Boko Haram attacks are not primarily aimed at Christians, says a German Catholic missionary who has just visited Nigeria. Instead, the terror organization is targeting the country's authorities.
Toni Görtz, a specialist on Nigeria with Germany's International Catholic missionary organization MISSIO, has just spent two and a half weeks in northern Nigeria. His trip included a visit to the city of Kano where more than 180 people were killed in bomb blasts on January 20.
DW: Mr. Görtz, how did you experience the situation in Kano?
Toni Görtz: I went to Kano four weeks later (after the terror attacks had happened - ed.) and found myself in a city I didn't recognize anymore. I used to be in Kano quite a bit. It's a city full of life, with people out on the streets, jam-packed with cars. This time, Kano was a completely different place. The sidewalks were almost empty, just a couple of cars were on the streets, and there were a few vehicles waiting in front of police and military checkpoints.
Checkpoints were everywhere, with people in uniforms standing around with bulletproof vests and sub-machine guns ready to fire. Cars had to approach very slowly. During the short drive from the airport to the bishop's house where I went first, we were stopped several times and we had to open the car boot three times. It's a terrifying situation compared to normal life in Kano.
How afraid are people now in Kano, especially Christians?
People are very, very frightened. You can tell because many don't dare to go out on the streets anymore. Entire districts seem deserted. Many people have left Kano and fled to the south because of fears of new attacks. Those who could afford it anyway. And many more are sitting in their houses somewhere and don't go out on to the streets anymore.
You can also tell from attendance at church services. In most churches only half of the worshippers show up. Some priests say that only about 40 percent of the usual worshippers still come to church services on Sundays. And if you do go to church it's nothing like it used to be. Cars are not allowed to drive up to the church building, there's a large safety zone which cars are not allowed to pass in order to prevent anyone from planting car bombs.
Worshippers also have to undergo a search before they are allowed to enter church grounds. Again there are men with sub-machine guns. But there are also youth groups who've been trained to do the frisking, to look inside handbags, and people in uniforms with guns are everywhere. Of course that frightens people and the atmosphere is very tense. I experienced Kano, and basically the whole of northern Nigeria,as being in a state of shock.
German media reports often label attacks in Nigeria as 'persecution of Christians in Nigeria.' What's your take on that?
That's nonsense. Boko Haram was founded to purify Islam. Then, in 2009, the leader of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf, was arrested. What happened next was very tragic: Yusuf was arrested by the police, he was then questioned and probably tortured. He died in the process. This is something that unfortunately happens quite regularly in Nigeria. If one is in the hands of the police forces, one has to fear for one's life because many illegal killings take place.
This is what happened to Yusuf and you can imagine that Boko Haram followers were outraged and that they wanted revenge. This was the start of Boko Haram's transformation from a sect to a terror organization focused on revenge and retaliation.
Boko Haram today is mostly aimed at the authorities. Usually they attack police stations and people in uniforms, but also anything that's linked to the West. It's true that in the course of that Christians suffered as well, but the terror of Boko Haram is not primarily aimed at Christians, and definitely not against Catholics, but against the state as an institution and against the authorities that treated Yusuf illegally. But to say Boko Haram is persecuting Christians, and Nigeria is dealing with a persecution of Christians, is definitely wrong.
Interview: Mohammad Awal /sst
Editor: Susan Houlton / rm