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THE PAINFUL DILEMMA OF DIALOGUE WITH BOKO HARAM Letter 3 from Rome: May 19th 2014

THE PAINFUL DILEMMA OF DIALOGUE WITH BOKO HARAM

Letter 3 from Rome: May 19th 2014

By +John Cardinal Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja.

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The world renowned Catholic prelate, His Eminence Francis Cardinal Arinze, once defined dialogue as “You talk I listen; I talk and you listen.” He certainly knew what he was talking about, because he was for many years the President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue, the agency of the Holy See for dialogue with people of other faiths. There has been much talk about dialogue not only in the past few weeks with the abduction of over 250 schoolgirls by Boko Haram, but since more than three years ago. Unfortunately, there has been quite a lot of ambiguity and confusion in what we mean by dialogue, leading to inconsistency in the practical steps that have been taken. It is no wonder that little or no progress has been made in this line. It seems to me that the major short coming is that there is too much talking and not enough listening, on all sides of the discussion.

 

Dialogue means talking and listening across lines of differences, seeking common grounds on which to build some measure of agreement. It does not ignore nor deny differences, but rather seeks to honestly identify the point of difference and how to live with such differences in order to avoid conflict, especially violent conflict.

 

We have been following with grave concern the deep dilemma of government as regards whether and to what extent it can engage the Boko Haram in dialogue over the release of the abducted girls. But would like to say that what looks now to be confusion and contradiction is in the nature of dialogue. On the one hand, the government is right to reject the demand of Boko Haram to swap the girls for their imprisoned comrades. There is no parallel between innocent schoolgirls and terrorists detained for violent and heinous crimes. Besides, no government can ignore the unspeakable consequence of setting such a precedent.

 

But on the other hand, government cannot abandon our girls in the forest or wherever at the hands of their abductors. There must be a way of bringing them back home to their families, safe and as sound as possible. At this moment of writing, we have no news yet of their whereabouts. And even if and when we find where they are, rescuing them by force of arms would entail the kind of danger and risk that even the parents of the girls would be unlikely to sanction. The only option left therefore is some form of dialogue and hard bargain that would bring the girls back without setting a dangerous and unacceptable precedent.   

 

It is here that we might evoke the wisdom of Cardinal Arinze’s definition of dialogue. Boko Haram has spoken and government has listened. The government has spoken. Let us hope that Boko Haram is listening. In this game of haggling, it is possible that the last word has not yet been said by either party. Are there no other less obnoxious demands that Boko Haram can make? They may well be ruthless and wicked, but they are certainly not foolish. Are there no other options which government can offer? The dialogue has started. I would like to hope that neither side has considered the dialogue closed.

 

Whatever the case, to make any progress calls for great wisdom and patience. There is also need for effective and mutually trusted intermediaries, people who can listen to both sides and talk to both sides. This is obviously not a matter for publicity, least of all for scoring political points. The scarce success of the famous “dialogue committee” formally inaugurated with pomp and pageantry some time ago should teach us that this is not the best way to go. Perhaps a small group of carefully chosen wise men and women, including religious figures, especially of the Muslim faith, working quietly in the background, with deep sense of patriotism and honesty, devoid of all sectional political agenda, might be in a better position to achieve some success.  

 

Some days ago, the French President, Mr. Francois Hollande, called a summit of the heads of state of Nigeria and its neighbours. Also in attendance were high level representatives of the European Union, the USA and UK governments. The purpose we are told was to improve cooperation in dealing with the Boko Haram which has become a regional and even global menace. For as long as they continue killing, raping and abducting innocent people, destroying property and causing general insecurity, they should expect more intensive and coordinated military action against them by Nigeria, her neighbours, and the international community. But the loud noise of guns and bombs on and from both sides need not smolder the necessary quiet and salutary whispers of dialogue and background negotiation, which in the long run would be in the best interest of all concerned. Is there any head of state able and willing to call a summit that would provide an effective forum for serious dialogue that would include also elements of the Boko Haram? That line of action, no matter how unlikely, should not be rejected outright.

 

President Jonathan said in Paris that “the abduction of young innocent school girls in Chibok represents a watershed and a turning point”. The unknown plight of these girls and the anguish of their parents touch the heart of everyone. We pray for their safe return. The dialogue for their release would be only a starting point for the larger objective of convincing the terrorists, with both “stick and carrot”, in their own interest, to cease fire and embrace negotiation, for the peace and progress of our great nation. For this we should pray, even if it requires a miracle.

God bless Nigeria – and bring back our daughters.

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BOKO HARAM: SCOPE AND LIMITS OF FOREIGN INTERVENTION Letter 2 from Rome, May 11th 2014

BOKO HARAM: SCOPE AND LIMITS OF FOREIGN INTERVENTION

 Letter 2 from Rome, May 11th 2014

By +John Cardinal Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja.

