Jubilee Campaign Echoes Concerns Raised by Observatory of Religious Freedom in Africa – Nigeria Should Remain a Country of Particular Concern

In mid-December 2021, the newly founded Observatory of Religious Freedom in Africa (ORFA) sent a joint letter with 17 signatories to the United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken inquiring about the reasons for Nigeria’s removal from the Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) designation list of countries the governments of which have “engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom”. Jubilee Campaign wholeheartedly echoes the myriad religious freedom concerns raised in the letter – mentioned below – and similarly presses the US State Department to reverse its removal of Nigeria from the CPC list. Months earlier, in August 2021 and prior to the State Department’s decisions regarding CPC designations, Jubilee Campaign published a press release emphasizing the need for Nigeria to be designated as a CPC in order for the US to engage with Nigeria to reverse the tide of religious persecution in the nation. In that press release we made the following remarks:

“Radical Islamist terrorists active in Northeastern Nigeria continue to viciously attack and kill Christians and Muslims alike who reject extremist ideology, and recent studies reveal that no fewer than 3,462 Christians have been murdered for faith-related reasons in 2021 so far. Simultaneously, militant groups routinely abduct tens to hundreds of students from schools across the nation, most recently in Kaduna, Kagara, Zamfara, and Benue States; UNICEF estimates that over 1,120 schools have been temporarily closed in northwestern Nigeria as they are unable to offer security to their young students. Those who are kidnapped could be forced into sexual slavery or recruited as child soldiers for the militant groups.”

Considering the above, we were understandably shocked and tremendously disappointed when the State Department inexplicably removed Nigeria from the CPC designation list on 15 November 2021. We believe ORFA’s letter to Secretary Blinken perfectly sums up our sentiment on the issue and provides great examples to prove that not only has the situation of religious freedom not improved in Nigeria – which would perhaps warrant its removal from the CPC list – but it has notably worsened.

The letter raises the tremendous testimony of Nigerian Bishop Matthew Kukah of the Diocese of Sokoto before the US House Foreign Affairs Committee on Religious Freedom in Nigeria, in which he explains the onslaught of violent attacks against Christian clergy, communities, and houses of worship. In response to Bishop Kukah’s heart-wrenching testimony, the Nigerian government criticized , castigated, and falsely accused him of over-exaggerating the situation of insecurity in Nigeria. Jubilee Campaign sent a rejoinder to the Nigerian presidency in which we supported Bishop Kukah’s remarks, provided statistics to evidence his claims, and urged the Nigerian government to publicly apologize to Bishop Kukah.

ORFA’s letter states that “by its dereliction of the duties to prevent, protect and punish, Nigeria has fuelled religious violence and stoked the culture of impunity”. No truer words have been spoken. National and state security forces, including police officials and military, have exhibited both reluctance and inability to tackle violence. The police more often than not lack the institutional capacity to handle these planned incidents (i.e., Fulani militant attacks on Christian farming communities, mass abductions of schoolchildren), and the military has been too slow responding to early warning mechanisms. Civilians have noted that sometimes their premonitions of upcoming violent attacks and subsequent requests to federal authorities for assistance have been ignored, thus leaving them defenseless to ambushes on their communities which leave innocent civilians dead, homes burnt to the ground, and churches desecrated and wholly destroyed. The Nigerian security forces should be focusing their limited capacity on these atrocities, but instead they have funneled their resources into cracking down on peaceful protests and engaging in police brutality against demonstrators, as has been evidenced by the #EndSARS movement in October 2020. How can civilians expect their nation’s security forces to protect them when they have often times been the ones engaging in human rights violations against the people they have sworn to safeguard?

Quantitatively, the statistics are harrowing. ORFA gathered numbers during the period between 1 October 2019 and 30 September 2021. “Jihadist attackers” had killed no fewer than 8,560 Nigerian Christians and a substantial portion of the 2,417 Muslims slain during the observance period. Similarly distressing statistics have been reported by the Nigeria-based International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (Intersociety), which reported that there were at least 4,400 Nigerian Christian casualties by Islamic jihadists between January and September 2021, and “not less than 3500 traveler and sedentary Christians […] abducted in the nine months of 2021 gone by”.

