In 1940 two Irish Augustinian, John Berchmans Power and Patrick Dalton, and an English Augustinian, Gabriel Broder, went to Yola in the northeastern province of Adamawa, Nigeria. They learned the Fulani and Hausa languages and began their mission. Since 1940, about 123 Irish Augustinians have ministered in Nigeria. Some remained for a year or two, and others for over forty years.
In July 1950 a new milestone was passed in the history of the Nigerian Mission with the establishment of the Apostolic Prefecture of Yola. On July 2, 1962, it was promoted as the new Diocese of Yola with Bishop Patrick Joseph Dalton, O.S.A. as its first bishop. In 1966, the Diocese of Maiduguri was erected with Dr Timothy Kieran Cotter OSA as its first bishop. Since then, a total of four Irish Augustinians have been consecrated bishops of Yola and Maiduguri.
The Irish Provincial Chapter of 1974 established Saint Augustine’s Seminary at Jos, Nigeria for the education of indigenous students for the priesthood.
In 1977 Nigeria was established as a vice-province. In 1995 the Diocese of Jalingo was created from a part of the Diocese of Yola. The first bishop was Ignatius Kaigama, a Nigerian who from his earliest years was educated by the Augustinians. His ordination began the final chapter in the Irish involvement in Yola, namely the total indigenization of the local church. Another page in this final chapter was the election of a Nigerian Vice-Provincial who led the Augustinian Order in Nigeria into the twenty-first century. A Nigerian, James Daman O.S.A., assumed this position in the summer of 1997.
In 2001 the Augustinian international chapter in Rome declared Nigeria a full Province of the Order. It is the first one based on the African continent in the 750 years of the history of the Order. In 2003 there were 41 professed affiliated Nigerians with Augustinian solemn vows, and four more made solemn vows in that year. In 2003 there were also six Irish Augustinian priests working in the Nigerian Province, and the number has decreased since then.
Most of the ministries of the Province of Nigeria are parishes situated in economically poor districts. The Order conducts 12 parishes in Nigeria, and two in Kenya. The great majority of these parishes are self-financing. As well, ten Augustinians work full-time in the formation and education of the seminarians, in three houses of formation in Nigeria and one in Kenya. Another Augustinian works in a centre for drug addicts, and another one works in the Apostolic Nunciature of Nigeria. A number of Nigerian Augustinians have completed higher studies, usually in Rome.
Nigeria has more than 300 languages and tribes. While the cultures differ from tribe to tribe, there are some underlying values common in most of these cultures. For example, there is great respect for family structure. This is a great advantage for building an Augustinian sense of community and hospitality. As well, in Nigerian culture, there exists a great urge to celebrate. Song and dance have become obvious characteristics in liturgical celebrations. The Augustinian spiritual tradition is now reaching more people through the Order’s opening in 2009 a secondary school near the Nigerian capital city of Abuja. In all Augustinian parishes in Nigeria Justice and Peace activities are promoted. This helps to give a voice to the many poor people who have been ignored by society.
The social and political life of Northern Nigeria has been dominated by a group called Boko Haram since 2009. Founded in 2002, the group has been led by Abubakar Shekau since 2009. When Boko Haram first formed, their actions were nonviolent. Their main goal was to “purify Islam in northern Nigeria.” From March 2015 to August 2016, the group was aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Since the current insurgency started in 2009, Boko Haram has killed tens of thousands and displaced 2.3 million from their homes and was ranked as the world’s deadliest terror group by the Global Terrorism Index in 2015.
Of the 2.3 million people displaced by the conflict since May 2013, at least 250,000 have left Nigeria and fled into Cameroon, Chad or Niger. Boko Haram killed over 6,600 in 2014. The group have carried out mass abductions, including the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok in April 2014. Corruption in the security services and human rights abuses committed by them have hampered efforts to counter the unrest.
