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.
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."
Whole blocks of businesses are closed as city residents have taken flight from the terror. Some churches canceled services, and banks are open only a few hours each day.
This was not the first time militant Islamic groups attacked the city-Muslim riots in 1980 killed over 4,000 people in Kano in just 10 days-but the destruction of government posts brought a swift response from Nigeria's military and police. They've closed major thoroughfares near government buildings and sandbagged entrances to police stations. Because Boko Haram has used motorcycles in attacks, drivers of motorcycle taxis (okadas) must dismount at armed checkpoints, often at clogged traffic circles, and walk their bikes through security.
Kano, Nigeria's second-largest city, has been described as the sixth-biggest Muslim city in the world (after Karachi, Jakarta, Dhaka, Cairo, and Istanbul). With Christians the majority in the southern tier of the country, northern Nigeria is frequently differentiated as "the Muslim north."
Christians who live in the north say the characterization, while true overall (Christians make up just over 50 percent of Nigeria's 160 million people, the largest population in Africa, and most live in the south), dangerously misrepresents what's happening to them. The north's indigenous Christian population numbers well in the millions and is made up of converts from local tribal religions or Islam, yet unlike southern Nigerians most live under Muslim-dominated state governments that have since 2000 adopted Sharia law.
In those 12 states authorities prohibit Christians from holding office, discriminate against them in property and business activities, and subject them to Islamic law. Some districts in Kano state have Christian majorities, but district governments are run under the state's Sharia system. That makes Christians subject to the Islamic court system and requires students to take Islamic courses. In some areas I visited, Christian women wear hijab (Muslim head coverings) in public.
Most disturbing: Since Sharia law went into effect in northern Nigeria, over 13,000 mostly Christian Nigerians have been killed in religious-related violence, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Two thousand of those deaths, according to Open Doors, took place in 2011.
"Boko Haram is not doing anything new," said Peter Akinola, the retired archbishop of the Anglican Church of Nigeria. "More than terror attacks, this is part of an ongoing attempt to Islamicize Nigeria. This country began as a democracy, but now in my own country I cannot live freely."
Akinola held church offices in the north for decades before becoming archbishop of the area in 1998 then of all Nigeria in 2000, leading a church of 37 million at a time when it was considered the fastest-growing church in the world-and when the wave of violence from Muslim militants began. "Nigerians have lost count of the number of religiously induced but senseless bombings that have taken scores of lives-not only in Kano, but in Gombe, Maiduguri, Damaturu, Abuja, and elsewhere," he said.
South of Kano the cityscape rapidly turns to brown farmland and workers in silhouette stack millet into tall circular stacks. It's the dry season, time for harvest, and the grain will feed cattle, goats, and guinea fowl that free-range the cut fields. The road crosses from Kano to Bauchi state-also a wholly Sharia state-and in Ganjuwa a police station sits by the side of the highway, empty and blackened. Boko Haram gunmen bombed the station on Dec. 9 last year. It was late at night and one policeman inside escaped.
Stopping at a church in Bauchi City, pastor Muhamed Dan'Amariya recounts the recent damage from Muslims who rioted against Christians following last April's election of President Goodluck Jonathan: "Thirteen churches here were attacked and many homes burned, five Igbo Christians were killed and eight members of the National Youth Service Corps [a Christian ministry group]. A policewoman was beheaded and the killers put her head on her chest. Further north two church women-both Bible study and fellowship leaders-were killed. And in eastern Bauchi ..." he pauses, "... none were spared. There is no church left standing. All Christian homes, all Christian shops ... destroyed."
In all, Muslim attackers destroyed 92 churches, 104 houses, and 54 businesses in Bauchi state in April 2011. They killed 30 Christians and injured 69, according to the Stefanos Foundation, a research group. The attackers, Dan'Amariya said, included local "fanatics and terrorists" and members of Boko Haram: "They used the excuse of a Christian president elected, but they were looking for excuses."
