U.S.-Nigeria policy must prioritize religious freedom
Mohamed Magid, Frank Wolf
March 8, 2023
At the start of the new year, armed gunmen in northern Nigeria invaded the home of Father Isaac Achi, a Catholic priest in Niger State, setting his residence ablaze and burning him to death. The attackers also shot and injured his colleague, Father Collins, as he tried to escape. Days later, when the state’s minority Christian community marched angrily to protest security force inaction at the local police station, authorities called in reinforcements and responded with force.
This is just the latest example of Nigerian security forces failing to ensure security for religious minorities and other vulnerable communities. Yet, the U.S. government refuses to publicly criticize the Nigerian government’s atrocious religious freedom record and broader disrespect for human rights.
Nigeria ranks as one of the countries with the highest risk for atrocities, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Early Warning Project. In a country with such high religiosity, this atrocity risk has significant impacts on religious communities. In the north, Christian minorities face violence and harassment. In the south, violent actors target Muslim minorities based on religion and ethnicity. In the center of the country, intercommunal violence often falls along sectarian lines and aggravates religious tensions, leading to thousands of civilian deaths. As symbols of social and political power, religious leaders in particular are targeted with violence and abduction, impacting communities’ abilities to worship and threatening their sense of safety.
While many of the perpetrators of violence are nonstate actors, the Nigerian government’s response to growing atrocities has been insufficient if not outright counterproductive. The government says capacity constraints restrict its ability to respond, yet security forces are frequently able to mobilize forces and political will when their own members are under threat.
Nigeria’s government is also using repressive tactics that disenfranchise vulnerable people rather than addressing the root causes of violence. Courts have increasingly imprisoned individuals with minority beliefs on charges of blasphemy rather than prosecuting those calling for violence against them. Human rights organizations highlight frequent abuses and denial of rights to those accused of terrorist activity. For more than a decade, the Nigerian military reportedly conducted a forced abortion campaign against pregnant women who had been rescued from extremist Muslim insurgents, while also targeting and murdering the children of these fighters.
The Nigerian government’s approach to addressing drivers of religious freedom violations is headed in the wrong direction. Our USCIRF colleagues — Vice Chair Abraham Cooper, appointed by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Commissioner Frederick A. Davie, appointed by Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) — have travelled to Nigeria in recent years and met with religious communities on the ground to hear their painful experiences firsthand. We all agree the U.S. government must do everything it can to urge Nigeria to course correct. However, it continues to pursue a “business as usual” approach to policy in Nigeria, to the detriment of human rights and the needs of everyday Nigerians.
The first critical change must be for the U.S. State Department to appoint a special envoy to better address the crisis impacting not just Nigeria but the whole Lake Chad Basin region. For the past year, USCIRF has been stressing the importance of appointing a special envoy, and we wholeheartedly support the creation of this position. Equally important, the State Department must redesignate Nigeria a country of particular concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act (1998). This designation would send a strong message to the Nigerian government that the U.S. does not approve of its repressive tactics in responding to religious tensions and other drivers of violence. It also creates an obligation that U.S. policy in Nigeria should focus more strategically on protecting religious freedom, human rights and atrocity prevention.
The U.S. House of Representatives just recently introduced bipartisan legislation calling on the Biden administration to immediately designate Nigeria a CPC and appoint a special envoy to Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin region. Passing this resolution would constitute an important reaffirmation of U.S. support for religious freedom in Nigeria.
Ramadan is fast approaching, followed by the Easter season. If past years are any indication, worshippers in Nigeria will likely face a threat of violence as they celebrate these holy seasons. The United States has the tools to advance respect for religious freedom in Nigeria and reduce risk of violence to faith communities; it just needs to use them.