Unchecked massacres and kidnappings in Nigeria, many of them targeting Christians, require more than the U.S. State Department designating it as a “Country of Particular Concern,” key leaders said at the International Religious Freedom Summit.
Rights advocates and others have criticized the State Department for failing to include Nigeria on the latest CPC list of countries engaged in or tolerating systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom. At the Jan. 30-31 summit in Washington, D.C., however, Sam Brownback, former U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom from 2018 to 2021, told Christian Daily International that his office helped get Nigeria on the CPC list in 2020, “but that wasn’t really enough.”
“What needed to take place was a series of economic sanctions associated with that CPC designation – not with other issues, but just with that one,” said Brownback, co-chair of the summit. “For a number of places, they get a designation, and they’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t like it, but so what?’ But if you start economically, then they say, ‘How do we get this thing off of us?’ And that’s what I thought we really needed to do – put tariffs on a particular set of sensitive exports from Nigeria to the U.S.”Nigerian exports of crude oil to the United States amounted to nearly $3.5 billion in 2022, according to the U.N. COMTRADE database on international trade.
Designation as a CPC can lead to consultations and negotiations resulting in a range of actions and sanctions if the religious freedom offenses are not addressed, under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 that Brownback, then a senator from Kansas, helped sponsor.
Such sanctions could be difficult to obtain as State Department officials refuse to acknowledge the religious motives of bloodshed by Fulani herdsmen and terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, Brownback said.
“The experts in the bureaucracy don’t want to look at it at all as any religious division – period,” he said. “They don’t even want to have that word on the same page because they’re deathly afraid of a religious conflict in Nigeria, saying, ‘We just don’t want to talk about that, let’s never be the one to associate with it in any way.’ Which is to ignore reality.”
At the same time, both Nigerian officials and Christian leaders in the country also downplay the religious component of the violence, as they fear fanning the flames of religious conflict by mentioning it publicly. With such reluctance to talk about the religious motives of attacks in the effort to tamp it down, Nigerian and international media have long portrayed the violence as rooted in herder/farmer land conflicts.
Drought and dwindling resources as a result of climate change are increasingly cited as a contributing factor in the herder/farmer land conflicts, which Nigerian priest Ambrose Uchenna Ekeroku roundly rejected at the summit.
“They’re saying that climate change is what is causing the conflict – it is not,” Ekeroku told participants. “It is jihad that is going on. It is not herder/farmer clashes as they have been saying in the media. And only the international community can stop it.”
Ekeroku acknowledged that there are ethnic and economic dimensions to the violence, and that the predominantly Muslim, ethnic Fulanis behind much of it make an historical argument for laying claim to the entire country. That claim also has Islamist roots, as they carry out the killings and land grabs with shouts of the jihadist slogan, Allahu Akbar [God is greater], he said.
“What is happening in Nigeria is a systemic jihad, genocide and ethnic cleansing that is done by Fulanis,” Ekeroku said. “The ideology they’re working with is that Nigeria belongs to them. Now they have continued that jihad.”
Ekeroku, now pursuing graduate studies at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., asserted that Nigerian government corruption and collusion with Muslim extremist perpetrators of violence necessitates international intervention.
“It is not about putting us a on a list of Countries of Particular Concern – Nigeria should be designated as a terrorist government,” he said. “That is what will jolt them to begin to take action and stop these killings.”
With more than 52,000 Nigerians slaughtered since 2009, including 30,000 during the eight-year presidency of Muhammadu Buhari, the country’s leaders need to be held accountable, he said.
“These leaders should be brought to the international Court of Justice to be called to account for all the atrocities that have been committed under their watch,” Ekeroku said.
With 4,118 Christians killed for their faith from Oct. 1, 2022 to Sept. 30, 2023, Nigeria accounted for 90 percent of all the Christian martyrs in the world, according to Open Doors’ 2024 World Watch List (WWL) report. More kidnappings of Christians than in any other country also took place in Nigeria, with 3,300.
Nigeria was also the third highest country in number of attacks on churches and other Christian buildings such as hospitals, schools, and cemeteries, with 750, according to the report. In the 2024 WWL of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, Nigeria was ranked No. 6, as it was in the previous year.
Numbering in the millions across Nigeria and the Sahel, predominantly Muslim Fulani comprise hundreds of clans of many different lineages who do not hold extremist views, but some Fulani do adhere to radical Islamist ideology, the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom or Belief (APPG) noted in a 2020 report.
“They adopt a comparable strategy to Boko Haram and ISWAP [Islamic State West Africa Province] and demonstrate a clear intent to target Christians and potent symbols of Christian identity,” the APPG report states.
Fred Davie, a commissioner with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, told summit participants that violence and blasphemy laws were violations of religious freedom that clearly met the legal status for designating Nigeria a CPC, but he too called for more action.
“We have urged the U.S. Congress to hold a hearing to better ascertain the basis on which the State Department came to this contrary conclusion [not designating Nigeria a CPC],” he said, but the USCIRF also made other recommendations:
· Appointment of a special envoy to Nigeria;
· Support for Nigerian civil society organizations to promote national dialogue;
· Revitalize the bipartisan Nigerian caucus to place due focus on security;
· The Government Accountability Office should investigate the effectiveness of U.S. assistance to Nigeria in obtaining religious freedom objectives.
Ekeroku, who said he would be killed if he said in his pulpit in Nigeria what he said at the summit, urged summit participants to continue to raise global awareness.
The massacres in Nigeria, he said, are “not going to stop unless the international community comes to our aid.”