Christmas 2011


In Nigeria, the beat of the little drummer boy has given way for the ominous tones of war drums following the dastardly multi-city church bombings this Christmas that claimed over 40 lives. But the attacks in the predominantly Christian city of Jos in central Nigeria, St. Theresa’s catholic church near the national capital of Abuja and in north eastern Yobe state were merely the crowning fireworks by the Boko Haram Islamist terrorists in a year distinguished as the worst for Christians in that country since independence  51 years ago.

Since January 2010, maurauding bands of Muslim attackers have all but obliterated almost two dozen rural Christian communities in north eastern Bauchi state.  In an area now known as the “land of disappearing Christianity,” Christians not killed in the progroms have been utterly displaced and their communities taken over by the attackers. We tried to find them to provide relief. There is no discernible trace of them. Their existence, heritage and lifestyle has been practically exterminated.

In urban Bauchi township, terrorists set off bombs at will. The state enforces a controversial and unconstitutional sharia law that criminalizes drinking alcohol. But the terrorists want stricter punishments and a sweeping application of this code across the nation. Thus the death sentence by bomb blast which target bars and military barracks. In Bauchi, a local Bishop I interviewed told me terrorists had sent word they were going to attack that weekend.  True to their word, hours after I left, bombs went off.

An hour away in Jos, Plateau state, the cycle of violence just saw its 3rd anniversary since November 28th 2008. The internecine conflict here has reduced this exquisite tourist destination with its idyllic mountain ranges and temperate climate into a festering tinder box of violence.  Nocturnal attacks on isolated rural communities by machete-wielding Muslim nomads who massacred hundreds of sleeping women and children in March 2010 have continued through out 2011.

This guerilla warfare is separate and distinct from the Bauchi conflict although there are suspicions that the training camps for the attackers are situated in Bauchi. In court where we went to monitor the trials of the 15 attackers captured with blood-stained machetes for the Dogo Nahawa massacre, I could not help noticing that there were several suspects with Bauchi state addresses that lend credence to this theory.  However what is not in doubt is that Boko Haram has publicly pledged to support the attacks in Plateau state – as has alqaeda in the Maghreb – with the “heavy artillery.”

That was before things went bad. In April 2011, after initial indications that a Christian was leading in the presidential polls, suspiciously synchronized riots broke across 12 northern states.  Ostensibly targeting the ruling party, they left in their wake over 500 churches destroyed, hundreds of people mostly minority northern and southern Christians killed and tens of thousands of refugees.  In a manner shockingly reminiscent of the blood-curdling 2008 Kenya post-election violence, I documented instances of pastors pulled out of taxis in which they were the sole non-muslims and hacked with machetes.

While there is no connection between the 12-state post-election violence and the terror attacks, the common denominator is that the states practice the Islamic sharia code which Boko Haram seeks strict enforcement and nationwide spread of. The big mystery remains who were the masterminds behind what were clearly a well orchestrated systematic plan of attacks in the 12 states.

Before this year’s Christmas bombing, Boko Haram did strike in Jos on Christmas day 2010 detonating bombs that killed over 30 people. It was a first for a local conflict that had been characterized by western media and even diplomatic sources as merely an “ethnic” altercation between herdsmen and farmers over land. The sophisticated serial bombings did not fit into this perception but it still persisted. This was the second Christmas day.

The first was Christmas day 2009 when a young Nigerian student attempted to blow up a Delta airplane in Detroit carrying a host of passengers comprising Nigerians, Europeans, Americans including embassy officials returning home on vacation.

This first Christmas was the eye-opener that revealed how an elite Nigerian radicalized in the UK had fallen into the hands of Al Qaeda in Yemen and been recruited to attack the US. While there was no known connection to Nigeria other than nationality, there is a curious link with the second Christmas bombing.

Investigators in Plateau state, scene of the ’10 and ’11 attacks, indicate to me that following a rudimentary online investigation of the individual who claimed  responsibility for the 2010 bombings, they found something in common with the 09 Detroit attack. He and the underpants bomber were facebook friends.

Insignificant as that may seem, it does show that at some point before his arrest and the first Christmas  attempt, Abdul Muttallab had been in touch with the Boko Haram contact (unless they “friended”   themselves from custody in the US which is highly doubtful.) It is distinctly likely that the Christmas 2009 underpants bomber inspired the Christmas 2010 bombing and so on.

But the US State Dept maintains that the conflict in Plateau is “local” inspite of the credible link to an attack on the US in 2009. So although Al Qeda and Boko Haram are reinforcing the conflict, there is an inadequate global counterterrorism response to the situation in Jos. This notwithstanding that Al Qaeda is not the same “tribe” as the locals and the only commonality is jihad. This is why the Christian Association of Nigeria has drawn a line in the sand that it will tolerate no more bombing days of Christmas and urged Christians to prepare to defend themselves. There are signs in the skies above Africa’s largest country but they are not signals of glad tidings. They are drum beats of war.