Nigeria: Michael Nnadi & Bolanle Ataga—martyrs walking toward the barking dogs
THE FOLLOWING are reflections by Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto, in northwestern Nigeria. One of his seminarians, Michael Nnadi, was kidnapped and murdered earlier this year. Three of his fellow seminarians were also kidnapped but were released alive. A copy of this text was obtained by Aid to the Church in Need:
News of the capture of the kidnappers of the four seminarians has been received with ecstasy and a sense of divine vindication both within and beyond the Catholic and Christian circles here in Nigeria. One of the kidnappers [is] Mustapha Mohammed, a 26 year old man and a member of the 45-man gang of kidnappers and bandits that has recklessly robbed, kidnapped, tortured and killed many people along the 110-mile stretch of road between Kaduna and Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, for the last four or so years.
According to Muhammad, they had killed Michael because he kept asking them to repent and turn their lives around from their evil ways. He said that what most annoyed them was that although Michael knew that they were Muslims, he continued to insist that they repent and abandon their way of life. Young Michael’s courage represents a page out of the book of the martyrs of old. Also murdered with Michael by the same criminals was Mrs. Bolanle Ataga who had been kidnapped along with her two daughters. According to Muhammad, Bolanle was killed by their leader of the gang because she refused to be raped by him.
The story of Michael and Bolanle is a metaphor for understanding the deep scars that have been left behind by British colonialism, scars that have disfigured the face of religion in Nigeria and continue to exacerbate tensions between Christians and Muslims. British colonialism was established after the British had conquered the extant one-hundred-year-old Caliphate established by Usman dan Fodio (1804-1903). Although northern Muslim historiography would continue to project Lugard as a Christian missionary of sorts and hold his colonial project responsible for the institutionalization of Christianity in the region, the colonial project, led by Lord Lugard at the beginning of the 20th century, saw Christian missionaries as obstacles to their adventure.
What an irony! The truth is that missionaries preceded the colonial state in Nigeria by many years. Their mission of education and the conversion of local people to Christianity very often set them against the colonial state, and particularly so in Northern Nigeria, so much so that they were not permitted by the British to enter there until the 1930s. Thus, Christians in northern Nigeria have been left with a legacy by which they have suffered a double jeopardy.
Firstly, missionary work in Northern Nigeria was seen by the colonialists as an intrusion into the sacred space of Islam while the educated Christians were seen as irritants, challenging the racism and injustice embedded in colonialism, and slowing down their exploitation and trade. In Southern Nigeria, educated Christians were seen as more serious troublemakers because they constituted the trigger for the independence struggle. The weak muscles of northern hegemony were strengthened when the British introduced Indirect rule and imposed feudal Muslim leadership that oversaw taxation of the non-Muslim populations across the Middle Belt.
Secondly, in post-colonial Nigeria, the northern Muslim elite, using religion as a basis for social integration and power sharing, have continued to see Christians as outsiders. Today, it is popular myth in Northern Nigeria that whereas Muslims continue to marry young Christian girls and accept them and their cousins as converts to Islam, Muslim girls are warned that marrying a Christian or any Muslim converting to Christianity amounts to embracing a death sentence. Other forms of discrimination include the denial of places of worship for the building of churches in most parts of northern Nigeria, the constant harassment and targeting of Christian places of worship for destruction by mobs of Muslim youth or by overzealous public servants of the state, the exclusion of Christians from public employment in the state civil service and limited opportunities for cultural self-expression. Christians remain outside the loop of power in most states despite their high levels of educational qualifications.
I have provided this backdrop to place the martyrdom of Michael and Bolanle in proper context, to appreciate the Sisyphean struggle that Christians are daily up against.
Against this backdrop, let me now return to the metaphor of the barking dog and why it is significant for our analysis. A barking dog announces a possible disturbance of the environment by a new arrival. It could be a friend or a foe, depending on the reaction of the intruder. In response to the barking dog, it is better to walk towards it, facing it as a sign of possible friendship or willingness to dialogue on your side. If you turn your back or attempt to run, the dog will consider your strategy as a declaration of war and it will hurt you.
The British left a legacy of a feudal architecture of power that has been exploited by Nigeria’s corrupt and incompetent ruling elite across the country. In the north, the Muslim elite has continued to exploit the deep religiousity of its members by presenting themselves as defenders of the faith, a strategy that has been exploited for political mobilization. In ignorance, their people have continued to see education as a Western ploy to corrode their religion and culture.
This culture has bred ignorance, destitution, poverty, leading to a generation today across the northern states of over 13million young people who have no meaningful survival skills. It is from this cesspool that Muhammad and his colleagues have emerged and are taking their revenge on a state that has failed them. To be sure, there are kidnappers roaming across Nigeria, but none have been as brutal, murderous, cold blooded, monstrous and brutish as those in the northern pool. They have slaughtered their fathers and mothers, irrespective of religion, status or gender. The challenging question before us in the north is, from where did they drink this poison?
Years of negative stereotypes against Christianity and its adherents have fed the anger of people like Muhammad who have come to believe that to be asked to repent is a call to war. True, by calling themselves Muslims while still carrying out acts of theft, banditry, rape and murder, these barking human dogs had lost the right to be called Muslims. However, there is no doubt that Muslim leaders and teachers in northern Nigeria must address the historical distortions and interpretations of the faith that have brought us to this cul de sac.
Else, why did Michael’s appeal for a change of heart become a death sentence? It was borne out of the belief that Michael did not possess the moral credentials to call them to repentance. Why should a woman’s protection from sexual violence constitute a death sentence?
Inspired by their faith, Michael and Bolanle, the brave martyrs, looked at the horde of barking dogs and were not afraid to walk towards them. For us as Christians, while we greatly mourn their passing, their deaths are gains, not losses. It was after the blood of Jesus dropped on the ground that the seeds of our redemption were sown. Today, Michael’s grave stands as guard and witness at the entrance of his seminary where he was a student. His colleagues can walk through the gates knowing they have a guardian angel. When we buried him (Feb 11th, 2020), we prayed that his killers will not go free. He has interceded for us. He now stands as a metaphor, a rallying point for us to walk towards the barking dogs of our time.
Both he and Bolanle, as well as Leah Sharibu, who refused to renounce her Christian faith and remains [a captive of Boko Haram], are metaphors for the suffering Church in Africa. Their testimony and witness represent the spiritual oxygen that our lungs so badly needed today. Together with the Ugandan martyrs, St. Bakhita, Blessed Isidore Bakanja and many others marked with the scars of torture for their faith, they are the bearers of promise and hope for the Church in our continent. Their example should serve as a rallying point for our young men and women in Africa. Hopefully, they will inspire a new generation of defenders of the Gospel in a sick and troubled continent. With them ahead of us, let us rise and walk with courage towards the barking dogs to uphold Christ’s Gospel of Love.