Plans are progressing for a relief effort responding to the violence in northeastern Nigeria, in cooperation with Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria) and the Church of the Brethren’s Global Mission and Service and Brethren Disaster Ministries.
This follows on a resolution on Nigeria adopted by the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference in July stating, in part: “We further resolve to partner with EYN and ecumenical international relief and development agencies to offer support as requested and directed by the leadership of the Nigerian Brethren.”
Global Mission and Service executive director Jay Wittmeyer and associate executive director Roy Winter of Brethren Disaster Ministries visited Nigeria earlier this month and met with EYN leaders to begin the planning. The meeting also considered needs for crisis management for EYN as well as security assessment and civil defense for EYN congregations and members.
“Just the fact that they were starting to move to an organized plan was extremely helpful to their own wellbeing,” Winter said in an interview he and Wittmeyer gave to Newsline on their return to the US. He warned that the plan is in the formative stages, and a lot of work must yet be done before a full relief effort is underway. “We can’t do much until we do a good assessment,” he said. “That’s got to be one of the first things” after EYN identifies leadership for the effort and hires staff to carry it out.
Winter said he anticipates a similar level of involvement in Nigeria as Brethren Disaster Ministries took on following the massive earthquake that devastated Haiti in early 2010, which resulted in a large disaster relief and rebuilding program and significant cooperation with the Haitian Brethren.
In recent years, EYN and its members have suffered innumerable losses at the hands of the Boko Haram insurgent group, including hundreds of murders, village massacres, the destruction of churches and homes and businesses, and abductions including the schoolgirls kidnapped from Chibok and the abduction of pastors and their families, among other atrocities. The United Nations says 650,000 people have fled their homes because of Boko Haram fighting, according to a recent Voice of America report.
Among the displaced are 45,000 EYN members, according to reporting from EYN staff. The displaced church members have been seeking refuge in other communities or with extended family in other areas of Nigeria, or have fled across the border to Cameroon.
Boko Haram, which translates as “Western education is forbidden,” is an extremist Islamist group that has turned to terror tactics in a fight for a “pure Islamic state” and the imposition of Sharia law in northeastern Nigeria.
A call to be the church in Nigeria
A highlight of the meeting between EYN leaders, Wittmeyer, and Winter was the setting of priorities for a response, and the decision to regard the effort in terms of spiritual discernment. “Discerning the call to be the church in Nigeria today” was a key component of the planning process, Winter said.
The meeting with top EYN staff included president Samuel Dante Dali, general secretary Jinatu Wamdeo, and leaders of church departments crucial to the relief effort and crisis management: the Relief Committee, the ZME Women’s Fellowship, the Peace Program, and the staff liaison to the Church of the Brethren in the US, among others.
Six priorities were set:
— work with internally displaced people,
— development of a risk management/security plan to help mitigate the effects of violence on Brethren congregations,
— growth of the EYN Peace Program,
— pastoral care and trauma healing and resiliency programs,
— training of youth to deal with the situation,
— work with refugees across the border in Cameroon.
Winter helped facilitate the meeting, which in addition to identifying needs and priorities laid out an agenda for strategic planning and crisis management, and talked about how to get started, and who is assigned to these tasks.
The Nigerian Brethren leaders provided background information and updates, including a history of the crisis and an analysis of the extremist Islamist focus on northeastern Nigeria. They reviewed latest statistics, which revealed significant increases in the impact of the violence on EYN.
Violence increasingly affects EYN
“Some of those statistics were startling to me,” Winter said. For example, he reported that EYN has now closed 7 of its 51 church districts–two more than the 5 districts that had been closed as of the start of the summer. Parts of other districts also are being abandoned. The districts are closing because their areas are being overrun by the insurgents or are becoming too violent and dangerous.
Winter was struck by what this means in terms of financial impact on the Nigerian church and its leaders. The loss of whole districts means less support for ongoing church program, even as EYN tries to mount a new relief effort. It also means loss of a living for numerous pastors and their families.
