Leading EYN Through Its Most Difficult Time: An Interview with Samuel Dante Dali

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Samuel Dante Dali, president of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN–the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria) at the World Council of Churches 10th Assembly in Busan, Republic of Korea

Samuel Dante Dali, president of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN–the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria), attended the World Council of Churches 10th Assembly as delegate for the Nigerian Brethren. Here he talks about the increase of terrorist violence in northeast Nigeria where members of EYN have been among the many killed in attacks by extremist Islamists.

What is going on with EYN in Nigeria?

“We thought that the situation was getting better, when the government placed a state of emergency in three states. But recently terrorists mobilized especially in Yobe State, attacked churches, military offices, and police, and they also went to other parts of the country where most of our churches are. They attacked Christians from house to house and burned almost every church in the Gwoze and Gavva areas. Most of the EYN church is in these areas close to Cameroun. About 2,000 of our church members have fled to Cameroun as refugees.

“It makes us very worried that some government officials are part of this. The state government could have acted to provide security for the common citizen, especially when [the violence] becomes so intense. But it appears the government is not doing much about it.

“Since the government is not doing anything, people try to mobilize themselves to provide their own local security. Of course they are armless. [Terrorists] come with AK 47s and especially with machine guns. The people cannot face them, but what can they do? They can’t all run to Cameroun.

“We as a church are just praying, and praying. And sometimes we are very confused and depressed because there’s not much you can do. The church cannot mobilize and provide security. The resources aren’t there. And sometimes you can’t have a church service at all. Worship is out of the question in some places.”

How many EYN churches are affected?

“About 30 percent of the whole of EYN. Churches in Maiduguri for example, have a heavy military presence [for protection from terrorists]. The church pays for feeding the soldiers and pays their allowance. That’s how the churches can survive within this kind of situation and have their services on Sunday.”

We have seen news reports of local civilian forces for protection. How is that working?

“I went to Maiduguri, and I heard about the civilian Joint Task Force. I met some of them. They are very young people, some even five years old. With sticks and swords. They were checking every car that goes into Maiduguri. The idea was that some of those Joint Task Force were members of the terrorists before, so they know who the terrorists are. Whenever they find a terrorist, sometimes they beat them, sometimes they take them to security.

“It made me even more angry with our government. How can untrained civilians without arms become a security for the society? And after a few months the terrorists came and ambushed this civilian Joint Task Force and killed about 50 of them at once. So you see the danger.

“In the recent attack that happened, the armed men came from Cameroun, Niger, and Chad, and joined together with Nigerian terrorists to attack Maiduguri. The terrorists are not only Nigerians. They are from the neighboring countries. And of course from Mali. Most of them are trained in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. So it is a global problem.”

Where are they getting their guns and ammunition?

“That is another a big question because the arms are very sophisticated, even anti-aircraft guns. So how are they getting in? Some Nigerian politicians are part of the problem. They import guns for the terrorists and supply them. Recently there was one immigration control officer that was arrested, he was responsible for the terrorists in the Yobe area. If you can find an immigration officer who is part of the group, he is at the border controlling importation of weapons.

“Generally our problem is government politicians who are not interested in the life of the citizens. They are busy fighting one another, so they sponsor this kind of terrorist activities. They themselves do not understand it will get out of control and they will also be affected eventually.”

Is there a strong movement to have two separate states, northern Nigerian and southern Nigeria?

“Because of the tension that has been happening Nigerians have been calling for a national conference to discuss whether Nigeria should live together or separate. This is not going to be good for the country. If Nigeria splits, I think that’s the end of Nigerian society. Nigeria will get into a crisis that will affect the whole of Africa.

“The struggle of Nigeria is not against a foreign-dominated government like in South Sudan. It’s within, against each other. So if it splits, it will not split in two. You will have warlords in different sections of the country fighting one another. By the time the United Nations comes to pacify the situation, they will have killed themselves.”

Does the church have a role to play in the middle of all this?

“Before my recent trip to Indonesia, I thought the church could do nothing other than to develop itself. My thinking has been that we should forget that we have a government. Let us as the church do what we can do for our members within the capacity and the opportunity we have.

“So we are trying in EYN to develop our own schools, to develop our own health service, to promote our own agricultural activities. Even actually try to create a bank for ourselves.

