Few places are as deadly as central Nigeria. For years villages on the front line between Islam in the north and Christianity in the south have been victims of the fighting between Muslim militants and Christians determined to protect their lives and rights. Boko Haram, the extremist group linked to al-Qaeda, has been harassing the population for a decade, but has recently been overshadowed by more murderous attacks by ethnic Fulani cattle herders, who are linked to Islamists too.
Last year the Global Terrorism Index called the Fulani the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world, killing six times more people than Boko Haram. Some 6,000 people died in the first six months of 2018 and two million displaced people were forced to flee.
Archbishop Benjamin Kwashi lives in the middle of the conflict zone, in the city of Jos. A charismatic and influential figure, he has called on Christians to resist what he sees as virtual genocide by extremists trying to drive all non-Muslims out of northern Nigeria. He has paid a heavy price. Three times they have tried to kill him. His house has been burnt down. Many of his congregation have been murdered, raped or forced to flee. His wife, Gloria, was attacked while he was away, beaten and sexually assaulted in their house one night, partially blinded and left to die. She was found semi-conscious and survived.
“Each time it just makes me more determined to live my life to the full for Jesus. Whatever the gunmen do, when the suicide bombers do their worst, God’s message will always be, ‘I love you. I have given my Son for you. Turn to Him and live.’ Until my time is up, I will live each moment for the gospel,” the archbishop declared in a book just published on his turbulent time as a priest and bishop in a war zone.
Kwashi, who is an uncompromising figure, is now the general secretary of the Global Anglican Future Conference (Gafcon), the alliance of African and conservative Anglicans that has strongly resisted what it sees as decadence and debilitating liberalism among western Christians.
He took a tough line when he became a priest in Zara, a town that was first attacked in 1987 when the churches were set ablaze. He insisted that Christians should turn the other cheek. Seeking guidance from God by lying on the floor for two hours, he went out to a growing crowd bent on revenge and delivered a note that read: “Dear Christians, this letter is from me. The Lord says ‘Do nothing.’ ”
It was not a popular message. Kwashi also frequently antagonised his superiors as well as the Nigerian military dictatorship that he accused of favouring Muslims in the north. Regarded as a firebrand preacher and a “turbulent” priest, he saw the church as vacillating, weakened by corruption and cronyism and too influenced by the traditions and decisions of white missionaries from an earlier age. He sacked numerous officials, preached a fundamentalist gospel and challenged his bishop’s decision to send Nigerians to train for the priesthood abroad. “The pastors in England are killing the church. The number of churchgoers is steadily declining. So we will only be sending them to England to learn how to kill the church.”
On another occasion his anger erupted when, as principal of a training college, some of the students suggested they pray for the white missionaries who had left so much behind in England. “These white missionaries, they’ve got insurance, they’ve got mortgages. They’ve got furnished houses and a car,” he bellowed. “My salary is less than theirs, with a wife and two children I have no house. I’m sleeping on the floor with you. I have no insurance. I have nothing. Who is the missionary? I am my missionary here!”
He insisted the church should be involved always in practical social work. He and his wife turned their home into an orphanage and started a school that eventually educated 400 children — hoping the money would somehow be found (it was). He let children bring pets until they were practically running a zoo. And he waged a ceaseless campaign against what he saw as the superstitions of Nigerian society and persistent belief in witches and demons.
Jos was set ablaze in September 2001 — four days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Islamist extremists rampaged through the city and the police refused to intervene or protect the Christians. Kwashi, appointed archbishop there in 2008, is convinced the government would be happy to see Christians leave northern Nigeria. His views have hardened. No longer does he preach pacifism. “The farmers are unable to go to their farms. The Fulani destroy crops and steal cattle. There is no security and by refusing to intervene the government is brewing up trouble for the future,” he told The Times.
He is also disillusioned with what he sees as the pusillanimous response of western Christians. But although he made clear his distaste for the arguments of liberal Anglicans over gay marriage and other social issues, he said he had now “gone past arguments and bitterness” at Lambeth Palace conferences. What mattered, he said, was hunger, homelessness and the needs of a suffering population.
Kwashi has passionate supporters in the West who see his uncompromising evangelical faith as the only way forward for Anglicans. Baroness Cox said he and his colleagues “valiantly hold these front lines of faith and freedom”. The suffering in Nigeria was indescribable, she said in her introduction to his autobiography, and was “shamefully off the radar screen of contemporary media coverage.”
Paul Robinson, the head of Release International, said that in northern Nigeria Christians were severely persecuted for their faith. Kwashi once greeted fellow pastors saying, “Welcome, my dead brothers,” before adding: “In northern Nigeria we do not know if we will last this day, but, live or die, we do all we can to help people find joy in Christ.”