In June, Boko Haram set ablaze police stations and looted banks in Bauchi. And two days after the January attacks in Kano, the terrorists struck two churches in the town of Tafawa Balewa (ECWA Church No. 2 and a Church of Christ in Nigeria church), leaving at least seven Christians dead. Sporadic attacks on Christian farms and houses killed 10 others that month.
In a refrain I would hear from other pastors in the five northern states I visited, Dan'Amariya said government officials have refused to grant permission to rebuild the damaged properties and have not come through with agreed-upon compensation for victims: "The state government says it is the responsibility of the federal government since the violence occurred over national elections," he said.
Christians throughout the Sharia states in the north faced post-election violence. In Kaduna state, Muslims destroyed 409 churches and over 2,000 homes, killing 137. In Gombe state, they destroyed 39 churches and 74 homes, killing 20.
In Katsina state, attacks took church leaders by surprise: "Until April last year we had no serious problems with the Muslims, only with the government," said one. Another: "This has never happened, and it took the churches unaware. Like an amateur I took my video camera to see what was happening, with no idea how deadly it would be."
Nearly all the pastors I spoke with are first- or second-generation Christians from the leading tribes in the region, the Fulani and the Hausa. Both tribes are majority Muslim but the majority of Christians also come from those tribes. One told me his village is "50/50 Christian and Muslim" yet all must follow Sharia law: "We don't have any other town than this one. We are part of the place, and we don't have anywhere to run to."
As election results came last April, young Muslim men in Katsina poured over the walls into church compounds, using propane and gasoline to set fire to church buildings and vehicles. The church leaders I met in the towns of Malumfashi and Funtua presented me with a detailed, printed, and signed assessment of the damages: churches from 16 different denominations burned or vandalized, and most destroyed; 22 houses destroyed and 23 families displaced; 13 businesses and one medical clinic burned; 25 cars, 36 motorcycles, and six bicycles burned and destroyed. The attackers killed seven in Katsina and injured six.
The rampage lasted only several hours but destroyed property that took decades to accumulate. Gone from the ECWA church compound in Malumfashi were the church, classrooms, offices, pastors' residences, and all material documenting the history of the church, including its 1936 certificate of occupancy. Members now meet in the original church, a low-slung colonial building with a tin roof they had converted to a Sunday school hall.
In Funtua, 30 miles south of Malumfashi, 29 of the city's 35 churches "burnt to ashes," said resident and church member Mezadu J. Dandada. They include an Anglican church with 2,700 members that today sits open to the elements, and a Catholic church where over 500 still walk over shattered glass to attend services under a repaired roof ("Many of our parishioners have left," church council chairman Sira Chukwu told me).
Funtua, with a population of about 225,000, gained international notoriety as the family home of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 25-year-old "underwear bomber" who tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. Abdulmutallab grew up in nearby Kaduna state and attended Islamic school before moving to Kenya with his banker father, and going to high school in Togo.
At Funtua's Deeper Life Bible Church, pastor Aaron Reuben Kajang said he suspects that Boko Haram organized and participated in the attacks: "They said all Christians must leave, they even were sending text messages to some of our phones three days before the attacks, and many people did leave the town."
Gangs torched Deeper Life, along with many nearby homes and shops belonging to members of the church. Three children of one family at Deeper Life died, their charred bodies discovered inside their burned-out home. "The parents have fled, they have gone east," said Kajang, "but they are in a desperate situation financially. They have lost everything."
Kajang's church meets on the concrete slab of the burned-down site, in rescued chairs set up beneath a green tarpaulin. "We have 50 to 80 adults coming now and 10 to 20 children," he said. "Before we had more than 500."
The road climbs south to enter Plateau state and a cloudless sky does battle with the Harmattan, the dry season trade winds that blow into persistent dust storms in West Africa. Through the red haze swim the bright burqas of Muslim women on their way to market, but crosses dangle from car rearview mirrors and Scriptures adorn school buildings. Plateau is a mostly Christian state in Nigeria's Middle Belt-an imprecise designation of about 10 interior states south of Katsina and Kano whose makeup is a mix of ethnic and religious groups.
