International Religious Freedom


June 15, 2016

Nigeria “Fractured and Forgotten” in Midst of Massive Religious Violence (Part 1 of 2)

“What is unfolding in northern and central Nigeria is one of the gravest current humanitarian crises in the world, with millions affected, thousands killed, insecurity rampant, children ravaged by malnutrition, one of the world’s highest populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs), schools closed, houses of worship destroyed and entire communities burned to the ground in scorched-earth attacks. Moreover, the threat posed by Fulani militants in the Middle Belt is escalating into one of the most significant security concerns in West Africa . . . the degenerating situation in the Middle Belt will likely intensify with the possibility of further engulfing Nigeria as a whole.”

This excerpt from a new report produced by the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative on the ethnic/religious crisis in Nigeria paints a bleak picture. Last Thursday, June 9th, the Heritage Foundation hosted an event to allow representatives of 21st Century Wilberforce to introduce the report. Also on the panel were Ambassador David Saperstein, U.S. Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom, and two Nigerian women, Becky Gadzama and “Mary,” mother of one of the kidnapped Chibok girls. Below is a summary of what you need know about Nigeria, with a focus on the country’s grave problems and their causes.

Elijah Brown, Executive Vice President of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, gave an overview of the report. Entitled “Fractured and Forgotten,” it lays out in detail the dimensions of Nigeria’s turmoil. The two obvious drivers of conflict and death are Boko Haram, an Islamic extremist group that has pledged allegiance to ISIS, and the Fulani militants. The latter are an exceedingly violent wing of a semi-nomadic people group (the Fulani), 98% of whom are Muslim. The Global Terrorist Index (GTI) ranks Boko Haram as the worlds most deadly terrorist network and the Fulani militants as its fourth.

Boko Haram seeks, like ISIS, to establish an Islamic caliphate. Their simple and horrifying military violence is well known, but Becky Gadzama emphasized the acutely deleterious affects of Boko Haram on women. The groups moniker means “western culture is forbidden.” Mrs. Gadzama told the audience that fighters tell girls that since jihad is global, if they leave to seek education in the West they will be hunted down and killed. Girls are told that women are meant only for men. Thousands of girls have been forcibly kidnapped from their homes or schools, including nearly 300 from a school in Chibok in 2014. The few that return from captivity face marginalization. Locals see them as “Boko Haram woman,” defiled and not fit to reenter their former communities. This clearly reinforces the terrorist group’s hegemony in Nigeria. “Boko Haram thrives because they have girls,” Mrs. Gadzama said. Compounding the affect of Boko Haram is a general apathy about education, she lamented.

International focus has understandably been concentrated on stopping the atrocities perpetrated by Boko Haram, but a new threat has risen up largely unnoticed: the Fulani militants. As Fulani cattle herders seek land for their animals, they have killed those in their way, predominantly Christian farmers, at astonishing rates. After killing only 63 people in 2013, they killed 1,229 in 2014 and increased by 190% from 2015 to 2016. This is a principle reason Nigeria now contains an estimated 2,152,000 IDPs that could begin spilling into neighboring countries. Frank Wolf, now a Fellow at the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, warned that such mass migration would pose a grave threat to European security and American business interests. These comments were intended to show that Nigeria may be forgotten, but it is not unconnected to the rest of the world.

Both Ambassador Saperstein and Mr. Wolf argued that militant groups are not the root causes of Nigeria’s crisis. Following the Wilberforce report, they characterize the violent Islamic groups as symptoms of the government’s failure to defend religious minorities. Although more Muslims have been displaced than any other religious group in Nigeria, a deeply rooted “foundation of discrimination” exists wherein Christians and other non-Muslim minorities face blatant and brutal forms of discrimination. Mr. Wolf has heard repeated reports of human rights violations by the Nigerian police and military. Just one instance among many: 10,000 Christian IDPs were excluded from government aid in southern Nigeria. The speakers stressed that although the Nigerian constitution protects freedom of religion, only those with access to power really receive it. This discrimination is particularly tragic given what Saperstein calls the culture of religious tolerance, which arguably existed in pre-conflict Nigeria.

Even so, the panelists were not despairing. Look out for Peter Newman’s upcoming piece on the hopeful aspects of Nigeria’s status quo and potential solutions offered by the panelists.

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