President of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria, Joel Billi, talks to HINDI LIVINUS about the execution of Rev Lawan Andimi, threats of Boko Haram, among other issues
*How did you feel when you received the news of the disappearance of Rev Lawan Andimi after the attacks of January 2, 2020 in Michika, Adamawa State?*
Lawan Andimi was not only a member of the Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria family; he was one of the very senior pastors of the church. He served as the District Church Council Secretary, Abuja Division, before his transfer to Michika. At the time of his abduction by Boko Haram insurgents, he was the DCC Secretary of Michika and Christian Association of Nigeria Chairman, Michika Local Government Area. When I received the news of his abduction, I was shocked beyond description. Though as of the time, news that came said some gunmen had invaded Michika but fled because of the intervention of the military. But after 24 hours, concerns were raised because he was still nowhere to be found. Since his disappearance, the entire church has been devastated. I was seriously devastated and downcast for some days. Each time anyone called, I would just burst into tears. I later travelled to Yola. On the third day, I came back and that was when I became stable and started recuperating.
*Did you ever imagine that his captors would kill him?*
Certainly not; they gave us high hopes. We were discussing with the Department of State Services and they were giving us assurances. They said it had never happened that Boko Haram would call security agencies. They said from all indications, there was hope. With that, we started negotiating the ransom to be paid. We started with N10m; then later N20m, N40m before getting to N50m. The initial ransom they demanded was €2m (about N800m). By their own conversion, they said it was N1bn but by our own conversion it was N800m.
We started negotiating with them. They called with different numbers and would refer us to Governor Amadu Fintiri; President, Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.); and CAN.
They told us they knew EYN more than we did and that we could easily raise the money. They claimed we had been receiving money from the government. But we told them we had never received a dime from the government. They said if indeed we had never received a dime from the government, we should embark on a protest. They even claimed they were watching the television, reading news on Facebook and Nigerian dailies and that if we lied to them, we were going to face their wrath.
We pleaded with them but they were just adamant. We thought with our entreaties and the money we agreed to give them, they would collect the money from us. We concentrated our prayer towards the person that would take the ransom because of the hope they gave us.
We, therefore, shifted our prayers for the person who would go and give them the ransom so that at the point of giving them the ransom, they would not grab that person and see them as another big catch.
*Was the church negotiating alone or with the involvement of the government or security agencies* ?
Government has never been involved except Governor Ahmadu Fintiri, who has been sympathetic to us. He always urged us to keep him in the know and to inform him when negotiations were concluded. But even that was on personal grounds. Security agencies like the DSS were guiding us on what to do and where we should not cross. Initially the security agencies said we should not go beyond N25m, but the government was never involved.
**Was the church able to make provision for the N50m it hoped to offer as ransom for Andimi’s release before his execution?*
The N50m was ready. We were only awaiting their (Boko Haram’s) call for them to tell us to bring the money but that did not happen.
*If their call didn’t come, was the line of communication still open since they had hinted you about the possibility of his execution?*
Some lines of communication were still there. Ummi (a female negotiator, who came at the later end of the negotiations) was still there. Also, two or three other lines were still on. We were advised to contact her (Ummi) and she mentioned one Alhaji and advised us to call the Alhaji. I have forgotten the Alhaji’s name
*_*Did you get directive on where to deposit the money or you never got to that level in the negotiations?_**
No, we didn’t get to that point. We were waiting to hear that. That was the reason we were praying that the person we would ask to go should not be captured. Although I started entertaining that fear and expressed that fear in my conversations with the security agencies, they, however, said we should not worry because they would ensure that the life of the courier of the ransom would not be at risk.
*Supposedly, negotiations were still ongoing. How then did the news of his execution get to you?*
Ahmad Salkida (a journalist), whom I knew as a boy when I was a pastor in Biu, called me to inform me. He said Andimi had been gruesomely executed. He said he would have given me the videos but would instead send me the photos. He said because the videos were very gory and disturbing, he wouldn’t want his widow to see them.
