Insecurity and religious freedom in Nigeria

by Udo Jude Ilo - published 7 September 2021


Nigeria is bleeding from a million cuts. These self-inflicted injuries – the result of relentless violence inflamed by uncontained criminality, religious extremism, and abject poverty - are fatally undermining the stability and welfare of Nigeria. Nigeria is a country disfigured by years of crass misrule and disdain for the welfare of the people. The failings of the state have denied it a monopoly of coercive force. Spheres of influence and territories have been taken over by criminals. One of the greatest casualties of this dire situation is freedom of religion.


In the first half of this year, nearly 6,000 people were killed in Nigeria, according to a report by the HumAngle media platform. For its part, the European Asylum Support Office EASO, a European Union agency, estimated close to 3,500 fatalities in the first four months of the year following 997 “security incidents”. And a report by the Nigerian SBM Intel geopolitical intelligence platform shows that in the second quarter of this year no fewer than 3,133 people were killed in violent incidents in Nigeria. These are not isolated killings restricted to one part of the country; sadly all six geo-political zones are affected, signalling a spiralling insecurity and destabilization.


With criminals running riot all over the country, the Christian community has suffered tremendous violence, especially in the north where they are targeted by terrorists and bandits. Of the 997 violent incidents reported by EASO, 423 were targeted at Christians and resulted in some 928 fatalities. And it gets worse. In the first 200 days of 2021, according to the International Society for Civil Liberties & the Rule of Law (Intersociety), 3,462 Christians were killed in Nigeria, 3,000 were abducted and around 300 churches were attacked. Intersociety attributes these attacks to the Nigerian army and police, Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen.


The Catholic Diocese of Kafanchan reported in 2016 that 808 people had been killed in attacks in Southern Kaduna, which historically has been a hotbed of ethnic and religious violence. The attacks spanned 53 villages with property worth over N5 billion destroyed, including 1,422 homes and 16 churches. This pattern of targeted attacks on Christians, especially in the north, is historical but the frequency of the attacks in recent times is alarming.


The primary duty of protecting lives and property rests with government. Even if the Nigerian government denies any involvement or targeted policy to undermine freedom of religion, their failure to provide a secure space for religious practice or to apprehend perpetrators of crimes against religious communities stains their hands with blood. They are as culpable as those who fire the guns if by their policies and insensitive utterances they have promoted insecurity and to a large extent religious tension. The absence of accountability, empathy and sensitivity suggest at best criminal negligence and at worst tacit connivance by government.


As I argued in my testimony to House Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the US Congress,


over the years, politicians across the aisle have consistently used religion and ethnicity as a tool of mobilization for political power. Often, these narratives paint the other as the enemy and the reason for underdevelopment in communities. This toxic manipulation has destroyed longstanding relationships across communities and hampered the capacity of communities to engage in peaceful dialogue and resolve issues amicably.

The structure of government has also exacerbated these tensions.  The character of our politics, which places ethnic and religious affinity over competence in many cases, has seen communities reasonably believe that government is against them when they are not represented in power. Currently, about 90 percent of Nigeria’s security architecture is firmly under the control of individuals who either speak the same local language as the president or adhere to the same faith. The current Nigerian president is a Muslim. This kind of exclusivity creates the perception of an “in-group” of those in power and an “out-group” of those not belonging to these same linguistic or religious groups. It also sustains the perception of state-sponsored or condoned harm against ethnicities and religious groups that are not in power, like the situation we currently have in the Middle Belt.


The government of President Muhammadu Buhari has failed to secure lives and property in Nigeria. By its divisive and exclusionary policies, it has created an unacceptable level of religious and ethnic tension in the country. Its response to violence is suggestive of bias towards criminal elements in the president’s religious group. The ill-thought-out amnesty for terrorists and consistent failure to prevent or punish harm done to religious institutions or Christians in the north are uncomfortable pointers to a pattern of abuse. The tired argument of government that Muslims are also killed not only supports the case for government ineptitude but also reinforces the fact that Nigerians are killed because of their faith. These have all combined to endanger in an unprecedented manner the freedom of religion of Christians in parts of northern Nigeria.


As long as a religious identity is a trigger for harm, government has a duty to step in and protect the right to religious identity, not just by security intervention but also by creating a policy and governance environment that promotes national cohesion and tolerance for its citizens. Nigeria continues to operate in an environment of destabilizing insecurity that hampers free expression of faith. The Buhari government is culpable and has failed in its duty to protect Christians in Nigeria.


Udo Jude Ilo writes from the Yale World Fellows Program in New Haven, Connecticut, USA

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