Bishop Naga Williams Mohammed is the Chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Borno State. He spoke to journalists on how Christians suffered in the hands of Boko Haram terrorists and the efforts of the state governor, Kashim Shettima to help them rebuild their lives. Michael Olugbode was there and presents the excerpts:
Bishop, we are surprised that your surname is Mohammed, how did this come into being?
Yes, in Southern Borno generally, it is common to see a family mixed up with both Muslims and Christians. My father was a Muslim and my mother was a dedicated Christian. We lived in the same house, ate the same food and shared the same culture. When it was Christmas, my Mum would give money to my Dad to buy whatever animal for us to slaughter. The same thing when it was time for Eid El Kabir (Sallah) Celebration, my Dad would buy a Ram for us to slaughter without discrimination.
You talked about the religious harmony in your family, how will you compare that with instances of religious suspicion all over Nigeria?
Waoh! In the past there was absolute tolerance to the extent that you don’t know this man’s religion and the other one, we all trusted the other person’s religion. In fact, in my mother’s house, she had a kettle which is called ‘Buta’ in Hausa. Muslims used to performe ablution. While growing up, I was raised to see muslims from a positive light. All I knew was that muslims were doing what they were supposed to do, and we christians did what we were supposed to do in terms of worship and coexistence in our communities. In Southern Borno where most of the christians in Borno State hail from, most of our families are inter-faith based, mixture of muslims and christians. I used to know a family where the father and his six children were christians, while his three wives were muslims and they lived peacefully.
Bishop, the number of christians in Borno State is large, but they still constitute a minority in the state, what has been the response of successive governments to challenges of insurgency faced by christians in Borno.
If you go back to recent history, our first major problem was in February 2006, when a Danish man whom I learnt was not even a christian, portrayed a picture of the prophet of Islam in a bad light. Unfortunately, there was protest here in Maiduguri and christians were at the receiving end. If I can recall, in 2006, they described behind the protests as miscreants, arsonists, hooligans, and bastards. I pity those who call them these names, because, these bad guys when they see an opportunity, they will take advantage of it. A total of 56 churches were razed down in Borno, and so many shops belonging to christians were destroyed and there was no compensation from the State Government then.
Are you saying that the then Governor, Ali Modu Sheriff didn’t release any funds for rebuilding and compensation for christians who suffered the attacks and lost lives, assets and means of livelihood?
Absolutely not! There was no compensation. And I repeat, no compensation, nothing was given to christians except promises made by Sheriff. He promised to compensate christians for all those properties destroyed but he did not keep the promise. I was in a member of the high powered administrative committee as a representative of the christian community constituted by Sheriff. I think only N150,000 was given to each pastor whose entire church was destroyed. At a point, we compiled all the destroyed properties including churches and submitted the report to the Borno State Government.
Bishop, if christians didn’t receive compensation from the Borno Government after the 2006 Danish cartoon crisis, one is tempted to wonder what the situation is under a more vicious Boko Haram that has caused more havoc on communities that include christians.
My brothers, those who are not from Borno State may not know, but you and I know better. In the history of Borno State, there is no governor that has been fair to the christians community in this state as much as Governor Kashim Shettima. I am saying this in the presence of God Almighty and this is nothing but the truth. Shettima, in the history of Borno, is the only governor that has sponsored the highest number of christian pilgrims every year since 2011. I am speaking boldly without fear or favour because as CAN Chairman, I do not receive salary or kobo from the government or any institution, but the facts need to be told. This governor has shown compassion to the christian community. For example, when Gwoza people were driven from their ancestral homes, they fled to Maiduguri, and the governor personally came to CAN Centre in Jerusalem ward two times in June and July 2014. He gave N10 million for their upkeep at first instance, by then the victims were not many. By the end of October 2014, the Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) from Gwoza increased to 42,000 in that camp alone. Shettima came again and gave another N10 million. He also gave additional N5 million for christians from Borno who fled to Cameroon to enable them return home. He gave another N5 million for non-indigenes who fled to Cameroon to come back to Nigeria. The governor even directed the Borno State Emergency Management Agency, SEMA to supply food directly to the IDPs in the camps under the christian leadership. In fact, the governor insisted that he wanted christian IDPs to stay together with their muslim counterparts in various designated IDP camps here in Maiduguri but we the leaders felt it was wise to separate christian IDPs to avoid frictions between displaced persons dealing with trauma.
You said about 56 churches were destroyed in 2006, how many of them have been rebuilt?
On the churches that were razed down, we had a meeting with Shettima on how his administration can come in to assist in rebuilding some of them. Last year, when the governor visited Gwoza, Askira -Uba and Chibok Local Government Areas for an on-the-spot assessment of the destructions, he saw how some of these churches had become dilapidated, some burnt to ashes, in fact, some churches were not only razed down but graders were used to pull the structures to ground zero as if that church never existed there. Like in Gwoza, the report we received was that after some of the churches were demolished, the terrorists packed the whole debris and threw it far away from the premises. When Shettima visited these areas, he released N100 million for the rebuilding of some of these churches. A committee was set up for that purpose, I am a member of the committee headed by a permanent Secretary, Mr. Justus Zare as chairman, and I am happy to inform you that presently we have used that money to rebuild 11 key churches which our people are now using for their worship services. I am surprised when some people were saying why not rebuild all the churches, we cannot do that because there were so many places that are still unsafe for people to return, and you cannot expect us to go to the communities on the fringes of Sambisa Forest to start rebuilding destroyed churches, when the security situation has not improved. After, the initial N100m, Shettima graciously approved another N105 million for the 2nd phase of rebuilding destroyed churches. This was made possible when CAN officials led by my humble self had a meeting with him on 30th March, 2016 at the Government House. So far, the governor has released N210 million for reconstruction of our burnt churches. He also approved the sponsorship of all our local pastors to participate in the 2017 Jerusalem Pilgrimage. During the meeting, Shettima allocated land and approved Certificates of Occupancy (C of O) for church buildings in the state. This has never happened in the history of Borno since 1979. We are very grateful indeed. In fact, one of my neighbour who was a journalist died last year. He was a christian. When the governor heard of it, he delegated some of his aides and gave the family the sum of N1 million for the burial. So also, when Archbishop Emmanuel Kana Mani died, the governor visited the family residence in Maiduguri and gave N10 million to the family, I was among those who welcomed him at the Bishop’s Court. He gave N5 million for the upkeep of his family, while the other N5 million was for the preparation of his funeral. There was a time we complained to him to give us additional christian permanent secretaries, initially we had only one in the state, and he immediately approved additional three. As it is now, we have five in Borno civil service and we have to appreciate him, yes. His government has given us the opportunity to even run a collective programme on television and radio; we work with the Jama’atul Nasril Islam to sensitize our people on peaceful coexistence. They trust us, we trust them. In fact, it may interest you to know that there was a time I was asked to say a christian prayer at a gathering where we were only three christians in the midst of many muslims. The government under Shettima is bringing harmony among religious leaders.
After, the initial N100m, Shettima graciously approved another N105 million for the 2nd phase of rebuilding destroyed churches. This was made possible when CAN officials led by my humble self had a meeting with him on 30th March, 2016 at the Government House. So far, the governor has released N210 million for reconstruction of our burnt churches.