“If the schools are getting bad, we can create a standard and our children will not lose their education. And then if we focus on agriculture, we can show our people how to develop whatever they can develop within their local community. And then with the health service, we may not need a government hospital. And the bank–most of our members send their money in a government bank which is mostly controlled by these politicians. So if we have our own bank, the church will save our own income within this bank so we can give it to our members to do their business, to improve themselves, and to empower themselves economically.

“But when I went to Indonesia, my mind began to change from a narrow focus to a wider focus for Nigeria.”

Say more about this conference in Indonesia.

“Myself and a pastor who is teaching about Islam at the Theological College of Northern Nigeria, a Muslim lady who is participating in an interfaith group with EYN, and the coordinator of the Peace Program of TEKAN [Christian council in northern Nigeria] went with the purpose of sharing our experience as Christians under Muslim persecution in Nigeria and also to hear from them as Christians in a Muslim predominant community.

“The first thing I discovered was that most of the interfaith and peace movement in Indonesia was supported and sponsored by Muslims. And most of the Muslims in Indonesia thought that a true Muslim would never force anyone to be converted to Islam. And that a true Muslim would never kill anybody. They also stress and emphasize diversity and pluralism as phenomena that must be recognized and respected.

“We visited Islamic schools, and in each of these they tried to organize a peaceful and interfaith dialogue with other communities. We went into the third biggest mosque in the world, built with contribution of Christians. And then there is a cathedral, also built with the contribution of Muslims. That gave me the impression that actually not all Muslims are fanatic mad people, the way we have them in Nigeria.”

There is hope that Muslims and Christians can live together in peace?

“Exactly. I am trying to talk about what Indonesia is doing, and trying it in Nigeria.

“For example, during elections we should only vote for people who are interested in peace and bringing the community together. And we should influence the media. We need to write, and speak ourselves, and talk to people, and give them an alternative view of what is happening.

“Even though the church is under persecution we can still focus on addressing some social problems regardless of tribe or religion, that can help the community. In the Christian hospital we visited in Indonesia, five percent of workers are Muslim. In Nigeria we can do something like that, recruit Muslims to work in some of our institutions. If we can get faithful, trained ones. But it will be an enormous challenge.

“That’s my new understanding: I think it’s possible that Christians and Muslims as a community can live together and address the common problems affecting all of us.”

What is one thing you want the church in the US to know about the church in Nigeria?

“That EYN is going through the most difficult time of its existence, and we don’t have a solution. For me, it almost made me resign from the work. People are being killed and I cannot do anything. I say, what is the point of my leadership? It is very difficult. Very, very difficult.

“Church members are taking refuge at Kulp Bible College. Sometimes providing food for them is difficult. EYN depends on offerings from members so when the members are terribly affected, the whole church is affected. Sources of income for the headquarters are gone. It is very painful to see members who have been sources of support to the church, and now they are homeless.

“I’m asking, what is the global church going to do about this global problem? The terrorists have a network. But does the church have a network to handle the problems of the world?

“I think we need to do something more than just a prayer. Of course, prayer is number one. But there’s something else needed to encourage one another. You cannot stop the situation completely but I think it’s important we come close to one another.

“I have received letters from the US, from church members. We compiled them and sent them to all the district church councils in the form of a big book so that the members can read it. The members feel that someone cares about them and someone is worried about their situation. You give them some comfort that they are not alone.”

In a follow up conversation, Dali shared at length and more personally about how the situation has affected him and his church. How can church leadership tell members not to try to defend their homes and families, he asked, expressing the struggle to face a virtually impossible situation and yet maintain a voice for peace.

He characterized the violent extremist Islamist movement as a demonic possession of the spirit of Islam. His greatest fear is that he and others in EYN may let the horrors of the situation push them into enmity, and that demon might possess them as well. There are times he has to stop listening to stories of suffering and death, to protect himself from being overtaken by hatred.

How can Brethren in the US help? No one from outside Nigeria can solve this problem for the Nigerians, Dali said, but US Brethren can help provide disaster relief for refugees and can visit and encourage the Nigerian Brethren with their presence. He requested the sending of volunteer medical personnel, doctors and midwives to work in the hospital EYN plans to develop.

He then asked something more difficult from the American church: in the midst of killing and death, he wants the Church of the Brethren to remind EYN of the need to focus on peace.

— Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford is director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren.

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