Religion and Freedom

The Trump administration recently placed Nigeria on a special Watch List of countries where religious freedom has been grossly violated. The list includes Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Nigeria has been described as perhaps “the most dangerous place in which to be a Christian”. Media black-out and self-censorship on the issue have been enforced by the National Broadcasting Commission. People are frightened for their lives and for their families.

The government has reacted by blaming “the opposition” and “unpatriotic” elements who want to score cheap political capital out of “farmer-herders clashes”. Nothing could be more insensitive and more callous. There is no such thing as “farmers-herders clashes”. When a peasant and his family are killed, maimed and raped and their homes razed down by heavily armed herdsmen militias, there is no “clash” involved. It is nothing short of a genocidal massacre. And it has been going on for the better part of a decade throughout the primeval savannah of my birth. Anybody with a moral conscience cannot talk that kind of language.

A few weeks ago my friend, the distinguished French philosopher and public intellectual Bernard-Henry Lévy visited Nigeria. He was able to travel through much of the Middle Belt, interviewing victims and gathering evidence of genocidal killings and persecution of Christians. Scion of a wealthy Jewish family, BHL, as he is popularly known, is the moral conscience of Europe today. He has recently launched his SOS campaign to bring the world’s attention to the persecution of Christians in Nigeria.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by our constitution. It is among the most sacred precepts enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948. And yet in Nigeria, these precepts are observed in the breach rather than in observance. Persecution of Christians is getting worse by the day. The authorities often look away when hundreds are killed or maimed. Government policies also indirectly project a subliminal message of religious bias, exclusion and even cold complicity.

According the 2019 report of the international NGO, Open Doors, “Nigeria’s score for violence has stayed as high as possible, primarily due to the increased attacks on Christian communities by Hausa-Fulani Islamic militant herdsmen. These attacks claimed the lives of hundreds of believers…scores of villages and churches were burned to the ground. Additionally, in parts of northern Nigeria, Christians are treated as second-class citizens”.Christian students are denied places to meet for worship; Christians are denied Certificate of Occupancy (C of O) for church buildings; abductions and forced marriages of young and under-aged Christian girls are rampant. The Pew Research Centre reported that “there were more recorded killings of Christians due to their faith in northern Nigeria in 2015 than in the rest of the world put together”.

Churches are now being required to register with the Special Control Unit Against Money Laundering (SCUML) of the EFCC and to get a get a Tax Identification Number (TIN) from the FIRS even when they are not commercial organisations. Those who don’t comply face the prospect of having their bank accounts frozen. The Ministry of Interior has come up with a N30,000 licensing fee for all Christian worship centres while the sum of N21,000 is to be charged for a Marriage License. There is no evidence that such requirements exist for mosques. An atmosphere is being created in which Christians are being turned into dhimmi second class citizens that will be reduced to paying jizya tax before they can go about their daily business. It is an obnoxious and evil agenda.

According to an ECOWAS monitoring database, between 2016 and 2017 alone, there were 643 attacks against Christians in Nigeria, in which 5,302 were killed and 2,177 were wounded. Between February and March this year alone, 250 Christians were killed by Boko Haram and the militia herdsmen, according Casey Hough, An American seminarian with interests on Nigeria. Boko Haram and the herdsmen militias are the avant-garde of religious persecution in our country. They are acting out a script written by powerful elements within and outside our country. Indeed, their backers may be as far afield as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and elsewhere. They have destroyed more than 2,000 churches and have killed more than 400 clergymen in the North East alone. There are about 2 million internally displaced Christians out there. No help has been forthcoming from either the federal or state governments.

In 2014 the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) categorised the Fulani herdsmen militias as the 4th deadliest terrorist organisation in the world, just coming behind Boko Haram, Isis and al-Shabab. In fact, they have killed more people than Boko Haram, with attacks covering 32 states.

While there have been killings of Muslims in Zamfara and Birnin Gwari, Christians are their primary target. The herdsmen maim and kill men, women and children indiscriminately and in the most gruesome manner imaginable. They are highly mobile and well-armed masters of the rural savannah, moving with speed that would have impressed Bonaparte or Rommel. They have nothing to lose. They have no assets save their cattle, which they can round up in minutes and flee if needs be. But they are also capable of regrouping rather quickly.

A few years ago, Governor El-Rufai of Kaduna State confessed that he visited neighbouring countries to pay appeasement money to restrain those behind the Fulani killing people in the Middle Belt. So we are led to believe that they know who the masterminds are. The truth of the matter is that no herdsmen have been brought under the judgment for the killing of innocent people. Christians, on the other hand, are being hounded and imprisoned under the slightest pretext. A tragic example is the recent case of Kaduna State where government appears to be in complicity with the militias in destroying the Adara community in Kajuru Local Government. In May last year, on his way back from a peace meeting with the Governor of Kaduna State, the Chief of the Adara people, Dr. Maiwada Galadima, a former educationist and respected knight of the Catholic Church, was kidnapped and brutally assassinated. More than 200 defenseless Christians have been slaughtered in Kajuru alone, not to talk of the rest of Southern Kaduna.

Locals have tried to defend themselves with the bows and arrows and den guns, but even these have been taken from them by the military who go from house-to-house in search of arms which they summarily confiscate. Only herdsmen are allowed to defend themselves or to openly bear arms.

The killers are also seemingly winning the propaganda at the expense of the victims. Not too long ago, I went to visit an elderly missionary woman in her retirement home in the small English town of High Wycombe, not too far from Oxford. I knew this woman since I was a child. My late father worked with her in the evangelism ministry. She told me she was very disappointed with Christians in the Middle Belt for refusing to “share” their land with the Fulani. I was dumbfounded!

The evil lie has also successfully been sold to the United Nations, the International Criminal Court and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Back at home, some of our prominent church leaders have conspicuously refused to speak up. Martyred theologian and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously noted that, to refuse to speak or to act in the face of evil, is, also, to act.

More recently, the president shocked us by announcing, from far-away Egypt, that free visas will be given to foreigners on arrival at our ports. This is in addition to millions of aliens that have already been asked to “regularize” their stay by registering for NIS identity cards.  To add insult to injury, Chief Justice of the Federation Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad recently remarked that our illegitimate 1999 constitution must be revised to incorporate more of Sharia. Such insensitive and callous statements can only serve to fire the embers of division and strife.

Nigeria was founded on a compact of ethno-religious pluralism. That has been the consociational foundation of our political existence as a federation since 1960. It seems some people have decided that they want to alter that constitutional compact. Having illegally imported millions of aliens and having grossly manipulated the electoral process, they have created the illusion that the North are the overwhelming majority and can do whatever they please. It is a dangerous mistake. They lack the imagination to grasp the truth that they are unwittingly creating two de facto republics — one governed by Sharia and the other governed by liberty and the rule of law.

Christians are no strangers to persecution. Jesus Christ was crucified on a Cross. There is no redemption outside Gethsemane. The blood of the holy martyrs has always watered the growth of the church. Such existential evilcannot stand. We shall not only overcome; we shall prevail.

Happy Christmas to everyone!

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