“The reign of impunity is the scaffolding on which the persecution of Christians in Nigeria has been built”
Interview with Onyemaechi F.E. Ogbunwezeh PhD, January 2021
How many Christians were killed in Nigeria in 2020? Is Nigeria still the country with the most Christian killings?
2020 was a very dark and terrible year for Christians worldwide, including Nigeria. In 2020, Nigeria was second only to Pakistan in terms of countries where Christians were most exposed to violence. Data provided by the Nigerian NGO Intersociety shows that 2,400 Christians were killed in Nigeria in 2020. This brought the number of Christians killed since 2009 to 34,600.
This figure does not include the large number of Christians who have been raped, disfigured, maimed, traumatised, disappeared, displaced and made homeless, enslaved or forcibly converted by jihadist terrorists in Nigeria.
Is it true to say that Christians in Nigeria are threatened by basically three Islamist terrorist groups - Boko Haram, ISWAP (Islamic State of West African Province) and the Fulani Islamists?
Yes, these are the main terrorist groups whose aim is to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria. To this end, they want to wipe out Christianity by slaughtering Nigerian Christians and committing genocide.
But one must not forget that the 12 northern states of Nigeria adopted Sharia law as their legal system in 1999, which has also made life difficult for Nigerian Christians living there. It is very difficult for Christians to get permission to build or renovate their churches in these Sharia states. We see open discrimination against qualified Christians in government appointments. Christian businesses are disadvantaged as many Christian-run hotels are not allowed to sell alcohol in their establishments. The list is long. Christians are harassed from all sides, especially in the north.
What is the situation in Kano, for instance? Is it the case that Christians there are less likely to be attacked by Islamist militias but instead are marginalised and oppressed by the Muslim majority?
Kano has been the scene of some of the most heinous lynchings and outrages against Christians and Christian businesses in Nigeria. In Kano in 1995, Gideon Akaluka, a Christian, was beheaded by an Islamic mob who accused him of desecrating the Koran.
In early 2013, Boko Haram attacked Kano. They targeted a busy bus station in Sabon Gari (meaning "outsiders’ quarter" in Hausa), which serves majority Christian southerners of Igbo ethnicity. The suicide bomber detonated a bomb that killed many people, including my elder sister, Mrs Nnenna Jacinta Ogbonna (Nee Ogbunwezeh). My family and many other families lost loved ones that day.
Many Christians living in Kano are worried. And the time they are most afraid of is Friday afternoon. Many riots against Christians have started on Friday afternoon, after Islamic prayer, because the Imams incited riots with their sermons. This climate of fear and insecurity prevails in Christian communities across northern Nigeria, not only in Kano.
It used to be said that Boko Haram (and ISWAP) mainly killed men and enslaved women and children, while the Fulani Islamists did not spare the lives of women and children. Is that still true?
Yes, that still seems to be the case. Boko Haram has always been interested in taking children, women and young people hostage. The Fulani nomads have murdered men, women and children without discrimination but they have shown no interest in taking prisoners, especially in the Middle Belt of Nigeria. That could change tomorrow, because Boko Haram has shown that it is possible to extort a lot of money from the Nigerian government in exchange for hostages.
Fulani herdsmen have been identified as running kidnap rings along the highway leading to Abuja, as well as in much of the Middle Belt and even in southern Nigeria.
Is it true that the Fulani cattle herders became radicalised with the election of Muhammadu Buhari as Nigerian president and they have been attacking Christians ever since?
That is the impression we have. The election of President Muhammadu Buhari seems to have given them confidence to commit their heinous acts. The facts prove that attacks have increased in frequency and brutal impunity since Buhari became president.
How do you explain the fact that so many Christians are being persecuted and attacked when Christians and Muslims (especially in the north) lived peacefully together for decades?
The conflict between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria has been episodic since 1953. Peace has been relative. Muslim extremists have always killed Christians whenever they felt they could get away with it, even when Nigerian Christians had done nothing to deserve it. An example of this is the Mohammed cartoon saga in Denmark. Muslim extremists used this as an opportunity to riot and kill some of their Christian neighbours. There have been many such incidents in Nigeria.
So, the peace that many people think exists in Nigeria between the two religions was just the calm before the storm. And this storm has not abated because almost none of these extremists has ever been prosecuted or convicted. This reign of impunity is the scaffolding on which the persecution of Christians in Nigeria has been built.
What do you think the Nigerian government should be doing to stop the wave of attacks against Christians?
Quite simply, it must become a government for all Nigerians. It must begin to live up to its legal responsibility to protect the lives and property of all Nigerians.
However, I would not blame the current government for all Nigeria’s problems. In fact, no government since independence has been able to put Nigeria on the path of peace, development and progress. The problem lies in how the nation is constituted and governed. Nigeria needs to be politically decentralised and restructured. Once decentralised, the state police would be able to respond to threats against citizens in real time.
Moreover, to combat threats to Christians and minorities in Nigeria, there is a military option: fighting and defeating Boko Haram. The war against Boko Haram has been marred by the corruption of Nigerian army generals who divert the funds meant to pay soldiers' salaries into their private pockets. In addition, the Nigerian army has been involved in extrajudicial killings and human rights violations. This is deplorable.
There is also the long-term option of ensuring that development and the fruits of governance reach the frustrated youth tempted to join Boko Haram owing to their hopelessness and lack of prospects. This can be achieved through educational programmes, work training programmes, help-to-self initiatives etc.
What can or should the West do?
I believe that the West should support the call for restructuring because the current centralised federation is stifling Nigerians' aspirations for peace, development and progress.
There is also an urgent need for direct financial and material assistance to displaced Christians in Nigeria who are fleeing for their lives due to attacks by Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen. The West must also put pressure on the Nigerian government to live up to its legal responsibility to protect all its citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation.
Onyemaechi F.E. Ogbunwezeh, PhD, is Senior Research Fellow at Christian Solidarity International (CSI)