ON Wednesday, December 18, the United States government added Nigeria to a Special Watch List for countries adjudged worldwide to have “engaged in or tolerated severe religious violations of religious freedom.” The addition of Nigeria to this infamous list follows closely on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) 2018 designation of Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) owing to the Nigerian government’s perceived failure “to prevent or stop increasing violence along religious lines or hold perpetrators to account.” According to the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, Nigeria earned its “upgrade” to the Special Watch List because, in the previous year, “The Nigerian government at the national and state levels continued to tolerate violence and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief, and suppressed the freedom to manifest religion or belief.” Other countries “upgraded” to the Special Watch List in addition to Nigeria are Cuba, Nicaragua and Sudan.
Predictably, the addition of Nigeria to the Special Watch List sparked immediate controversy, not least between representatives of the Christian and Muslim communities. For its part, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) backed Nigeria’s addition to the list, warning in a statement by Adebayo Oladeji, Special Assistant on Media and Communications to the CAN president that “discrimination against Christians can result in another civil war which Nigeria may not survive. For CAN, the US government’s reclassification of Nigeria (from Country of Particular Concern to being added to the Special Watch List) is a welcome acknowledgment of the persecution and killings of Christians in many Northern and Middle Belt states, particularly Kaduna, Benue, Plateau, Adamawa and Taraba states.”
But the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar III, sees things differently. Speaking on December 24 at the closing ceremony of the 77th annual Islamic Vacation Course (IVC) organized by the Muslim Students’ Society of Nigeria (MSSN) at Bayero University, Kano, the Sultan seemed dubious about the reality of religious persecution in Nigeria, arguing that “if such persecution really exists, such is supposed to be tabled at the Interfaith Forum where Muslims and Christian leaders meet periodically to discuss issues that would promote harmonious coexistence between the two religions.” Describing the CAN statement as “false and partial,” the Sultan also expressed skepticism at media reports linking Fulani herdsmen to attacks on Christian villagers in several parts of the country, pointing out that “many Fulanis are atheists whose main interest is to protect their cattle.” The Sultan’s reaction is not all that different from the reaction of Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed who, in an official statement, branded Nigeria’s addition to the Special Watch List “iniquitous” and stemming “from an orchestrated narrative that has long been discredited.”
We find the reactions of the Sultan and the Honourable Minister of Information truly baffling. In the case of the Sultan, we are mystified that he elected to go after CAN when the association was merely responding to the US Secretary of State’s statement. If any statement had to be refuted by the Sultan, logically, it should have been Mr. Pompeo’s. Furthermore, the Sultan appeared to set a bizarre standard for proof of religious persecution in Nigeria when he suggested that “if such persecution really exists, such is supposed to be tabled at the Interfaith Forum…” The implied logic that if something was not reported to the Interfaith Forum, then it never happened, is rather peculiar. Finally, the fact that, according to the Sultan, “many Fulanis are atheists” has no bearing on whether or not they were involved in attacks on villages and communities across the Middle Belt and south-western parts of the country. For his part, the Minister of Information did not specify what was “iniquitous” about the US statement and was vague about the orchestrators of the particular “narrative that has long been discredited.”
As it were, both the Sultan and the Information Minister avoided the key claims of the US statement as follows: that (1) “religious sectarian violence increased during the year, with Muslims and Christians attacked based on their religious and ethnic identity;” and that (2) “The Nigerian military and government continued to violate the religious freedom and human rights of the Shia members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN). IMN leader Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky remained in detention.”
Instead of denying the obvious, the Federal Government needs to come clean on the scale and persistence of religious persecution in Nigeria. Only someone who has been living under a rock will pretend that there is no religious tension in the country. If repeated attacks by Fulani herdsmen have deepened that tension, it is due to the widespread perception that the Federal Government is soft on the herdsmen because they are co-ethnics of the people currently in power. The sooner the Federal Government moves to douse this tension by taking concrete action, the better for the country.