Editor's Note: When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Nigeria on November 19, Reverend John Hayab was one of five civil society representatives selected to meet with him. The day before, the United States had removed Nigeria from its religious freedom watchlist – despite the fact that Nigeria sees regular and ongoing massacres of indigenous Christians, that Nigerian security forces continue to harass and sometimes kill Shi’ite Muslims, and that multiple Muslims and freethinkers are currently imprisoned for the “crime” of blasphemy.
While the State Department highlighted Secretary Blinken’s meeting with Nigeria’s “civil society,” none of what these Nigerian leaders had to say to
Blinken appears in State Department’s own account of the meeting. In this piece,
Reverend John Hayab, the chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria in Kaduna State, relates what he told Secretary Blinken during their meeting. Nigeria Report is proud to publish
Rev. Hayab’s courageous words.
"The Untold Stories of Religious Persecution in Nigeria"
Rev John Joseph Hayab
Chairman, Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN),
Kaduna State Chapter
The US’s delisting of Nigeria from its list of violators of religious liberty is appalling, as the persecution of Christians is still at its peak. Besides, the Nigerian government hardly engages Nigerians to deliberate the challenges of insecurity, possibly because her own hands are not clean. The awful part is not only that the Nigerian government fails to engage Nigerians to find the way out of the insecurity the country is faced with, but that the government is known for blaming victims of insecurity for ‘not being careful enough,’ vindicating terrorism and its perpetrators.
Moreover, whenever any Nigerian openly speaks against the insecurity in the country, particularly the failure of government to tackle the terrorists, he or she is branded as ‘antigovernment’, typifying why most pastors and bishops of megachurches in Nigeria are afraid to speak out. Thus, the U.S. State Department ignored the worsening insecurity in Nigeria, declaring that placing the country on the list of “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) for religious freedom could jeopardize the work of the US Office of International Religious Freedom in Nigeria.
When I met with Antony John Blinken, the US Secretary of State, during his recent visit to Nigeria, as one of the five civil society representatives, I expressed how disappointed the Christians in Nigeria were following the US’ deletion of Nigeria from the CPC list. What I said to Blinken was that, because Nigeria still has grave problems with religious persecution, his action was like that of a doctor discharging a patient from the hospital, even though the patient is critically ill. What that signifies is telling the patient to go home and die.
Manifestly, the US was either ill-advised or purposely does not care about what happens to us in Nigeria. It also appears that the State Department does not fully comprehend that there is a grand plan by the current regime in Nigeria to impoverish and weaken the Christian community without letting the international community notice it. To achieve the grand plan, the government employed highly professional lobbyists to convince the State Department to arrive at such an unpopular decision, removing Nigeria’s name from the list of countries violating religious freedom.
As a Nigerian, I do not wish our country evil, but the reality is that citizens are daily persecuted because of their religious leanings. When I read the statement that the US Secretary of State removed Nigeria from the CPC list, it seemed to me that he wanted to make a statement that would water down whatever tension there was before he arrived in Nigeria, as that statement was not issued until a day or two before his arrival.
For the record, Nigeria at this moment cannot be said to have improved in its handling of people and issues based on faith. Only a day before the meeting with Blinken, the terrorists who kidnapped 66 worshippers at the Emmanuel Baptist Church (Kakau Daji, Chikun Local Government Area of Kaduna State) released a video showing themselves killing some of their captives. In the video, the terrorists took five young men between the ages of 15 and 24 from among the kidnapped, acting as if they were to be released. When the victims came near to their homes, the terrorists opened fire, killing two instantly. The third died later. All three have been buried by the church.
In the same video, in which many of the captives in the bush were forced to appear, the terrorists said they were attacking Christians and that Christians will suffer at their hands. How could a country where such a crime is ongoing without any tangible efforts by the government(s) to halt the evil be removed from the list of countries where religious persecution is a problem? Therefore, the decision has no basis in fact. I add that when we talk about insecurity, there is often a misconception among Nigerians that it is a question of Muslims versus Christians, but I see what is happening to the 'Shi'ites' as religious persecution as well.
Today, we have so many IDP camps all over the country. Religiously-motivated killings are taking place, as well as the religiously-motivated sacking of communities by terrorists. I can tell you categorically that those violations are ongoing. For instance, just this week, terrorists in Zamfara State issued a threat to Christians to “shut down churches or risk attacks.” The story, reported by Sahara Reporters online on the 29th of November 2021, is said to have been confirmed by the State Police, saying that they were “on top of the threat.” The fact is that insecurity is growing by the day. So, let's call a spade a spade.
What we are talking about affects Muslims, Christian, and everyone. That is why we are saying that delisting Nigeria from the countries with a record of religious persecution is not right. Nigeria should be on the observed list until everybody in Nigeria has the freedom to decide how he/she practices his/her faith without harassment or intimidation. We want a country where Christians in Borno, Kano, Kaduna, Nassarawa, Sokoto, Jigawa, Kebbi, Zamfara, and everywhere will be respected as equal citizens and not treated as second-class people.
Apart from the killing of Christians, resources and opportunities in Nigeria continue to be allotted inequitably, and discrimination continues in many domains. Let us take Kaduna State University for example. Since the creation of the university, the institution has not provided Christian students with a space to build a place of worship. Whenever the institution gives a piece of land for a chapel, once the building starts, the university makes an excuse to stop the work. But in the same university, there are five mosques built by state funds.
Nowadays in some parts of the north, when Christians go to buy a plot of land, the property is not granted, and when it is granted, a clause in the agreement states that 'you are not to build either a hotel or a church'. Isn't that an insult, equating Christians buying a plot of land to building a hotel or church?
