Late in January, I finally reached the bishop on his cell phone. Tracking him down in his undisclosed location in northeastern Nigeria was quite the task, for reasons that will be made clear. But thanks to the good offices of my friend Obianuju Ekeocha of Culture of Life Africa (culturaoflifeafrica.com), I managed to connect with His Excellency Oliver Dashe Doeme (pronounced DEE meh). Why must the prelate be extremely selective about from whom he takes phone calls?
Well, imagine not knowing—day after day—whether you’ll see your kids again after they head off to school in the morning. Imagine being awakened by the thunderous staccato of automatic weapons rattling the walls of your house, or your neighbor’s house, or the parish church down the block. Imagine being deliberately targeted by murderous thugs for whom no sadism is off limits. What if your government could do precious little to stop them, and what if the world’s media paid little heed to your plight?
That is a snapshot of the world of Bishop Doeme and his flock living under the daily threat of Islamic terror at the hands of Boko Haram. Militant members of this relatively new homegrown Nigerian terrorist organization operate in ideological lockstep with ISIS, sometimes called IS or “Islamic State” from Iraq and Syria. Both groups are as fanatical as they are ultraviolent. And Bishop Doeme has been outspoken in calling for military intervention from Western governments to (using his word) crush Boko Haram.
When a gentle, holy bishop employs language this blunt, you know the situation is humanly unbearable.
While the Western media went into an understandable frenzy over the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris just after the New Year, which left 17 people dead, approximately 2,000 Nigerians were murdered near the Chad border around the same time. Yet one searches in vain for much more than a cursory mention in the secular media coverage of the African mass murder. The truth of the dictum holds true here: “Six deaths is a tragedy; six million is a statistic.”
Unfortunately, the cell phone quality with Bishop Doeme was too scratchy and uneven to air on our podcast Catholic Answers Focus (catholic.com/focus). But despite his heavy schedule, His Excellency graciously agreed to write out his answers in text form, which appear below with minor style and length edits. Bishop Doeme’s courage and witness to Jesus Christ in a time of severe testing are a gift not only to the people entrusted to his pastoral care, but to the universal Church.
Tell me about the Diocese of Maiduguri. Where is it located and how many Catholics are there?
The Diocese of Maiduguri (pronounced my DOO guree), being one of the Catholic dioceses in Nigeria, is located at the extreme northeastern part of the country. It was created in 1966. In two years’ time we will be celebrating the golden jubilee of its establishment. The diocese is the largest in Nigeria in terms of land mass. It covers two and half states, Borno, Yobe, and the northern part of Adamawa states. The diocese is situated in an area where 99 percent of the population is Muslim.
Before the Boko Haram insurgency, the population of Catholics in the diocese was 125,000. But at the moment, because of the attacks, many of our members who are not indigenous have fled the diocese to safer places in the country. Others, even though they’re indigenous, have been forced to flee from their ancestral homes and now are refugees in many places outside the diocese. The current population of Catholics in the diocese is about 40,000 to 45,000.
When did you become bishop?
I became the bishop if the diocese on the August 13, 2009, ordained and installed as the forth bishop of the Diocese of Maiduguri.
What exactly is Boko Haram? What does the title mean?
Boko Haram comes from the name Jama’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-dawa wal-jihad, better known in the Hausa language as “Western education is sinful.” The members of this sect are committed to the propagation of the prophet’s teaching on jihad.
When was the group founded?
Its evolution started in 2002. The members were recruited as thugs for some political leaders in Borno State, and then they grew to become a sect. The sect came to the full limelight in 2009, when the members felt that they were strong enough to fight the security agencies. And this was precisely what the group did when its members engaged the security in fierce war. But many of them were killed by the security agents, and the rest dispersed. But after about a year, they regrouped and started coordinated attacks on the security and on innocent citizens.
What is the main goal of Boko Haram? A caliphate in Nigeria? To spread elsewhere?
The main aim of Boko Haram is to Islamize the country. But when talking about Boko Haram, other factors come to play—political, social, and economic factors. For instance, some powerful politicians in the northern part of the country were not happy that a southerner became president. Some of them openly said that they would make the country ungovernable for the present government. There is no doubt that such politicians have either directly or indirectly supported Boko Haram. This is one of the reasons why the sect has suddenly become very powerful.
Meanwhile, the youths who join Boko Haram are being deceived that when they kill in the name of God they will not only go to heaven but marry many virgins. Yet these same politicians have deliberately refused to expose these youth to Western education so they can be kept in perpetual ignorance and illiteracy, thereby enabling these politicians to use them for their selfish interest. This is exactly what we are currently experiencing in our area. Unfortunately for them, Boko Haram has become a wild lion that spares neither Muslim nor Christian. But the bottom line is that the group wants its brand of Islam imposed on the country. The group has established its caliphates in many of the areas captured. Of course, if it takes control of Nigeria, it will make it a caliphate. And if it captures areas outside the country, it will do the same thing there.
How much of Nigeria has been effectively taken over by Boko Haram?
