Around 350,000 people have been killed due to violence in northern Nigeria as of the end of 2020, according to new UN estimates. Many of those killed were Christians.
“No Christian now feels safe in Nigeria,” said Bishop Stephen Dami Mamza of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Yola, a city in eastern Nigeria, for a policy briefing titled, “Christians in Nigeria: The Forgotten Genocide.”
In Defense of Christians, an advocacy organization for Christians in the Middle East, hosted three additional experts for the August 25 briefing: Congressman Frank Wolf, representative of Virginia’s 10th district from 1981–2015; the Reverend Hassan John, Nigerian journalist and Anglican priest; and Lela Gilbert, adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.
“If what is happening in Nigeria were happening in a country in Europe, the world would be enraged and engaged,” Wolf said. Boko Haram, the main Islamic militant group in Nigeria, has killed more people than ISIS has in Iraq and Syria combined.
They are not the only ones targeting Christians in Nigeria. Just this year, close to about 4,000 Christians have been killed by Fulani herdsmen in the Middle Belt region of central Nigeria alone, according to John. Greg Stanton of Genocide Watch called the situation in Nigeria a “genocide emergency.”
“If this were happening in Denmark, in Norway, would the world be silent?” Wolf pressed. “Are not the people in Nigeria of the same value [as] the people in Denmark and Norway?”
The US State Department designated Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern for the first time in December 2020 due to “systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.” However, despite the clear documentation of these gross crimes, the US government and the international community at large have done little to respond.
Gilbert noted how much momentum Black Lives Matter gained in the US these past years. She questioned “why it doesn’t seem like black lives matter in Africa.” When she wrote an article on Afghanistan, for example, it garnered thousands of views in a matter of hours. When she writes an article about an African country, however, “it just sits there.”
“I don’t know what the hook has to be that would capture the attention of America,” she said.
John believes that part of the narrative problem also has to do with government propaganda. The Nigerian government, according to John, has been “churning out” propaganda to blame the conflict on jihadist influence from al-Qaeda and economic competition between the herdsmen and Christians in the area. The Nigerian government sells this narrative to the international community as “ethnic fights or tribal wars.” Meanwhile, the military is also complicit in and at times even a participant of attacks against Christians, though they claim otherwise.
“The Nigerian government tells the West what it wants to hear because it’s getting the money, it’s getting the support. And for some reason that we really can’t explain, the West chooses one way or the other to just take the government narrative. But the voices of the Christians down here who are vulnerable, who are the ones suffering, are never heard because they have no one really to speak for them,” John lamented.
In some cases, Christians have begun taking up arms to defend themselves. However, John noted, whenever Christians kill one of their attackers, the news that comes out is “Christians have killed Muslims.”
“If Muslims were in this receiving end, I’m sure this matter would have been before the United Nations by now,” he said. However, the situation is different when the victims are Christians in poor, rural, farming communities who have had to shut down Christian schools that became kidnapping hotspots and pay millions of dollars in ransom money.
Wolf recommended several action items to address this crisis: an international conference in the next few months to develop an action plan; congressional hearings; and the appointment of a special envoy to Nigeria’s Lake Chad region. He takes inspiration from President George W. Bush’s decision to appoint Senator John Danforth as special envoy to Sudan in 2001. Wolf additionally advocates for the US Government Accountability Office to do an audit of foreign aid to Nigeria, and to cut aid if abuses continue.
According to John, much of the funds the predominantly Muslim Nigerian government has received to fight Boko Haram has actually gone into constructing mosques. Meanwhile, over 3,000 churches have been left destroyed.
John also echoed Wolf’s call for an international meeting to address the sustained and systematic killings. “There seem[s] to be a strategic plan on the ground,” he said. “Almost every other day, it’s either ten people are killed, two here, a hundred there, fifty here.” After the Christians in a village are slaughtered, more Muslims move into those areas and change the names to Arabic or Islamic names.
“We are seeing an organized militia… that have now decided to launch an attack on Christian community for a particular purpose, whatever it is, while you have a majority-Muslim community holding their hands and just simply watching.”
John recounted how the governor of Kaduna State attempted to stop the attacks on Christian communities by paying the Fulani herdsmen. However, the attacks have continued without any arrests. The message John took from that is that “the government can’t control them. They’re already an army on their own,” and they are even possibly “a government arm to destroy these Christian communities.”
John blamed the Buhari government for “entrench[ing] the hatred between Christians and Muslims.” Perhaps there is hope for Nigeria with a “massive restructuring” of the country into “independent regional powers under a federal system.” Without this restructuring, however, John believes that the country will soon “disintegrate.”
“It’s going to be massive, it’s going to be bloody, and it’s going to be worse than what you’ve seen in South Sudan,” he warned.
John closed with a plea:
To be honest with you, many of us Christians in Nigeria are so frustrated. We are at our wits’ end. We don’t know what to do at all… I will be very happy to do whatever it takes just to stop the bloodshed and to just continue living our lives. And much more, we believe that we have the Gospel to share. I mean, we have so much love to give to our Muslim neighbors and every other person around us as long as we can just stop this mayhem and these tragedies that are around us.