analysisBy Ernest Chicho
In 2009, when Nigeria's armed forces began battling against the radical Islamists of a movement called Boko Haram, some 700 people died in the northeastern part of the country. Yet many Nigerian immigrants in New York, following the situation from afar, felt certain the militants would be defeated and calm restored.
"Boko Haram fighters were simply poor, uneducated, hungry and frustrated Nigerians," said Abbas Badiru, 51, a Nigerian immigrant who lives in Canarsie, "All the government needed to do was disarm, educate and provide the young people in the area with jobs to feed their families."
Three years later, the violence between Boko Haram and government forces, and the attacks by Boko Haram followers on Nigerian Christians have not subsided at all. The group's death toll is more than 1,000, and Nigeria has become known internationally as one of the world's harbours for terrorists.
Many Nigerians in New York, as a result, have found that even halfway around the world they feel negatively affected by the terrorist group's escalating violence.
"Why kill Christians?" Said Olu Amure, 36, who attends Redeemed Christian Church of God, a Nigerian church in Canarsie. "I don't think they even have the right to kill anyone, no matter the religion." Amure continued, "I live in New York and it's very difficult for me to sometimes deal with curious Americans who want to know whether I am a Muslim or if I know anyone who is a member of Boko Haram. That's not a nice position to be in."
John Oguleye, a 19-year-old Brooklyn College student, made a similar point in a recent interview. "Everyone follows these things on the news and students talk about it a lot in school," he said. "I feel very uncomfortable each time the topic is raised because it has to do with my country."
53-year-old Ola Awobajo, a Nigerian businesswoman in Canarsie who deals in beauty products, said her business partners are beginning to think twice before making trips to Nigeria.
"Folks with whom you normally do business now ask you if you think it's a good idea for them to travel to Nigeria," she said. "They worry about their safety because you never know where and when those terrorists might decide to bomb a car, plane, or building. That's a big problem to me."
Badiru, who migrated to New York 20 years ago, recounted how an American Jehovah's Witness Christian once reacted upon realizing that he was a Nigerian Muslim.
"The guy said, 'So you are a Nigerian and a Muslim,'" said Badiru. "The Jehovah Witness even talked about me to other folks in the coffee shop where he worked, and there was this look on their faces that made me think I was at the wrong place,"
Badiru, a member of the Canarsie Islamic Center in Brooklyn, was not surprised by the tense encounter, because it came just a few months after Boko Haram launched its terrorist activities against Christian Nigerians in 2010. He wondered, however, why people treated him with suspicion simply because fellow Nigerian Muslims had committed acts of violence.
Founded in 2002 by Mohammed Yusuf, a Muslim cleric, the jihadist group takes its name from a phrase in the Hausa language meaning, "Western Education is sinful." Boko Haram seeks to establish Sharia law in the country and has been attacking Christians and bombing churches. It is said to have caused the killing of more than 600 Nigerians so far in 2012. The United States government recently labeled three of the organization's leaders as "Special Designated Global Terrorists."
Ade Oluwo, one of the founders of the Nigerian American Muslim Integrated Community in Brooklyn said that the violence abroad has not harmed relations between Nigerians in New York. In February 2011, the Nigerian Imams' Council in New York issued a statement condemning the activities of Boko Haram.
"I am a Muslim with many family members and friends who are Christians," Oluwo said. "We always invite them to our religious events and they invite us to theirs, too. Nothing has changed."
Grace Akpan, 40, of the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Canarsie said," It is simply the devil's strategy to push people out of the church by instilling fear and the spirit of vengeance in them. But as Christians, our fight is spiritual, not physical. We are praying for them and for all Nigerians."
The government of Nigeria has appointed a man from the largely Muslim northern part of the country, Sambo Dasuki, as new security adviser. Dasuki recently expressed optimism that a cease-fire between the government and Boko Haram could restore calm in the northern city of Maiduguri, where many residents have fled their homes as a result of clashes between Boko Haram militants and government forces. Addressing the nation on June 24,2012, President Goodluck Jonathan said Boko Haram was simply out to destabilize the government by inciting religious violence. He, however, encouraged Boko Haram leaders to come forward for dialogue.
Many New York-based Nigerians interviewed by this reporter, expressed fears that the violence might escalate into a religious war if Boko Haram is not stopped. Badiru said that something bold needs to be done, even if it means that the United States government should intervene.
David Omowanile, 33, does not agree with Badiru.
"Nigeria is an oil-producing nation and my fear is the United States tends to play the peacemaker only in oil rich nations, as was the case in Iraq and Libya,"Omowanile said. "I fear for my country each time someone mentions the possibility of the United States intervening to stop Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria. There's always a hidden agenda. They might come in, kill innocent people and take out our oil for free."