Support for the Nigerian Islamist extremist group Boko Haram is a reaction to Western-backed corruption, colonial-era intervention and weak Nigerian leadership, a Catholic archbishop has said.

Archbishop Matthew Kukah of Sokoto in north-western Nigeria told World Watch Monitor that sympathy for the extremist group in northern Nigeria’s majority-Muslim states was fuelled by anger at the “endemic corruption [in the political system], which is part and parcel of the business being conducted by multinationals in Europe and America”. The group has gained notoriety for kidnapping young girls and carrying out massacres and suicide bombings, often on government and Christian targets. “Boko Haram” means “Western education is forbidden.” Its reign of violence has displaced around 1.8 million Muslims and Christians.

Boko Haram has spread fear in northern Nigeria through targeting market places as well as churches. Photo: Creative Commons

Earlier this year the oil giant Shell admitted it had dealt with a convicted money-launderer, Dan Etete, when negotiating access to a vast oil field in Nigeria. And in 2010 the anti-corruption watchdog Global Witness reported that five British high-street banks had accepted millions of pounds in deposits from corrupt Nigerian politicians, which, while not illegal, is believed to have fuelled corruption in Nigeria.

The archbishop was speaking a day after addressing British parliamentarians in the House of Lords at the launch of a report into the persecution of Christians published by the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. In his talk he said the 1903 defeat of the Sokoto caliphate during colonial rule contributed to some Muslims’ rejection of the modern Nigerian state.

Archbishop Kukah has founded a centre for interfaith dialogue

In his interview with World Watch Monitor, the archbishop, who runs a centre that promotes dialogue between Christian and Muslims, and between faith leaders and politicians, said: “Most of what you call conflict in Africa is tied to the deprivation and frustration felt by ordinary people… People are reacting to situations out of desperation.”

“If we had the resources to provide public services for our people, we would not be having the violence we’re having now,” he added.

However, he said that Muslim elites in the north of the country were failing to challenge anti-Christian prejudice and a “suspicion of Western education”, which had become equated with Christianity and expressed itself in hostility to the local Christian populations.

“The elite know better, because some of the people who are making the loudest noises, their children are in convent schools without any problems at all; they know what is good for them,” he said. But he suggested that the region’s Muslim leaders “lack the serious commitment to education”, adding: “It is the Muslims who have to persuade their own people, but most of them don’t have the political will.”

The archbishop said it was not helpful to buy into a ‘victim narrative’ when understanding attacks on Christians by Boko Haram in the north and Fulani herdsmen in some of Nigeria’s central states. “There’s nothing inevitable about conflict between Christians and Muslims; ninety per cent of ordinary Muslims and Christians are working together on the issues of survival; they are in the market together, doing business together,” he said.

Asked what motivated Fulani herdsmen to attack Christian villages, he said the pattern of attacking Christians “has led to the conclusion that there is a religious dimension”, but that some people believed they could be acting as “enforcers” for local government, who had shown “no seriousness” in addressing the issue. He ntoed that last year the Governor of Kaduna state, Nasir el-Rufai, had paid off some Fulanis to stop them carrying out the killings.

By contrast, the archbishop said the solution lay in strong government that “welds” people together through upholding the constitution and the rule of law.

In his address on Thursday, Archbishop Kukah cited soaring youth homelessness rates in the north, fuelled by polygamous families that produced more children than the parents could afford to feed. Young people, lacking in thorough education, were “cannon fodder to feed Boko Haram”, he said.