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Nigerian Christians Brace for More 'Taleban' Attack

  • Nico Colombant

Small Christian communities in northeastern Nigeria are bracing for new attacks by groups of Islamic radicals, who call themselves the Taleban.

A Christian businessman who was once abducted by the group styling itself to Islamic hardliners in Afghanistan says it could happen again.

Speaking in Haussa, Ali Dangwa says he was returning from a bartering trip to Cameroon, walking through hilly terrain, when he was abducted at gunpoint by men wearing stolen police uniforms.

They told him he should join their fight to help the poor, but he says he was not impressed.

He says they rampaged from village to village, breaking down shops, stealing goats and storming a church where the radicals used the collection plate they emptied out to drink water.

Mr. Dangwa was released unharmed, but he says three other men the group crossed were shot dead. In other nearby areas, the radicals killed police officers, burned government buildings and stole weapons. They also stole a jeep, marking it with the word "Taleban."

After several such incursions in the northeastern states, Borno and Yobe, last year, security forces hunted down the radicals, killed several of them, arrested dozens, while others were forced to flee into neighboring Cameroon and Niger.

Borno Police Commissioner Ade Ajakaiye says they were wiped out.

"I want to thank the police hierarchy, my officers, because we had the concerted effort, and also want to thank the Nigerian military," he said. "They cooperated with us fully and within a few days we were able to rout them, I mean really routing them."

But a pastor in one of the targeted villages, Limankara, says abductions continued. Pastor Zachary Jwanse describes how the family of a Christian elder, known as a bulema, has been victimized.

"A Christian bulema, he has a daughter, they came and took her, impregnated her, Islamicized her, and when the bulema went, they were challenging him," Pastor Jwanse. "You see, so all the time, all the time, this problem has been here and we don't know when this problem will be solved. They have gone to the extreme. They have gone to the extreme. We don't think we will experience peace with them."

Christian leaders say some of the radicals have regrouped in nearby hills and have set up training camps in border areas. They say they will continue their attacks, trying to convert everyone to Islam.

Armed Christian vigilante groups have set up roadblocks to protect Limankara. Journalist Gilbert da Costa, who recently visited the area, said the threat of renewed attacks seems real.

"Some of the people actually told me that they've intercepted some people they suspected to be the Taleban and so there is a strong sense in the village that the Taleban shadow still hangs over the village and even the entire state," he said.

A dozen Nigerian states have implemented Islamic Sharia law, but the radicals have been quoted as saying it is not being well enforced.

Some of the rebels who have been captured have denied receiving any foreign support. Local Islamic charity groups also deny they are helping them, saying they are trying to spread Islam without violence.

Most of the captured Taleban leaders are former university students from Nigeria's northeastern Maiduguri University. Their followers have been heard speaking many of Nigeria's languages, indicating they might come from throughout the country.

But an Islamic sociology professor who has studied this new movement, Abdulmumin Sa'ad, says they have yet to attract a large following among Muslims.

"They don't and if action is taken quickly, it will be nipped in the bud, not by crushing them but by trying to engage youth in a more positive way. Let's create some sense of belonging for the youth by finding things for them to do," said Professor Sa'ad.

He says more vocational training is needed in the region. He also laments the fact that, with Sharia law, there is less entertainment now for young people, making them vulnerable to extremism.

"When you look at their activities, it's contrary to the tenets of Islam because Islam means peace," added Professor Sa'ad. "But in this group, they are fully armed and their appearance just describes them as a bunch of criminals rather than a bunch of religious groups."

So far, the repeated incursions have not led to increased tensions between the Muslim majority and Christians. In other northern areas, there have been recent clashes between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

The region is also prone to arms smuggling from nearby conflicts in Chad and from Nigerian soldiers returning from peacekeeping operations.

The United Nations recently warned that the al-Qaida terrorist group is operating training bases in poorly-policed areas of Africa, including Nigeria. These local Taleban may well be prime recruits.