The House of God is meant to be a sanctuary where one goes to seek spiritual fulfilment in communion with other worshippers.
Beyond that, in many ways, it serves as an oasis of sorts, providing a buffer against all the troubles and uncertainties out there.
To have that sanctuary violated in a most reprehensible manner through mass killings as happened recently in a Catholic Church in Ondo State, Nigeria during mass, with the loss of at least 50 lives, is particularly bone-chilling.
Of course, whether these dastardly acts take place in a school, a train station, a town square, a mosque or a church, the devastating reality is that human life is lost.
But a religious house as a scene for such acts makes one wonder if anything is sacred anymore.
Unfortunately, Nigeria seems to be a hotbed of extremist violence, in many cases along the fault lines of the deadly cocktail of ethnicity and religion.
Whilst it is not yet clear who the perpetrators of the Ondo State massacre are, nor what their motive is, there is some considerable belief that this is the handiwork of an Islamic extremist group, given that the attack took place inside a church.
With the history and trajectory of violent mass attacks in Nigeria, this may not be a far-fetched guess.
Since 2009, the extremist group Boko Haram has carried out a regular string of attacks against Nigerian security forces and civilians in its determination to establish an Islamic caliphate, gaining international notoriety after kidnapping 276 Chibok schoolgirls in April 2014.
The Nigerian government appears to be on a permanent war footing with this and other extremist groups in the country, with varying degrees of success.
The concept of Northerners versus Southerners, Christians versus Muslims and Hausa-Fulani versus Igbo versus Yoruba in the context of over 400 languages and 250 ethnic groups has been a feature of Nigeria’s national life since the country’s colonial days, in many instances acquiesced to or exploited by the British colonial government because it served its purposes.
Throw in extreme poverty, particularly in the country’s oil-rich areas such as the Delta region, youth unemployment, a weak state and corruption on a grand scale, and you have a bubbling cauldron right there that threatens, particularly on the religious front, to spill beyond the country’s weak borders.
West African problem
To be fair, religious extremism in particular goes beyond Nigeria and is more of a West African problem, particularly in the Sahel region, with Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso facing these threats on a regular basis.
According to Mr Sampson Kwarkye, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), an African non-profit organisation with offices in South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia and Senegal, violent extremism is escalating in West Africa’s coastal states.
“This is terrifying for citizens but is just the tip of the insurgency iceberg. Under the surface lies a covert network that ensures terrorism continues in the region. Evidence is emerging that jihadists’ activities within and through coastal states are enabling them to fund, staff and run the logistics they need to thrive,” he writes.
He recounts further that on February 8 and 10 this year, Benin recorded its deadliest attacks yet when patrols in its W National
Park struck improvised explosive devices. Before that, a string of assaults in northern Benin between late November 2021 and January 2022 had led to several deaths.
Mr Kwarkye recounts that Togo suffered its first-ever attack when assailants raided a security post in the northern border village of Sanloaga on November 9, 2021.
Then, according to Togo’s Security and Civil Protection Minister, Yark Damehame, suspected militants ordered residents of Lalabiga village in the Savanes region to leave within 72 hours on February 19. In Côte d’Ivoire, at least 11 soldiers were killed or injured in multiple attacks in the first half of 2021.
Ghana is no island
In all of this, Ghana cannot, and must not, sit aloof, pretending that none of these incidents taking place elsewhere cannot occur here.
It is for this reason that the citizen awareness campaign dubbed ‘See Something, Say Something’ to encourage people to report suspicious acts of terrorism and launched by the Ministry of National Security is a step in the right direction.
The aim of this campaign, among other reasons, is to get citizens highly alert and report suspicious characters in the wake of terrorism threats suspected by security analysts.
Beyond this, in the medium to long term, we must as a nation begin to tackle with particular aggression some of the issues that lie at the root of extremist activities.
This includes working hard to maintain and promote the cordial relationship between the two main faiths in this country – Christianity and Islam. Ethnic cohesion is also critically important.
We should never take these for granted and must keep working hard at them. The State cannot afford to be weak and must come down hard on those who seek to sow dastardly seeds of ethnic/religious conflict, especially for political purposes.
Further, a restless, energetic, unemployed, frustrated and poor young person is more likely to be successfully recruited into extremist behaviour, especially when he is convinced he has nothing to lose. The threat to national security of youth unemployment is blindingly obvious, and clear, purposive steps to address this should be a top priority.
Whilst government programmes such as NaBCO have played their role in addressing the problem, and the National Entrepreneurship & Innovation Programme (NEIP), under the leadership of my friend, Mr Kofi Ofosu, is rolling out some exciting, innovative programmes for young people, a great deal more needs to be done to create more opportunities for our youth and ultimately, build a more equitable society.
No silo mentality
In dealing with the risk of extremist behaviour, West African states cannot afford to work in silos, as this is a cross-border affair, particularly in the context of our porous borders.
As Mr Kwarkye advises, “dealing with the root causes of violent extremism, managing the security challenges and anticipating next steps require joint efforts at regional and global levels.
“Some external technical assistance, financial support and experience sharing are needed, but West African countries shouldn’t over-rely on outside support.
“They must retain their political leadership and ownership of initiatives”.
We can and shall overcome. We have no other choice.