In mid-2014, the militants gained control of swathes of territory in and around their home state of Borno, estimated at 50,000 square kilometres (20,000 sq mi). Still, they did not capture the state capital Maiduguri, where the group was originally based. On 7 March 2015, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, rebranding as Islamic State in West Africa. In September 2015, the Director of Information at the Defence Headquarters of Nigeria announced that it had destroyed all Boko Haram camps.
A report by the Catholic diocese of Maiduguri estimated that as of May 2015, over 5,000 Nigerian Catholics had been killed by Boko Haram. The diocese also reported 7,000 widows and 10,000 orphans among its laity. Furthermore, Boko Haram militants had taken over several parish centres within the diocese.
Nigeria’s long years of maladministration and the high rate of poverty in the northern part of the country — the insurgents' birthplace — galvanized Boko Haram followers into taking up arms. Subsequently, the sect started killing and maiming innocent citizens.
The group’s ideology claims to be against the country's constituted government but has morphed into the establishment of an Islamic sect, writes Abdul Gafar Olawale, a scholar at the University of Ilorin in north-central Nigeria.
In 2015, the Maiduguri diocese established a refugee camp. The camp — which accommodates about 500 Catholics (300 families) — is the only source of survival for Catholic internally displaced persons. Families displaced by the insurgency are provided with a room or a makeshift tent in the camp — originally the proposed site for the diocese's secretariat. The church also provides free education for displaced children and free medical services.
With little or no government support, the Maiduguri Diocese has spent over 150 million nairas (US $416,000) on displaced persons, using its own funds and donations from dioceses across Nigeria.
The diocese has also received help from other organizations, including MISSIO, the Catholic Church's official charity for overseas missions. The German-based Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need provided a grant of $75,000 for 5,000 widows and 15,000 orphans under the diocese's care, and Catholic Relief Services provides school uniforms, textbooks and school fees for about 100 Catholic children.
In the summer of 2015, the Nigerian Army recaptured Gwoza. Many citizens were released and transferred to Maiduguri.
Since Boko Haram launched its first attack in 2009, the church has been deeply affected by the conflicts. More than 100,000 Catholics, 200 catechists, 26 priests and 30 nuns have been displaced, and more than 200 parishes, especially in the northern part of Adamawa and northern Borno, have been destroyed. The diocese also lost 17 schools, six clinics and four convents. According to the diocese, the insurgents have killed at least 5,000 Catholics and destroyed 22 rectories. But attacks against the Catholic Church and Christians in northern Nigeria were happening years before Boko Haram.
The Maiduguri Diocese calls the victims of Boko Haram martyrs. In 2017, after the completion of a new cathedral, St. Patrick, located in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, a big banner inscribed with “Maiduguri martyrs pray for us” hangs on the left-wing of the altar.
This was deliberate, said Bakeni. “The Maiduguri Diocese is a suffering church. It's a persecuted church, so after we built the church, we kept the banner there.”
“In fact, all I can say is that the faith [of Catholics in this region] has been tested and proven. What we are going through here is for the purification of the mother church. It is in such a moment that the church is defined,” Bakeni adds.
The Nigerian government says the insurgents have been defeated, but the war seems far from over. Nigeria President Muhammed Buhari came to power in 2015 with a promise to defeat the Islamist sect, but insurgents still carry out abductions and attacks. Under Buhari’s watch, new security threats, like killings between Christian farmers and Muslim pastoralists, have increased. The president has been widely criticized by citizens, Christian leaders and the Nigerian Catholic Bishops' Conference. In February, U.S President Donald Trump also called for the violence against Christians in Nigeria to stop when he welcomed Buhari to Washington.
Back in the camp, the persecuted Catholics are undeterred. Instead, they are thankful and firm in their faith. Most of them are part of the local choir, Legion of Mary, and other Catholic societies and organizations.
“No matter the suffering, I can't turn away from God because he saved me when I thought I'd not make it,” said one survivor.
Today the Province has over 110 Priests, 30 communities, 24 Parishes, 3 Formation Houses, 3 Secondary Schools and a Polytechnic.
The work continues.