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Nigeria: Lies, Half-Truths and No Statistics

08/08/2014 13:19 BST | Updated 07/10/2014 10:59 BST

On Sunday 27 July around noon, someone threw a bomb at mass-goers leaving St. Charles Catholic church in Sabon Gari, Kano in the north of Nigeria, killing five and injuring several others. The assumption is that it was either a follower of Ansaru, a break-away from Boko Haram, or a Boko Haram supporter. The terrible truth is that there is now nothing unusual in such bombings. They happen. Innocent civilians die.

Many years ago I might have been one of those mass-goers. I had a friend at Ade Bayero University and would visit during the weekend. The church was outside the walled city, a legacy of Lord Lugard's Indirect Rule and the need not to provoke the Muslim population by allowing the Christians inside to proselytise. I remember wondering one Sunday when the garbage was burnt, the smell wafting into the back of the church, if the timing was not accidental. It gave a whole new meaning to the clouds of incense that billowed over the altar.

Of course Christians aren't the only ones dying. Countless Muslims in the north-eastern states have been slaughtered indiscriminately, though some like the son of a prominent Shi'a cleric, and Muslim scholars and emirs who have resisted Boko Haram, by targeted assassinations. It takes great courage to speak out and denounce the jihadist justification for barbarity. But Muslim and Christian leaders alike are doing so in ever greater numbers.

And numbers are part of the problem. There are simply no reliable figures for how many have joined the Boko Haram brigand bands with their smart new vehicles and powerful weapons, no reliable figures for their many victims and abductees, and the strength of any military presence in combatting them, no very reliable census data and no painstaking and reliable investigative reporting. Into this vacuum comes rumour, misinformation and uncertainty. This in turn sustains subjective narratives and misconceptions.

The religious fall out from this is that the dominant narrative becomes - at least for many Christians - that "Muslims are killing Christians". This is reinforced by the many newspapers selling in predominantly Christian states and by the international press in which "if it bleeds, it leads" does not necessarily apply in Africa - unless the numbers are big or the readership has some natural empathy with the victims.

But the reality is that "terrorists are killing Nigerians". If "and the victims are mainly Muslim" is added to this formulation, some explanation is needed. In the north-east states which form the crucible of the insurgency the vast majority of the population are Muslim so indiscriminate attacks on villages, for example, part of Boko Haram's recent stock- in- trade, or bombs in markets and transport hubs, will mean, though Christians may die in the general slaughter, many more Muslims will die too.

On the other hand, a greater proportion of the Christians in these states is suffering than the proportion of the Muslim community. The argument as normally formulated is thus vacuous, and worse, it leads to enmity and the possibility of retaliation and inter-religious violence, where solidarity is vital.

At a more qualitative level, the idea that this horror is simply the product of a form of fanaticism emanating from Islam, is a simplification, if a tempting one in the context of social hostility between faiths. The north-east has suffered severe neglect in terms of benefits from Nigeria's past prodigious oil wealth. Massive youth unemployment, near despair about the future, a poorly trained army lacking adequate equipment, the widespread knowledge that wealthy political elites siphon off money desperately needed for development, the belief that they manipulate tensions and some support the terrorists, easily recruitable almajiri students (paying for bad madrasa education by begging) on the streets, add up to a potent explosive mixture. Nonetheless, it is only by understanding the way that a violent religious ideology can provide the match to this tinder box that any useful analysis can be made.

It is much easier to think that there is a simple explanation and a simple solution, to empathise with people who share your faith and harbor suspicions about the truthfulness and integrity of those who don't. When Christians in the West are called to respond to the plight of the Mosul Christians in Iraq or the kidnapped girls from Chibok, there is a natural identification with the victims. Everyone can imagine how they would feel if it were their daughter. Everyone can imagine what it must be like to have an Arabic N (for Nasrani meaning Christian in Arabic) on your door like Herod marking out the first born for slaughter. Well, I can. It makes me wonder if asking the question "what of the other religious minorities who do not have the same networks of solidarity or sympathetic media pulling at our heart-strings?" is just being precious.

I hope not. For violent religious extremism, what ISIS is doing, what Boko Haram is doing, what some Theravada Buddhists are doing to the Rohingya in Myanmar, is not only the enemy of Buddhists, Christians and Muslims in Iraq, Syria, Myanmar and Nigeria but the enemy of our common humanity.