Nigeria (MNN) — 23 days ago, Nigeria's Islamist faction, Boko Haram, offered a truce.
The government responded with a 30-day "wait and see." Their cautious optimism came in light of the intensified 42-month multi-prong attack strategy. It seemed that under the "Western education is forbidden" motto of Boko Haram, everyone was fair game: military, police, security facilities, schools and churches.
The goals of the extremist group were two-fold: instill Sharia law throughout the country, and create an Islamic state. A subset goal was the eradication of Christian presence.
Todd Nettleton, a spokesman for The Voice of the Martyrs USA, notes confusion over the ceasefire offer. Violence was supposed to stop, but "there are news reports that since the announcement was made, 53 Nigerians have lost their lives in violence. Not all of those have been claimed by Boko Haram. but they are assumed to be Boko Haram, so it doesn't seem like there's been a significant change of direction."
That reveals two things, observes Nettleton. First, the ongoing violence could signal a rift within the leadership of the Boko Haram sect. That's evidenced by the hallmarks of unclaimed violence. Several of the recent attacks have been dismissed as the work of a criminal gang, while others are blamed on extremists. Nettleton says that because of the confusion, "It is hard to look at the situation and clearly identify who the player is in a particular incident or a particular attack, because they're just not a united organization."
Second, it indicates the country is still a long way from bidding terrorism good bye. "Boko Haram is not really a united organization. There are different factions and different groups and different sub leaders under the overall Boko Haram ‘umbrella.' Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathon believes the spread of the Islamist extremist group could eventually undermine the region."
Nettleton explains, "There has also been this group called ‘Ansaru' that kind of split off from Boko Haram; they apparently are more focused internationally. They're focused on Mali, they're focused on the rest of Africa."
Boko Haram provides al Qaeda with an avenue to expand in Africa since they share ambitions and causes within Nigeria, greater Africa, and throughout Asia and Europe.
What does that mean? Fragmentation usually manifests in all groups trying to make a name for themselves. That means more attacks and more violence. Nettleton says, "We may start to see more connections between those different groups, and that obviously is a frightening prospect for Christians in Africa. It's also a frightening prospect for the government in these countries that would like to put a lid on this violence."
The prospect of a blood-tainted future can be daunting, but VOM workers continue to come alongside believers in Nigeria to encourage them. A recent distribution of 37 bicycles, 15 motorcycles, and 50 megaphones will help pastors and Christian workers in the north. These simple tools will help them share the story of Jesus Christ in northern Nigeria.
Despite the near weekly attacks on churches, 2,500 believers in Gombe state gathered for a worship service. Gombe is one of the hardest-hit states in the north. "One of the significant opportunities for spreading the Gospel is the way that the Christians respond to persecution and even to those who are persecuted."
Widows, orphans, pastors and entire families from all over Gombe came together to hear a pastor preach about loving their neighbors. The pastor reminded worshipers that they must not hate their attackers and that martyrs like Stephen forgave his attackers. That message is the crux of the work VOM does, says Nettleton. "If Christians respond with forgiveness, with grace, and love, that can be an incredible testimony of the truth of the Gospel."
Pray that Muslims there will be reached with the Gospel. Pray for Christians in Nigeria to remain confident in the Lord. Pray for many others in Nigeria to come to know Christ and for church leaders to advance their ministry.