Cover Story
Aminu Abubakar/AFP/Getty Images

Nowhere to run

Cities | Longstanding threats from Muslims, plus new threats from terrorists, are cornering northern Nigeria's Christians

Issue: "2012 Cities Issue," March 10, 2012

KANO, Nigeria-When there's a break at Baba Alhamdu Secondary School, you know it. Students pour from narrow classroom doorways and flock to benches where they can talk beneath trees and out of the sun, kicking red dust from the schoolyard as they go.

Laughter and teasing are raucous as young men and women in blue-checked uniforms race to a wooden shanty selling warm sodas and fresh oranges. Students from a primary school on the same compound are at recess, competing for snacks and benches.

High-schoolers Amos Chetus and Victor Othniel, composition books tucked under their arms, pause when a visitor wants to take their photo, but they are in a hurry to make science class. "Did all your friends show up for classes today?" I ask. No, they say together, shaking their heads.

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Beneath what looks like normal hubbub at Baba Alhamdu, these are no ordinary days. The school sits in the city center of Kano, where the terrorist group Boko Haram has struck repeatedly this year. City residents have been under a dusk-to-dawn curfew after the deadliest bombings Jan. 20 killed over 185.

The terrorist group has vowed to attack police, military, and Christian institutions. It has promised to kidnap Westerners-and has abducted a Brit, an Italian, and a German worker. Baba Alhamdu shares a walled compound with a medical clinic and one of the oldest churches in northern Nigeria, which began in 1933 under Sudan Interior Mission (SIM, now Serving In Mission). On the jihadi websites used by Boko Haram, the compound is named as a target.

Violence and the threats-including a Christmas Day bombing at a Catholic church that killed 44, and a January warning that all Christians should leave northern Nigeria-are taking a toll. There used to be 700 students at Baba Alhamdu, but attendance is down to just over 300. "Many are too afraid to come," said vice principal Danjuma Alkali. "Some have left to go south or east, but most parents have a lot of business in Kano, so it's a hardship to leave. Some parents died in the bombing-three at least, but it's hard to get information with so many absent."

The school has cut afternoon classes, dismissing students at 2:00 ahead of the evening curfew. Church attendance remains strong-about 2,000 at two services on Sundays-though Boko Haram killed one church member, a policewoman the terrorists shot in the head.

Boko Haram wants to impose Sharia law across Nigeria and oust the current president, a Christian named Goodluck Jonathan. In Hausa, the dominant language of west and north Africa, Boko Haram means "Western Education is Sinful." Its official name, Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, is Arabic for "Group Committed to Propagating the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad."

In a Jan. 25 video posting on YouTube, Boko Haram leader Imam Abubakar Shekau took responsibility for the Jan. 20 attacks and said: "I am not against anyone, but if Allah asks me to kill someone, I will kill him and I will enjoy killing him like I am killing a chicken."

Boko Haram started in 2002 in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, and in June 2010 it formalized links with al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). With that came large-scale terrorism: A suicide bombing at UN headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, killed 18 last August; and the Christmas Day bombing at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Madalla. With fighters who've trained in Somalia, Libya, Sudan, and elsewhere, counterterrorism experts worry that Boko Haram will launch transnational terror.

As a result, military checkpoints and intense street security are facts of life in Kano now. Alkali and others who work inside the compound regularly pull night duty also, checking the perimeter and gates for possible intruders. The vice principal, who helped start the school 20 years ago, lives on campus with his family: "I am not going anywhere, whatever happens."

The facilities inside the compound are run by ECWA, a denomination launched by SIM that recently changed its name from Evangelical Churches of West Africa to Evangelical Churches Winning All. Adjacent is a hospital also started by SIM-the ECWA Eye Hospital-a 170-bed teaching facility that's reportedly the best of its kind in West Africa. A Boko Haram posting from late last year says the ECWA site, plus those of nine other Christian denominations in the north, "must be bombed and leveled." It also cites eight pastors, most Muslim converts to Christianity, as targets "to be eliminated."

If it's possible to bring a city of 9 million to a standstill, Boko Haram has done it in Kano. When bombs began exploding on Jan. 20, "whole buildings were shaking," said Alkali, "and there was so much vibration that some people collapsed from it." Officials in Kano reported 23 separate explosions in the city that day, targeting police stations and government buildings. Masked Boko Haram gunmen riding motorcycles shot and killed bystanders at close range. Alkali said in the streets he saw "so many bodies that they were lifted into heavy lorries. Only a few could be identified."

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