While the letter does not go into much depth on the issue of school abductions in particular, it does note that “children are regularly kidnapped from their schools, particularly young Christian girls”. Jubilee Campaign finds it essential that we raise the case of now-18-year old Christian girl Leah Sharibu who was abducted by Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) during a mass kidnapping of students from Government Girls Science and Technical School in Yobe State’s Dapchi province in 2018 when she was just 14 years old at the time. Now, nearly four years later she remains in ISWAP captivity and has been forcibly married to a militant commander and has given birth to two children. On 24 August 2020, Fulani militants entered Chikun LGA, where they kidnapped three Christian students and a teacher from the Prince Academy School, and set fire to the local Aminchi Baptist Church; even after some ransom money was paid, they were held until 11 October 2020. In May 2021, Fulani militants abducted four Christian students from The King’s School in Plateau State’s Barkin Ladi county, though three were able to escape and only one was transferred to a local Fulani militant camp. On 5 July 2021, suspected Fulani militants abducted nearly 180 students from Bethel Baptist High School in Maraban Rido, Kaduna State; in the months following the attack, the majority of the captive students were released appearing “weak, sick and tired”. Jubilee Campaign published a report detailing these incidents and more, Kidnapping & Slavery in Nigeria, in October 2021.

ORFA iterates that “we are therefore appalled and baffled that just one year after being listed as a CPC, the U.S. Department of State has removed Nigeria’s designation. Neither you [Secretary Blinken] nor your Department have provided any explanation for this extraordinary turnaround, which comes despite their having been absolutely no improvement in Nigeria”. Jubilee Campaign similarly expresses confusion as to Nigeria’s removal from the CPC designation list, especially when considering that prior to the designation announcements, the State Department itself has recognized the turmoil of religious persecution in Nigeria. In May 2021, the State Department released its annual International Religious Freedom report in which it spent twenty pages outlining the tremendous violations of religious freedom including, but not limited to: Islamist militancy and terrorism causing civilian deaths among Christian and non-Christian communities alike; Kano State’s arrest and sentencing of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu and Mubarak Bala for alleged blasphemy; a “lack of government engagement” in protecting civilians from terrorism; the expansion of blasphemy legislations across Nigerian states; the February 2020 murder of 18-year-old seminary student Michael Nnadi by unidentified assailants; Boko Haram’s January 2020 kidnapping and subsequent execution of Reverend Lawan Andimi; and more. In October 2021, Nigeria National Day, Secretary Blinken reiterated that the States’ diplomatic relationship with Nigeria focuses on “democracy”, “diversity”, and “respect for human rights”. One would have presupposed that in order to convey its commitment to these three main pillars of life – notably, diversity and human rights – the State Department would have re-designated Nigeria as a CPC in order to send a message that religious persecution is unacceptable and stands to damage the US-Nigeria diplomatic partnership; however, this was unfortunately not the case.

And like a slap in the face – for lack of better words – to faith minorities and civil society, Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama thanked US Secretary Blinken and the State Department for the nation’s removal from the CPC list, stating that “we appreciate that you have recognized that Nigeria need not be a country of concern as far as religious freedom is concerned.” To rub salt in the wound, the State Department then signed a $2.1 billion development assistance program to benefit Nigeria in the areas of post-pandemic economic restoration and climate change mitigation strategies; important as these aforementioned areas are for development and coordination, likely very little of this money will go into projects to combat religious violence such as terrorist attacks and mass school abductions by developing early warning mechanisms or expanding the security forces’ capacity to respond to such crises. Though we do hold some hope that the tides will change and that a portion of the US assistance will be funneled towards these necessary projects – and fortunately Foreign Minister Onyeama did make remarks about the need for collaboration on ending terrorism in the northeast – there is also the reality that financial investment does not automatically see results, especially when the issue of unwillingness among security forces to respond to early warning mechanisms persists. It certainly does not help that Foreign Minister Onyeama seems to ignore the obvious link between terrorism and religious freedom; the terrorist activities of ISWAP, Boko Haram, and Fulani militants are rooted in religious extremism, and it is therefore no coincidence that significant proportions of casualties as a result of their attacks are defenseless Christians and moderate Muslims.

Therefore, we would like to express our solidarity with the Observatory of Religious Freedom (ORFA) and their tremendous letter to Secretary Blinken detailing the shared concerns of religious freedom and human rights activists around the world with regards to Nigeria. And we would like to close with a remark by Reverend John Joseph Hayam, Chairman of Christian Association of Nigeria, that was shared in the letter: “How could a country where such a crime is ongoing without any tangible efforts by the government to halt the evil be removed from the list of countries where religious persecution is a problem?”