Moreover, in Northern Nigeria, most Christian students seeking admission into universities, Federal or State, do not get admission to study the courses of their choice, even when they have good entry grades. When they are offered a place, they are often allocated courses they did not apply for. The irony is that candidates with lower scores get to study Medicine, Law, Engineering, and other prestigious subjects. This situation, as incredible as it appears, is an experience that many can attest to. Recently, one of my daughters scored 265 on the JAMB, the standard Nigerian entrance exam for universities, qualifying her to study Medicine. But the federal university in northern Nigeria she had applied to refused to offer her any admission because of its discriminatory policy. I had to protest to the school authorities before they offered her admission. Why should my children suffer because I am a Christian? Sadly, this kind of story happens regularly in Nigeria.
My other experience of religious persecution happened at the Kaduna North Local Government Area. My wife was born and brought up at Ungwan Rimi in Kaduna North and does not have any other place of birth. But a government official whose name and faith suggest that she hailed from Borno State denied my wife an 'indigeneship certificate', calling her instead a ‘settler’. It is religious persecution that allows Christians to be treated like that. A country that allows such open bigotry and fails to address such inequality cannot be said to be tolerant.
At another level, when Christians seek an opportunity, what often happens is that no one says “no” to them outright, but they are dragged along until they become weary. In the meantime, they see those who have a different faith, and who came later than they did, get the opportunity on the first day. A year later, the Christian applicant is still being told to wait. I think that the persecutors think they are smart and that we do not watch what is happening, perhaps that we do not comprehend the nitty-gritty of life.
In some states in the north of today, development projects hardly ever reach communities with a predominantly Christian population. Ask contractors who are of Christian background. They scarcely ever have large-capital contracts awarded to them. The aim, it appears, is to make Christians beg for assistance or favor. Are you telling me that Christian contractors, Christian engineers with COREN certificates, and Christian certified electricians, are not good enough? What makes them ‘not qualified’ is purely their faith. The persecutors will make sure things never work well for them.
In terms of appointments, the portfolio for Christians is merely there to hush the protests. We can see the discrimination practically every time appointments are made. The problem is that people have been pushed to the wall, making them afraid to speak their minds and ask questions. It is hard to protest when people have been paid to shout at you and insult you. But the reality is that religious persecution is ongoing, especially in Kaduna state, in northern Nigeria, as well as Nigeria as a whole, and nothing tangible has been done to address the situation.
Kaduna State did not get its first Christian police commissioner until 2005, and then only after the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) protested to the National Inspector-General of Police Tafa Balogun. But these days, to speak of posting a Christian to Kaduna as Commissioner of Police would be taken as talk of war.
Are the Nigeria Police a religious organization? What is the harm if a Christian becomes a Commissioner of Police in any northern state? I remember Tafa Balogun’s initial response to CAN’s request: 'You know, we don't do posting by religion.' But can you tell me why somebody from another faith cannot be Commissioner after all these years of Police service? A police commissioner is a police commissioner. He comes to handle crimes. He doesn't come to play religion. But some people will never accept a person from another faith to be a Commissioner of Police. At least, we still have hope for a change. If an Abdullahi can be a Police Commissioner in Delta State, for example, then a James should be a Commissioner of Police in Kaduna, Kano, and anywhere.
But you see, the politics of governance in Nigeria requires us to take up issues ourselves and demand our rights. That's why I say that I will not be intimidated by anybody in this country, because I believe that this country belongs to us, and we must not allow some people to treat us as second class. We should demand what is rightfully ours. We must rise to demand that we are respected. Besides, I will be the last person to be accused of bigotry. If I held a position of authority in this country, Muslims would have a place to build their mosques and practice their religion as free citizens. In the same way, when Christians are denied rights, I won't pretend that everything is all right.
Nigerian Christians have suffered for a long time. What is happening now under Buhari is that the persecution has taken on a greater dimension. That is why we, as Christians, feel that there is a grand plan to impoverish Christians and make them weak and voiceless. How do they do it? Even if there are opportunities, even if there is something that can benefit us, the way and manner in which it will be done will be skewed in such a way to frustrate the beneficiaries and push them into a corner. So, how could a country and a government that openly promote sectionalism based on faith be removed from the list of countries violating religious freedom?
We desire that we live together in harmony as neighbors in peace, but when you hit at me and deny me certain rights because of my faith and do not bother when others violate me, what else do you call religious persecution? Nigerians can co-exist. But religion is being deliberately exploited to suppress other citizens. How can we co-exist then?
If anybody is angry because we complain, we are protesting simply because something is wrong. Do the right thing and we will commend you, and if you do what's wrong, we will tell you it is wrong. In life, you work with people to bring them together, to form respect, to form acceptance, to do whatever will help them work together.
If this country believes in its 'federal character', and the federal character demands that certain privileges be given to people everywhere so that we can live together, why should these privileges not be applied to Christians? But people come to the table with prior sentiments and, sadly, if Christians receive favoritism, Christians will keep quiet, and if Muslims receive favoritism, Muslims keep quiet, and that is why we are where we are.
I challenge Nigerians that whenever a leader comes and wants to divide us, treating other people as if they do not belong because of their faith, we should be able to raise our voices to condemn this. How can you get people's cooperation when you discriminate against them? We are human beings. If people are not treated with respect, they become unproductive.
Every human being has fundamental rights - the right of the Muslim and that of the Christian are the same rights. Until we start treating our citizens without recourse to religious sentiment; until we start treating our citizens with respect as citizens, and not because they belong to a certain faith, our problem will not be solved.