where the bandits came to raid a community, they destroyed everything in their wake – the churches, shops – and in the process of packing (abducting) everybody they also carried the Catholic priest along with them,” MacHarry says.

“That’s one of the few isolated cases where a Catholic priest turned out to be a victim of a general attack. Most of the other ones are usually targeted.”

The onslaught against religious leaders is not limited only to the Christian shepherds. Islamic clerics have also, though to a lesser degree, borne the brunt of the insecurity in the country. At least 53 Islamic clerics and worshippers were killed and 165 abducted between 1 January 2022 and 4 July 2022, according to a collation of media reports by The Punch newspaper.

On 8 February, Daily Trust reported that bandits shot dead the chief Imam of Nomadic Central Mosque in Rugan Ardo, Kaduna, and abducted 14 others.

“There are crooks, kidnappers, bandits and so on all over the place,” Ishaq Akintola, a professor of Islamic Eschatology, tells The Africa Report.

“It’s unfortunate that some elements want to give the impression that it is Christians alone that are being attacked or Muslims alone that are being killed.”

Kaduna’s case

Kaduna State, unarguably, has the highest concentration of military establishments in Nigeria. It is home to the Nigerian Defence Academy; One Division, Nigerian Army; Armed Forces Command and Staff College, Jaji; Nigerian Air Force Base; Nigerian Army School of Artillery; Nigerian Navy School of Armament Technology; State Security Service Training Academy; Air Force Institute of Technology; Nigerian Military School; and Defence Industries Corporation, among others.

The heavy military presence notwithstanding, the state has witnessed several violent attacks by terrorists, including the 2021 storming of  the Nigerian Defence Academy in which two officers were killed and one abducted.

In the SBM Intelligence report on attacks on clergymen, Kaduna recorded the highest number among the 36 states with 11 incidents. Of those, nine priests were kidnapped, one attacked by bandits, and one by herdsmen.

We are still collecting data, even though they are coming slowly from the dioceses. In any case, the figure given by the online publication is not correct.

The priest in Kaduna says one of his colleagues had been kidnapped for nearly four years and there’s no news whether he’s still alive or dead.

“The other one was killed, a requiem Mass was held on his behalf but no body. They (the kidnappers) refused to release the body, they only told the Bishop that they have killed him,” he tells The Africa Report.

The Catholic archbishop of Kaduna, Matthew Ndagoso, did not respond to requests for comment. But Agenzia Fides, of the Vatican News agency, quoted Zacharia Samjumi, the secretary of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, in January, as admitting that there have been attacks on Catholic priests but the figures quoted in the SBM Intelligence report were incorrect.

Samjumi was reacting to the media reports at the time which incorrectly stated that 145 priests were killed, instead of attacked, in 2022.

“We are still collecting data, even though they are coming slowly from the dioceses. In any case, the figure given by the online publication is not correct,” Samjumi said.

The priest who spoke to The Africa Report says four of his colleagues have been killed in the past few years. He says the government has not been sincere about tackling the problem but would rather play the ostrich while the bandits continue to terrorise their communities.

“The way out is when the government becomes serious about this, if the government wants to stop this they will stop it.”

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