A weak approach to Nigerian violence
As Nigerian Christians die, the U.S. government averts its gaze
The U.S. Department of State shocked observers by recently removing Nigeria from its list of “Countries of Particular Concern” even though Nigeria saw 4,000 Christians die in 2020. This year has been equally deadly for Nigeria’s Christians. Why is the United States averting its gaze from the ongoing slaughter?
This is the question posed by Nigerian Catholic Bishop Stephen Dami Mamza in a recently released interview. In a six-minute video he reports on a decade of attacks on Christians and other religious minorities. The interview, released by the Religious Freedom Institute, shows some of the physical scars of his parishioners. It also suggests that many also have psychological scars associated with rape, murder, and terrorism.
Nigeria is facing overlapping catastrophes. In the North, Boko Haram, Islamic State-West Africa Province, and other Sunni extremist groups attack the Shia minority, Christians, and even fellow Sunnis who refuse to support radical Islamism. More than 90,000 Nigerians have died as a result over a period of 12 years. In the middle belt of the country, religious and ethnic identities tend to overlap, thus providing the basis for social and political differences. The past decade has seen violence across the entire region, as ethnic Fulani, often denoted as “herdsmen,” target Christians, including their churches, seminaries, religious leaders, and faithful congregants. Open Doors ranks Nigeria No. 9 among the most dangerous places for Christians.
The U.S. government continues to claim that this violence is not religious in nature but is rather due to scarcity of resources caused by climate change. This weak, materialist approach is out of touch with reality. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, five young Christian men were dragged out of an evangelical church. During the execution of these Christian victims, the Islamists bragged that they were killing the Christians because they were Christians. Whether it is Boko Haram in the North or radicalized young men in the middle belt of Nigeria, they all articulate an agenda of purifying their areas of Christians and other religious minorities.
Bishop Stephen castigated the United States for deciding to take Nigeria off the CPC list before even meeting with any of Nigeria’s persecuted Christians. Bishop Stephen asked, “How is it that Nigeria is different from Nigeria of two years ago? Because we [who] are living in Nigeria—when it comes to discrimination, when it comes to persecution of Christians, we are still feeling it. And we are still experiencing it. The Secretary of State [Antony Blinken] doesn’t live in Nigeria and has not had any contact with us.”
Of course, the only thing that has changed in 2021 is the new Administration in Washington. The Biden Administration came to office with a far different set of priorities from the previous Administration. This Administration has revived the feckless Obama foreign policy focused on climate change politics, disastrous military pull-outs (Iraq 2011 and Afghanistan 2021), confusion over American resolve, and fawning overtures to Iran (in hopes of reviving the flawed Iran nuclear accords). Nigeria’s sectarian violence is a distraction to Biden.
Nigeria is a highly religious country and in some areas, citizens of different faiths have long lived side by side. With a population of 210 million, it dwarfs its neighbors, is a leading oil exporter, and historically was the key to regional security. But when a government looks the other way or is complicit in violence, this degrades the rule of law for all citizens. Nigeria is in a negative spiral of lawlessness—kidnapping of school children, assassination, the destruction of houses of worship, rape, and arson that should concern everyone. The radical religious justification for such violence is deeply troubling.
Fortunately, some voices are now calling Western and Muslim-majority governments to rethink their easy partnerships with Nigeria. Members of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) immediately challenged the change of CPC status. A British parliamentary working group released a major damning report on Nigeria earlier this year. Moreover, Muslim-majority governments that loathe ISIS and al Qaeda have good reason to pressure and support Nigeria to go to war with terrorism. The United States and the UK should build a coalition with these governments to pressure Nigeria to stop the violence, both by diplomacy and economic sanctions.
One piece of good news is that the Biden Administration’s nominee for Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Rashad Hussein, was confirmed by the Senate this week. Mr. Hussein is the rare public servant who has served quietly and with distinction in both the Obama and Trump Administrations, most recently on President Trump’s National Security Council. Perhaps Mr. Hussein will help the Biden Administration gain a more realistic view of the tragedy in Nigeria and help the United States change course once again.
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