*When was this?*
It was on a Monday. He had said, “Baba, the video is so horrible – it will make people suffer trauma.” He decided to withhold the video but gave us the still photos. He suggested we break the news to his wife. I mobilised staff members at the headquarters, including the vice-president and some directors, and we quickly went to Michika. That was around 5:30pm. She had been to the headquarters the previous day; we met her about to feed the animals and we broke the news to her – that they had beheaded her husband. She started weeping. That weeping aroused the presence of other neighbors.
Without doubt, churches in Nigeria are facing persecution. But the worst hit church is the EYN. Out of the 267 Chibok girls, 219 are EYN members and many of these girls are still in Sambisa Forest. We have a cleric, Rev Yahi, who has been in Boko Haram captivity for the last five years following his abduction by the insurgents on his way back from the wedding of one of his sons.
Our churches have been burnt in their thousands and we have lost many lives. On Mandra ground on Christmas Eve, 18 young people were abducted in a village on the outskirts of Biu. Only two of them were adults – the rest of them were between ages two and seven. There are communities on the outskirts of Lassa, Mousadile, Musafu, Bagajo which once thrived but are no longer in existence now because of the activities of Islamists. The church is suffering a great deal. We have lost our members and thousands of churches have been destroyed.
**Recently, the US released a report putting Nigeria on the list of religious intolerant countries, but some sections have dismissed it. Is this assessment of the US wrong?*
The United States assessment is exactly the truth. If Nigeria is not on the list of religious intolerant nations where terrorist groups are terrorising citizens, and the government through the instrumentality of state institutions are marginalising other religious groups, then which nation should be on that list? We are happy that the US under President Donald Trump has boldly come out to say the truth as it is. But out of sheer hypocrisy, the Nigerian government and other groups are coming out to dismiss it. This shows the West is finally coming to understand the plight faced by Christians in Nigeria.
The Boko Haram war is now entering its 11th year while the government claims it is dealing with only pockets of insurgents even though the war is still far from being won. As we speak now, Boko Haram has enlarged its territories and you can’t enter Maiduguri from any direction, whether it is from Dikwa, Monguno, Damaturu, Bunu Yadi, or Gashua. I have been forced to issue a directive to all our district secretaries in Maiduguri axis not to travel to the headquarters based on the unfortunate reports I have been receiving of abduction of Christians who are been segregated by Boko Haram at their checkpoints and then taken to Sambisa Forest.
*What advice do you have for the President, Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.)?*
My call to the President, Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), is to stop deceiving Nigerians. Boko Haram has intensified their efforts – they have gained more momentum and carrying out more harm against Nigerians than before. He should stop deceiving Nigerians that the military is making remarkable progress in the fight against the insurgents and that Boko Haram is being defeated.
He should buckle down because nothing has changed. He’s being mocked because Boko Haram is now expanding its territories and pushing the people farther off.
*_You talked about the EYN being the worst hit by Boko Haram terrorists?_*
Yes, we are the worst hit church. Out of the 267 Chibok girls, 219 are our members and yet there are still 112 of the girls still missing. We are not giving up. They may kill some of us and some of us will be left. We are looking forward to meeting with Buhari; we hope to tell him the naked truth.
What do you think about the fact that one of the Dapchi girls abducted by Boko Haram, Leah Sharibu, has not been released?
We want her to be released; all our call has been falling on deaf ears. Christians will have to rise up to say enough is enough. When talking about the recent beheading of Andimi, Christians must have to rise up and make a statement. We have been avoiding violence, not for fear but because we are patriotic citizens.
Christianity is all about peace. We are not going to be violent but we will soon come out to make a strong statement; to know that we have been around and let the Western world know what we are going through. Part of this will be through calls to have Christians hold rallies from their wards to the national level. They will march peacefully to protest against their marginalisation and persecution. Though we recognise that not all Muslims share the ideology of Boko Haram, the sect’s war is a religious war and an Islamic agenda by the Islamic world.