I had read about the United States Government’s delisting of Nigeria from the list of “Countries of Particular Concern” with respect to violations of religious freedom. However, until Arise TV’s news producer called me on Saturday afternoon to come and discuss the matter on Newsnight, I did not know that leadership of the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, had rejected the delisting and wanted the Americans to restore our country to the list.
In delisting Nigeria, a year after his predecessor Mike Pompeo put us in there, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said he has the responsibility each year “to identify governments and non-state actors who, because of their religious freedom violations, merit designation under the International Religious Freedom Act.” He designated Burma, People’s Republic of China, Eritrea, Iran, DPRK [North Korea], Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the former Soviet Republics of Tajikistan and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern.
Blinken said these countries have engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.” He also placed Algeria, Cuba, Comoros and Nicaragua on a secondary “Special Watch List for governments that have engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.” I have my own reservations about this list but I have not issued a statement rejecting it.
The Nigerian state escaped blacklist but two Nigerian non-state actors, Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province [ISWAP], made it into the American list of “Entities of Particular Concern,” alongside al-Shabab, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Houthis, ISIS, ISIS-Greater Sahara, Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin and Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban.
What are CAN President Samson Ayorinde’s reasons for rejecting the new American list? He said Christians in Nigeria were “still facing persecution from ISWAP, Boko Haram and other terrorist organisations.” Exactly, which was why the US government listed them on its watch list. It did not list bandits or herdsmen probably because it does not have a name to use, they not being “organisations” strictly speaking. Despite allegations to the contrary, their respective concerns are ransom money and grazing fields, not religion.
With another big caveat. In 12 years Boko Haram and ISWAP have killed many times more Muslims than Christians. Sure Boko Haram exploded bombs in churches, including one horrific Christmas Day attack in 2012, but it exploded bombs in innumerable mosques as well and indiscriminately shot people at prayer, Muslim or Christian. That was because as far as Shekau was concerned, anyone who did not join his group deserved death, his formal religious identity notwithstanding. It is understandable if Nigerian Christians blame the Muslim community for producing such a monster, albeit by default, not design.
Ayokunle also said “The US government did not contact us when they were listing Nigeria among the countries of ‘Particular Concern’ on religious freedom, neither did they seek our opinion before removing Nigeria from the list.” I thought that was fair enough. If they did not ask you before drawing up the list, why should they ask you before revising it? Don’t forget they have a huge Embassy in Nigeria, and most probably a large network of CIA agents as well. They probably know more about Nigeria than CAN does.
Ayokunle said “If they had [consulted us], we would have been able to compare the statistics then and now on the issue of freedom of religion in Nigeria.” Since the Americans are satisfied with their own compilation of statistics and CAN is not, I think the right thing for CAN to do is to issue its own Watch List and place whoever it wants in there.
Ayokunle “urged the US government to help us by allowing us to know what has changed between the time our country was put in the list of ‘countries of particular concern’ and now.” Let me be presumptive and answer on the Yanks’ behalf. The biggest thing that changed was the US Administration. President Trump’s impulsive, irrational, ideology-before-fact Administration has been replaced by President Biden’s apparently more rational and closer-to-the-facts Administration. No wonder Blinken said “The challenges to religious freedom in the world today are structural, systemic and deeply entrenched. They exist in every country,” apparently including the United States. Roman Catholics are 25% of the US population but Biden is only the second Catholic President, after John Kennedy.
Why should anyone be upset because Nigeria is delisted? The American listing is relied upon by many religious groups in the Western world to channel funds to organisations that supposedly defend Christian interests around the world. Such funds to Nigeria could now dry up or reduce to a trickle. Desperate young Nigerians eager for asylum in the West also use the State Department’s list to buttress their claims of religious persecution. Such persons clutch at every straw. Ten years ago, a Nigerian woman sought asylum in UK because according to her, if she returned home, her daughter will be circumcised, which she said is the practice in Yorubaland.
It is difficult to see how the Nigerian state could engage in “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom” against a religious group that is roughly half of the population, dominant in professions and commerce, roughly at par in the public service, on roughly equal footing in the military and security agencies, while Muslim and Christian politicians operate cheek and jowl and Muslim and Christian MPs are hand in glove.
Since 1999, Nigeria has been ruled roughly equally by Muslim and Christian Presidents. The Federal Executive Council [FEC] is so mixed religiously that no one ever brought a memo pushing a policy of systematic religious persecution. No memo that pushes such a policy can work up layers of the civil service without being instantly exposed. The same applies to National Assembly, judiciary, police, security services and military forces.
Sure there are sleights of hand by officials to confer undue advantage to people from their regional or religious communities. This attitude is strictly bipartisan. Sometimes you could excuse the officials concerned because in Nigerian society, the pressure on a person to “do something for his kinsmen and women” is tremendous. One’s kinsmen easily bring up statistics to say when the former holder of this office was here, he favoured his kinsmen, so you should do the same. It also happens at all levels; since 1980 when Professor Ambrose Alli sited Bendel State University at his home town Ekpoma, numerous Nigerian state governors have sited state universities in their home towns and people think it is alright.
CAN President Ayokunle brought up the issue of Nigeria’s observer status in the Organisation of Islamic Conference [OIC], which has been festering since 1986, “without being part of any international Christian organization.” This is simple, as far as I am concerned. I urge the Federal Government to either end Nigeria’s observer status in OIC, or else ask CAN to identify a suitable international Christian body to which we can apply for observer status or even full membership.