They have captured many areas in the northeastern part of the country, with a heavy presence in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa states. In Borno State alone, out of the twenty-six local government areas, twenty are under Boko Haram control. Statistics show that more than 130 towns and villages are under Boko Haram in the northeast.
An estimated 2,000 people were murdered by Boko Haram militants in the town of Baga near the border of Chad. How far is that from you?
Yes, they mercilessly massacred innocent human beings in Baga, the headquarters of a local government about two hours’ drive from Maiduguri. As you rightly said, it is estimated that about 2,000 innocent civilians and soldiers were murdered. It is a very sad development. Not long after that, the group captured Monguno, a neighboring town near Baga. Again, scores of people were killed.
How many of your churches and schools and have been torched or destroyed?
The Catholic Church is, as an institution, the most devastated in the northeast of Nigeria. As I am talking to you now, we have more than fifty parish churches and outstation churches that have been burned down by Boko Haram. There are more than fifteen rectories that have been razed. Many of the structures in our minor seminary have been destroyed. More than twenty primary and secondary schools have been abandoned. And up to five female religious convents have been sacked. More than a hundred family houses have been destroyed, apart from their vehicles, animals, crops, foodstuffs, and personal effects, which have either been destroyed, vandalized, or taken away.
As it stands now, more than 500 of our members have been killed. More than 200 women and children have been adopted. A good number of young men have been forcefully conscripted into Boko Haram forces. Also, more than 500 of our people have been trapped in the villages. There are more than 70,000 Catholics from our diocese who are now refugees in the Cameroons, Yola, Maiduguri, and other towns and villages in Nigeria. More than thirty female religious have fled their convents in the diocese to safer places. Similarly, more than twenty-five priests have been sacked from their parishes and institutions and are now taking refuge in other places. More than 200 of our women have been widowed because of Boko Haram.
What form does their violence take? By what means do they terrorize so many Nigerians, including the army?
The terrorists use sophisticated weapons to kill their victims. They use AK-47 machine guns, armored tanks, rocket launchers, APCs, etc. They use explosives in carrying out suicide bombings. They come in convoys of vehicles to communities, whether towns or villages, to attack and kill the innocent people. With these weapons the sect has been able to dislodge the soldiers and other security agents.
But it must be stated that it’s not as if Boko Haram is stronger than the Nigerian Army. Corruption is the main problem. The top military officers for most times sit on the funds that are meant for the purchase of arms, thereby leaving the soldiers on the ground ill-equipped and poorly motivated. In addition, among the soldiers there are saboteurs, sympathizers of Boko Haram, conspirators, and even [Boko Haram] members. This makes it difficult for the security to effectively tame Boko Haram.
As a Christian leader in Nigeria, I’m sure you rely first and foremost on prayer and the power of God’s protection. But you have also been very bold in calling for Western military action. Do you believe this is absolutely necessary to crush Boko Haram?
Yes, as a Christian and a Church leader, I have the hope and trust in the Lord’s power to end the crisis. And I encourage the faithful in the diocese to do the same. And so our greatest weapon is prayer. Prayer is the solution to our problems. I am a visible son and disciple of Mary our Blessed Mother. For years, we have been consecrating the diocese to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. And, for sure, Mary our Mother is seriously intervening on our behalf. But it is important that some physical steps can be taken at the human level in order to checkmate the excesses of Boko Haram. One such plan should be to bring in foreign troops. I strongly advocate for that. This will help tremendously in ensuring that Boko Haram is crushed.
How do non-radicalized Muslims in Nigeria regard Boko Haram?
The moderate Muslims are not happy with what is happening. Many of them would have come out publicly to denounce Boko Haram but are afraid of being persecuted.
What are your thoughts on offering amnesty to Boko Haram members who renounce the group and who want peace?
I have no problem with that arrangement as long as it is genuine. For us Christians, Jesus is our model. Jesus did not only teach about forgiveness but forgave his persecutors when he was hanging on the cross. So amnesty can be given to them, as long as they can change and become good citizens of our nation.
The president of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, declared a state of emergency last year, which has not really affected the momentum achieved by the terrorists. Are you concerned that the Nigerian people will become so angry with the current government and military leadership that there is a danger of a coup—and more chaos?
There is no doubt that people are fed up with the government for its inability to crush Boko Haram. But I doubt the occurrence of any coup. Rather, Nigerians may show their anger in the forthcoming elections by voting for those they know can crush Boko Haram.
Bishop Doeme, you have many people now praying for you here in America, that justice may be done and that Nigeria might be free of this scourge. Do you have any final thoughts or requests?
Yes, I have two requests to make to our brothers and sisters in America. One, I ask for their prayerful support. Two, let them help us with funds, first of all to tackle the humanitarian crisis that is right before us: many of our members have no houses, no food to eat, no clothes to wear, and no money to go to the hospital for treatment. And then after the crisis, some of these funds can be used to rebuild our destroyed structures. May the goodness, mercy, and kindness of the Lord accompany all of you working with EWTN and indeed the entire American people, both now and forever.