When Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari visited Washington in the spring of 2018, President Trump told him to put a stop to attacks on religious freedom, specifically “the burning of churches and the killing and persecution of Christians” by radical Muslims in his country.
Things got better for a few months for Nigeria’s Christian community, which makes up about 40 percent of the 200 million people living in Nigeria.
But the level of commitment has slipped, and activists in both Nigeria and the United States have concluded it is time for President Trump to step up the pressure on Buhari’s government to protect Christians and even some Muslims from attacks by Islamists.
The numbers are astonishing – at least 60,000 Christians killed since 2001; more than 1,000 in the last year; more than 400 in 2020. There was the 2018 attack by Boko Haram, a militant Islamic group, in which more than 100 girls were stolen from a boarding school – one is still in captivity because she refuses to renounce her Christian faith.
There was the pastor seized during a service then beheaded by Boko Haram. There was the Islamic State video that showed an 8-year-old child soldier killing a Christian man in Nigeria and another showing the beheading of 10 Christian aid workers.
“The sheer wickedness of it is beyond anyone’s imagination,” said Dr. Richard Ikiebe of the International Organization for Peace Building and Social Justice, a non-governmental organization in Nigeria that promotes peace building and social justice. “The government’s security architecture is not designed to protect human rights. Christians are dying. Muslims are dying. For the sake of mothers and children and babies, we need to bring attention to this.”
What Ikiebe and other Nigerian and American activists want is for the Trump administration to appoint a special envoy for Nigeria – on top of the one already in place to combat Boko Haram – to urge the government to protect religious freedom and to make sure Buhari’s government understands that continued aid and cooperation with the United States on a broad range of issues is conditioned on significant progress in this area.
“We want the president to hold Nigeria accountable,” Ikiebe said. “There’s $800 million in foreign aid. What are they doing with it?”
Ikiebe said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told him protecting religious freedom is America’s top foreign policy priority. If this is true, he said, then the president should focus on Nigeria, where two of the world’s five deadliest terror networks – Boko Haram and Fulani extremists – are headquartered.
As many as 20 million Nigerians have been displaced by the violence – 300,000 of them in camps along the borders with Chad and Niger; another 19,000 have poured into Europe in the last two years.
Moreover, Nigeria is the largest producer of oil in Africa and the sixth largest in the world. If the persecution is not stopped, some fear leadership of the country could fall into far more radical hands backed by resources sufficient to create problems throughout Africa and beyond.
“Instability in Nigeria is a national security threat for the United States and other western nations,” said Stephen Enada, executive president of the International Committee on Nigeria, which works in the U.S. and Nigeria to address religious liberty issues in Nigeria and elsewhere.
“ISIS may be in retreat in the Middle East, [but] it has found a new and powerful ally in Boko Haram, which is entrenched in northern Nigeria. Like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria before it, an unstable Nigeria is becoming the new breeding ground for Islamist terrorists.”
Americans who have looked into this have come away astonished with the lack of law and order, protection of basic rights and respect for life. More than 900 Christian churches have been attacked by Islamists, and the government turns a blind eye, they said, which begets even more violence.
“I was told before I went over there that I hadn’t heard the half of it,” said Johnnie Moore, president of the Congress of Christian Leaders, who is working with the Nigerians to help convince the president to appoint an envoy for Nigeria.
“Then, the first guy I meet is a pastor on his second burned-down church. It’s a five-alarm fire. It’s reaching a tipping point.”
So much so that comparisons to the disaster of ethnic cleansing in Rwanda have emerged.
“What we don’t want,” said Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council and a member of the U.S. Council on Religious Freedom, “is to look back in a decade and see another Rwanda. It’s not a military concern … if we can get ahead of it.”