On June 28, CSI's Joel Veldkamp took part in a panel entitled "Breaking Point in Central Nigeria?" alongside Baroness Caroline Cox and Rev. Hassan John of the Anglican Church in Nigeria. The
panel, which was organized by PSJ-UK, took place in advance of the July 5-6 International Ministerial for
Freedom of Religion or Belief in London.
According to Veldkamp:
- "This is, in short, an organized campaign of ethnic cleansing, maybe even genocide."
- "The Nigerian armed forces are everywhere in this region. ...And yet...the ferocious attacks on Christian civilians in the Middle Belt are continuing and even intensifying."
- "Not only is the Nigerian government largely failing to stop this violence – it is also persecuting journalists and activists who speak out about it."
- "If the U.S. and the UK are not using their close relationship with the Nigerian government to address the Middle Belt crisis: what are all these religious freedom initiatives really good for?"
The full text of his talk follows:
Good evening, everyone.
It’s my privilege to represent Christian Solidarity International on this panel with two of my personal heroes, Baroness Caroline Cox and Reverend Hassan John from HART. And I also want to thank
our new friends at PSJ-UK, especially Rev. Ayo Adedoyin, for organizing this important event.
We’ve now heard from both Baroness Cox and Reverend Hassan about the terrible violence occurring in the Middle Belt. And I want to emphasize the conclusion of the joint report produced by HART, PSJ, and CSI in March, after our visit to the
Middle Belt: these are not just random killings.
These attacks represent a coordinated effort to use terror and death to drive the indigenous Christians of the Middle Belt out of the region. And it is working. According to our sources, 145
Christian communities in southern Kaduna have now been seized by Fulani militias and the settlers who follow them, amounting to 10% of the land in the region. In Benue state, over a million
Christians have been displaced by these attacks. In Plateau state as well, Fulani militias have used these attacks to seize numerous Christian villages, many of which have been renamed to erase
their connection to their previous inhabitants – a classic technique of genocide.
This is, in short, an organized campaign of ethnic cleansing, maybe even genocide.
So – what are the implications of all this for U.S. and British policy in Nigeria?
On our March trip to Nigeria, we traveled to four different villages in the Middle Belt that have been attacked in the last seven months. This is what struck me the most as we traveled: the Nigerian armed forces are everywhere in this region. On the main roads to and from each community, we encountered multiple manned checkpoints and armed vehicles, and sometimes full army bases.
In Tegbe village in Plateau state, which was attacked last November, armed soldiers were actually there to greet us when we arrived, and to not so subtly-suggest that we should leave.
And yet, despite this large military presence, the ferocious attacks on Christian civilians in the Middle Belt are continuing and even intensifying.
The consistent testimony of the survivors we talked to was that when the attacks occurred, they had called the army to come help, but soldiers arrived only after the attack was finished – sometimes hours or days later.
Baroness Cox mentioned that we visited the village of Atak Mawe in Kaduna state. This is a small village, but not a remote one. It straddles a major road that connects the large cities of Jos, Kaduna, and Kafanchan. Yet when it was attacked on January 30, the attack continued for over two hours without any help arriving. As a Nigerian activist said to me when he pointed this out, quote, “You can see why it baffles us.”
The nearby village of Zaman Dabo was attacked just two days after Atak Mawe. During this attack, soldiers were stationed just a few hundred meters away. But they did not intervene.
Some survivors even told us that there were signs that elements of the Nigerian military were collaborating in the attacks on their villages. Multiple survivors spoke of attackers wearing military uniforms. Senior figures in the Nigerian government, such as the late Dr. Obadiah Mailafia and former Defense Minister Theophilus Danjuma, have claimed that the government is collaborating with these attacks. It is noteworthy that on the same day as the massacre in Owo earlier this month, numerous witnesses reported seeing a Nigerian military helicopter participating in an attack on three Christian villages in Kaduna state. 32 Christian civilians were killed.
To what extent the Nigerian security forces, or elements within them, are actually collaborating with Fulani militia attacks, I cannot say. But what is undeniable is that Nigerian authorities, in particular the federal security forces and the Kaduna state government, are persecuting journalists and whistleblowers who draw attention to this crisis.
One of the people we met on our trip was the journalist and human rights activist Luka Binniyat. Luka recently spent ninety days in prison in terrible conditions, his punishment for an article he wrote about the massacre of 38 Christians at Madamai in Kaduna state last September. This was the third time in five years that Luka has been sent to prison for reporting on violence against Christians.
And Luka is not alone. Our joint report from March names five other journalists and whistleblowers from Kaduna state who were either imprisoned or forced into hiding after speaking out about these killings.
So, to sum up, not only is the Nigerian government largely failing to stop this violence – it is also persecuting journalists and activists who speak out about it. And there is considerable circumstantial evidence that elements of the Nigerian government are actually participating in these attacks.
This is not taking place in a vacuum. The Nigerian government enjoys close relationships with both the United States and the United Kingdom, both of whom have spent billions of dollars over the last two decades to train, equip, and arm the Nigerian military. The same military that is standing by while Christians are being driven out of their homelands in the Middle Belt.
This panel today is taking place in advance of the International Ministerial Conference for Freedom of Religion or Belief in London next week. This ministerial is part of a high-profile campaign by the U.S. and the UK governments to promote religious freedom as a “vital instrument of influence overseas,” as a recent British government strategy document puts it.
I think we have to ask: if the U.S. and the UK are not using their close relationship with the Nigerian government to address the Middle Belt crisis: what are all these religious freedom initiatives really good for? This is probably the single deadliest campaign of religious persecution in the world at the moment. Will it even be mentioned from the stage in London next week?
As part of its efforts to promote international religious freedom, the United States maintains a list of “countries of particular concern.” Countries are added to this list for “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” Last November, the U.S. took Nigeria off of this list. It offered no explanation, no justification, just took Nigeria off of the list.
But in a feeble concession to reality, the U.S. decided to list the jihadist groups Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province as “Entities of Particular Concern.” As if to say – Nigeria itself has no problems with religious persecution. These two groups are the problem.
This rhetorical shift leaves a giant hole in the U.S.’ Nigeria policy – a hole the size and shape of the Middle Belt. As terrible as Boko Haram and the Islamic State are, they are not driving the ethnic cleansing campaign in the Middle Belt. And by all the evidence available to us, it seems that the U.S. and the UK are willing to ignore this violence as long as their core interests in Nigeria are taken care of.
The Middle Belt is the barometer by which we should measure the seriousness of the U.S. and the UK’s commitment to religious freedom in Nigeria. As long as our leaders are refusing to speak about it, or speaking about it with values-free rhetoric about “climate change,” “intercommunal clashes,” or “complex causes,” rather than calling it what it is – an ethnic cleansing campaign, a slow-motion genocide – as long as our leaders refuse to defend human rights whistleblowers like Luka Binniyat when they are persecuted by the Nigerian state - they are not serious about ending religious persecution in Nigeria.
When it comes to Nigeria, the clear demand of religious freedom activists must be: Stop the killings. Save the Middle Belt!
Thank you very much.
View the entire panel here: