After years of political apathy toward the beleaguered Nigerian northeast, hardest hit by the jihadist group Boko Haram, recently elected President Muhammadu Buhari is invigorating Nigerians with promises of determined military action against their enemy.
In his inauguration speech Friday, Buhari announced that the army command center will be relocated from Abuja to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State and the historic stronghold of Islamists, and “remain until Boko Haram is completely subdued.” He also added that “we cannot claim to have defeated Boko Haram without rescuing the Chibok girls and all other innocent persons held hostage by insurgents.”
“Boko Haram is a group of godless lunatics, who have strayed further from Islam than you can imagine,” said Buhari, a Muslim.
Buhari also asserted that he would be president for all Nigerians, and would act “resolutely” to confront the nation’s most pressing problems. “I belong to everyone and I belong to no one,” he said.
Oliver Dashe Doeme, the Catholic bishop of Maiduguri, whose diocese has suffered intensely under Boko Haram, gave a vote of confidence in the ability of the new president to lead the fight against the Islamists, despite the uphill battle that awaits him.
In a meeting with members of the European Parliament Friday, Doeme said:
Most of the terrorists are still in the bush and the fact that the Sambisa Forest, the hub for Boko Haram, has not yet been recaptured is also worrying. But President Buhari is a military man. He is a Muslim—but he has indicated that he is the president for all Nigerians regardless of religious tradition.
The bishop also underscored the importance of the smooth democratic transition during recent elections, noting that it boded well for the future of Nigeria.
“The presidential election was unexpectedly peaceful,” Doeme said, adding that the massive turnout at the polling stations “was a clear indication that the people wanted change.”
He also praised outgoing President Goodluck Jonathan, who, “in a moment of precarious transition which could have destabilized the country, showed statesmanship by conceding defeat even before the final results were officially declared. This was the fruit of prayer,” he said.
Bishop Doeme told European legislators that “Boko Haram has one agenda—to Islamicize the northeast and eventually all of Nigeria, which has Africa’s largest population.”
He said that the destabilization of Nigeria “would risk a spiraling of religiously motivated violence throughout the continent.” He also stated that this is, in fact, Boko Haram’s intent, highlighted by the group’s pact of allegiance to ISIS. The danger of this “is very real,” he stated.
The bishop also asserted that even with a stronger military presence, the humanitarian work that remains is overwhelming.
“In the wake of the military successes, many displaced people are coming back, but they return to find nothing in their homes. The villages are wiped out: houses have been burned to the ground, animals stolen, and the crops destroyed,” he said, adding that “the rainy season has started but they have not been able to plant.”
“Our needs are overwhelming. The Church structures, too, have not been spared. Over 250 church buildings have been razed, among them 20 schools destroyed—all of which served mainly the Muslim population. We have nothing and need everything,” the bishop added.
About half of the 25 priests who fled the Diocese of Maiduguri because of attacks from the jihadists have been able to return, thanks to an army offensive that has erased some of Boko Haram’s gains and restored confidence that Boko Haram may eventually be routed.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.