In February 2021, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom released its updated factsheet on the pervasive violence in northern Nigeria at the hands of radical Islamist militant groups Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), who, together, have caused no less than 37,500 civilian deaths within the past decade.
Boko Haram’s violent activity in Nigeria can be traced back to 2009, and though the group experienced some setbacks due to government crackdown between 2015 and 2017, the group has only grown even more active in recent years. For example, in February 2018, Boko Haram conducted a mass kidnapping of 110 schoolgirls from the Government Girls’ Science and Technical College in Dapchi. Though the majority of the girls have since been released, one girl, now-17-year-old Leah Sharibu, has spent three years in captivity because she refuses to renounce Christianity upon her captors’ demands.
Just a year ago, in January 2020, Boko Haram militants kidnapped Reverend Lawan Andimi of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) and beheaded him for remaining steadfast in his faith. Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s Mervyn Thomas lamented the death but rejoiced his bravery: “…we join in mourning an uncommonly courageous man, who despite knowing death was a very real prospect, maintained a calm and deep faith that will continue to inspire for generations.”
On Christmas 2020, Boko Haram militants ambushed the predominantly Christian village of Pemi, in Borno State, where they burnt down a local church, looted food supplies, and killed seven civilians.
Another increasingly active and deadly Islamist militant group is ISWAP, a faction of the broader Boko Haram, and an expanding threat as it continues to recruit thousands of radical extremists. In July 2020, a video went viral depicting five aid workers – representing Action Against Hunger, France’s Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development, and International Rescue Committee – being beheaded by a masked individual who stated that “this is a message to all those being used by infidels to convert Muslims to Christianity. If you don’t heed our warning, the fate of these five individuals will be your fate.”
On Christmas day in 2020, ISWAP kidnapped 11 Christians and filmed a video in which they beheaded 5 of the abducted – Uka Joseph, Sunday, Wilson, Joshua Maidugu, and Garba Yusuf – all of whom were instructed to state “I am a Christian” before they were shot dead by ISWAP executioners. One of the militants, prior to carrying out the execution, states in similar fashion to the July 2020 incident, “this is a warning to Christians in all parts of the world and those in Nigeria. Use the heads of these five of your brethren to continue with your ungodly celebrations.”
Lastly, USCIRF highlights a relatively new Islamist militant group – the “Vanguard of Aid and Protection for Muslims in Black Africa”, or Ansaru for short – which has links to both Boko Haram and al-Qaeda. As of late, Ansaru only has approximately 400 militant members and its activity is limited to Kaduna State. Regardless, Nigerian civilians and the government alike have kept a watchful eye on the group which claimed in August 2020 that it had killed “more than 25 apostates.”
USCIRF in its factsheet does not discuss radical Fulani militants who, according to International Committee on Nigeria, have been involved in violence causing 9,733 civilian deaths between 2015 and 2020, and who according to Genocide Watch, primarily target Christian communities. Fulani militants, however, are not designated as a terrorist group; this is due in part to the fact that Fulani is a broader ethnic group in Nigeria, the majority of which are not radicalized and are peaceful Muslims. There is justified concern among the international community that classifying violent Fulani militants as terrorists will cause unintentional animosity towards the broader group of peaceful Fulani. Moreover, Fulani militant groups do not have a specific organizational structure such as that of Boko Haram or ISWAP, meaning it is more difficult to identify Fulani militant leaders and groups. As jihadist Fulani militias continue to wreak havoc across northern Nigeria in nearly daily attacks on Christians, however, it is imperative that we identify those individuals engaging in such atrocities and bring them to justice for their crimes.