Celebrating EYN’s capacity to respond
During the meeting, Wittmeyer and Winter said the group took time to celebrate the remarkable accomplishments of EYN in the midst of such difficulties, and the capacity of the Nigerian Brethren. EYN’s strong administrative structure, with districts that hold regular meetings and communication between denomination and district leaders, lends itself to effective response in crisis.
For example, the general secretary has been contacting districts to get an accounting of what each is doing in the way of aid for those affected by violence. In another example, EYN staff have been sending out information about the Ebola epidemic and how to recognize symptoms and prevent spread of the deadly virus.
“We have to talk about Ebola within the current crisis, which is so frightening,” Winter commented.
In the historical background offered by the EYN leaders, Wittmeyer said he was impressed by the level of geopolitical analysis. EYN leaders trace the rise of Boko Haram back to pre-colonial empires–Fulani Empire and Borno Empire–that once ruled much of West Africa, and the Fulani/Hausa Caliphate that controlled the northeast of Nigeria before the creation of an independent, democratic nation.
They characterized Boko Haram as not unique in the world, Wittmeyer said, reporting that they placed Boko Haram among other violent factions who are actors in a global conflict playing itself out between different Muslim groups in various areas of the world.
One hope the EYN leaders hold to is that more Muslims will be open to cooperative work toward peace with Christians, as Boko Haram increasingly targets moderate Muslims and traditional community leaders, Wittmeyer said.
The refugee situation
Wittmeyer and Winter also visited refugee camps with EYN staff, to see first-hand some of the living conditions of those who have fled the violence. They visited camps outside of the capital city Abuja. One camp they visited houses more than 550 people, mainly from the Gwoza area which has been overrun by Boko Haram and now is under insurgent control.
In his follow up notes to the visit, EYN staff liaison Jauro Markus Gamache listed some key concerns about the situation of refugee families: diseases like malaria and typhoid and the related need for good toilet facilities, proper medical care for pregnant women, food needs in the refugee camps and malnutrition of some children, widows who are being marginalized and orphans who are not receiving care, problems associated with lack of protected sleeping spaces, lack of shade in a hot season of the year, and the need to purchase land for the camps both for living space and for farming.
“There is tremendous increase in the [refugee] population and need for food and house rent is highly our priority,” he wrote.
His list bemoaned the disappearance of family members who are presumed to have gone into hiding, and the fact that some surrounding areas will not accept refugees because they fear retaliatory attacks by Boko Haram. He wrote as well that Muslims who are not affiliated with the insurgents are increasingly suffering from the violence.
The document also noted the activity of other Christian groups becoming active in camps where most of the people are EYN members.
Next steps in the response start with refinement of the priorities, in communication with the EYN staff liaison, Winter said.
On the financial side, he and Wittmeyer will take on the task of clarifying what portions of the response are best covered by the EYN Compassion Fund, and which will be covered through grants from the Church of the Brethren’s Emergency Disaster Fund (EDF).
EYN plans to hire several staff for the relief effort, with some financial support from the American church, Wittmeyer said, adding that the new staff may include some of the pastors who have lost their churches.
How to help
There are three ways to contribute to the relief effort in Nigeria:
Donate to the Emergency Disaster Fund (EDF) at www.brethren.org/edf or by mailing a check to Emergency Disaster Fund, Church of the Brethren, 1451 Dundee Ave., Elgin, IL 60120, note “EDF Nigeria” in the memo line.
Donate to the Global Mission and Service program in Nigeria at https://secure2.convio.net/cob/site/Donation2?df_id=1660&1660.donation=form1 or by mailing a check to Church of the Brethren, 1451 Dundee Ave., Elgin, IL 60120, note “Global Mission Nigeria” in the memo line.
Donate to the EYN Compassion Fund at www.brethren.org/eyncompassion or by mailing a check care of the Church of the Brethren, 1451 Dundee Ave., Elgin, IL 60120, note “EYN Compassion Fund” in the memo line.