Jos, Plateau's state capital, has long been a hotbed for religious violence. In 2008 a Muslim-led riot killed 300, displaced 7,000, and destroyed many businesses, churches, mosques, and homes. In 2010 rioters killed an estimated 500 mostly Christians in Jos and nearby villages, hacking them to death with machetes or burning them.
In 2011 a steady toll of attacks continued: At least 37 separate attacks by Muslims on Christians in 2011 resulted in over 100 deaths in Jos, according to Stefanos Foundation.
Sources told me to consider Jos "a safe haven" in 2012 compared to Kano, but the tension between Christians and Muslims, who would like to enact Sharia law in Plateau state, for now is only tamped down.
Mark Lipdo, director of the Stefanos Foundation, is working to keep eyewitness logs of the attacks-in part because he sees Western media and human-rights activists using secondhand information that's misleading: "They have misrepresented violence as a clash when it was an outright attack from the Muslim minority."
Lipdo himself was on hand in 2010 when Muslims gangs raided three predominantly Christian villages near Jos on March 7, slaughtering hundreds of mostly women, children, and the elderly. He saw another village attacked 10 days later where Muslim gangs killed at least a dozen people and burned at least 15 homes.
The New York Times on March 8 reported the attacks as "in reprisal" for earlier attacks that killed 150 Muslims. Human Rights Watch also reported on March 8 that the attacks "appeared to be in retaliation for previous attacks against Muslim communities in the area and the theft of cattle." Both reports were datelined Dakar, Senegal, and cited "officials" as sources. Lipdo says those officials were Muslim commanders, police, and civil servants in the area. "We were there when the whole conflict started. We saw a Muslim military commander release people caught carrying out the attacks with their weapons. Where Muslims were outnumbered, Christians were portrayed as killing Muslims, but this is not what was happening."
Neither the news outlets nor the officials were able to provide eyewitness accounts of the attacks that killed 150 Muslims. But the photos of mass graves bearing hundreds of Christians were real. Local media reported police on the scene who did nothing to stop the Muslim attackers.
"There were military men in uniform, who were marching in front, and they were shooting, scaring people while Fulani men carrying machetes and clubs and axes were following them behind," one villager told the Daily Champion, asking that his name not be published. Another, whose wife and two children Muslims killed in the attack, said, "As they were killing and burning our homes, they were chanting 'Allahu Akbar,' meaning 'God is great.'"
Lipdo acknowledges that Christians have retaliated for attacks with violence, just not to the level overseas media and government reports imply. And few organizations have investigated the government's lack of prosecution or aid to victims.
The reporting slant shows up in U.S. policy, as well. The 2011 report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) describes "sectarian violence" in Nigeria driven by "religiously motivated actions" without ever saying that the overwhelming number of deaths involve Christians. Last year USAID awarded a five-year, non-competitive contract of $4.5 million to the Interfaith Mediation Center in Kaduna "to provide conflict mitigation and management assistance in northern and middle belt Nigerian states."
Yet Plateau and Kaduna are the only Nigerian states where "Christians have defended themselves against attacks," according to U.S.-based Nigerian human-rights lawyer Emmanuel Ogebe.
"This is because though Plateau is predominantly Christian and is viewed as the Christian capital of the northern 'Bible Belt,' it is facing strident challenges from a burgeoning occupationist and expansionist thrust," Ogebe said. "Kaduna is also balkanized along Muslim-Christian lines and is the state with largest Christian population that was forced to impose Sharia law. Because of the controversy and crisis that trailed this action, thousands were killed then and everyone is on the defensive."
The failure of the United States and other Western governments to name Muslims as the overwhelming perpetrators of violence has given them "a free ticket" to continue attacks with impunity, said Ogebe.
Yet with the added threat of Boko Haram, Lipdo believes security in Jos for now is improving. That's because protection since Jan. 20 has come from a joint national army and police force that includes Christians from the south along with northerners.
An al-Qaeda-linked menace, though, means "things will get worse before they get better," said Lipdo. "But the best thing that has happened to us is Boko Haram. Now the world knows, because Boko Haram has come out claiming it clearly, that terrorists exist in Nigeria. This we in the north have known all along."