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The tragic drama of the abducted secondary school girls of Chibok, Borno State at the hands of Boko Haram has shocked the whole world. This has focused very unsavory global media attention on our nation. It has in particular concentrated much publicity on BokoHHHHH Haram, a publicity which they have always reveled in but which in this case may have gone beyond what they bargained for and which may now boomerang against them. This “unconscionable crime”, to use Mrs Obama’s rather unfamiliar language, has to say the least, cast our government in very bad light. Whether this verdict is deserved or not, the government has to do something visible about the crisis on our hands.And quickly too. This perhaps explains why our government is accepting assistance from various foreign nations, from USA to China, from France to Israel. As a Nigerian, I am saddened and ashamed. But it seems clear that we have reached the stage where we have to swallow our pride and stop bragging and pretending to be what we are not.

In itself, there should be nothing wrong with seeking and accepting foreign intervention, especially since it is now clear that the Boko Haram has international connections.  It is therefore not only a question of “assisting Nigeria”. It is also in the interest of the international community to join hands with Nigeria to deal with a dangerous virus that is infecting and attacking the entire international community, starting from our nearest regional neighbours.

So far, we have been hearing much about military action. To the extent that the Boko Haram is killing, abducting and bombing, it has to be effectively and appropriately engaged. But there is a limit to how far we can go with military action alone. One only needs to imagine the awful military dilemma of rescuing 200 girls from the hands of heavily armed terrorists and bring them back to their families, safe and sound. The complexity of the Boko Haram phenomenon therefore calls for coordinated action at different levels and in various areas of attention. The political and socio-economic issues are well within our ability as a nation, if we can only summon the political will to act together across political and ethnic lines to save our nation.

But there is also the religious dimension which in my view has not been given adequate attention. This is where I believe we should welcome with deep gratitude the strong messages of solidarity with our nation and vigorous expressions of condemnation of the Boko Haram by the global Islamic community at the highest level. The Islamic Fiqh Academy, based in Saudi Arabia, has declared:

“This crime and other crimes committed by the likes of these extremist organizations contradict all humanitarian principles and moral values and violate the provisions of the Quran and Sunnah”.

The OIC, now called “The Organization of Islamic Cooperation”, a body well known to us here in Nigeria, has come out not less forcefully in its condemnation, through its “Independent Human Rights Commission” (IHRC). Their statement issued from its headquarters in Jedda merits a long quotation.

“The IHRC is extremely saddened by the misguided claim of the Boko Haram that the abduction of the girls and threat to sell them off as ‘slaves’ is in conformity with the injunctions of Islam. This is not only a violation of international law and human rights law, but also a gross misrepresentation of Islam, which enjoins its adherents to go to any extent in the pursuit of knowledge. The Commission joins the international community in unequivocally condemning the barbaric act … and urges the leadership of Boko Haram to immediately release the abducted girls to enable them join their families and continue with their education.”

With such statements at such high Islamic levels, there is no more room for any Muslim or anybody in Nigeria to suggest any kind of alibi, excuses or justification for the “unconscionable crimes” of Boko Haram.  I believe such powerful statements are also great encouragement to our many Muslims who have been speaking loudly against the terrorists, at times at great risk. We think of the imams who have been hunted down and murdered by Boko Haram for preaching against their demonic activities. It is a good sign that many Nigerian Muslims have been making similar statements. It is time for all of us to call BokoHaram by its proper name, “mindless bigots, misguided persons masquerading as adherents of Islam” – as General Buhari branded them recently.

One may suggest that these global Islamic organizations could go further than issuing statements of condemnation. They could do more to support the efforts of the Nigerian Muslims to discourage and knock out radicalization and all forms of extremism in the Nigerian Muslim community. Could they also reach out to the foreign supporters and inspirers of our terrorists to leave us in peace? What about facilitating dialogue with Boko Haram?

Finally, I believe that we Christians, despite all the hurts that we have suffered, should resist the temptation to turn a deaf ear to what the Muslim world is saying. The Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury are singing the same song of peace as the Muslim leaders. This is significant. Muslims and Christians in Nigeria must find it in their hearts to pick up the chorus. When the girls are back home, and the Boko Haram are disarmed, (I say “when” not “if”) there will still be the tedious task of dialogue, reconciliation, mutual forgiveness and peace, for which the force of religion will be most needed. This will demand that religious communities join hands and call on the One God who takes care of us all.  It is then that it may well be that this horrible episode, as President Jonathan believes, would “be the beginning of the end of terror in Nigeria”.

 

May God bless Nigeria, and bring back home our daughters.