Time to end the silence on the persecution of Christians in Nigeria

Published 16 June 2020  |  
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A family of four is shot and injured by armed assailants as they pray in their home. Medical staff save the life of a six-month old baby who was shot in the head during an attack which claimed 17 lives, including that of the baby's mother. A three-year-old dies 24 hours after suffering machete blows to the head sustained in an attack in which nine people died and seven remain missing.

The scale and severity of the violent atrocities which take place on a near daily basis in central Nigeria is utterly heart-breaking.

It is difficult to find words to describe these appalling acts, but one thing is clear: it is time to end the silence on the persecution of Christians in the region.

For over a decade, central Nigeria has been plagued by violence perpetrated by an armed group comprising men of Fulani ethnicity, which was first observed in Plateau state in March 2010, and has been increasingly exponentially since 2015. The militia is believed to have been responsible for more deaths since 2015 than the notorious Boko Haram terrorist group, and yet international attention and action on the issue has been woefully inadequate.

This attention deficit is an issue the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for International Freedom of Religion or Belief hopes to address with the publication of its new report. Entitled 'Nigeria: Unfolding genocide?', the report sets out to increase understanding of the escalating crisis in the region, exploring a range of factors which both drive and exacerbate the situation.

Acknowledging the intensely complicated nature of the conflict, the report highlights several contributing factors, including competition for resources, the spread of extremist ideologies and criminality, the flow of firearms into the region, and widespread misinformation. In addition to these varied drivers, the APPG specifically explores how the violence "has manifested along religious lines, as the herders are predominantly ethnic Fulani Muslims and the farmers are predominantly Christians."

The central role of religion in the crisis is perhaps best highlighted in the question asked by Nitriku village head Dauda Rogo, whose village in Kaduna State was attacked in April this year: "Why did the Fulani leave the Muslims who are farmers and attack only Christians if this is not a religious issue? This is more than grazing land or farmers and herders' fight over land."

The situation is further exacerbated by inaction on the part of the Nigerian government – not a single perpetrator of these attacks has been brought to justice, and in some cases it is suspected that authorities have failed to heed early warnings of impending attacks. This has led to the emergence of an impunity in which armed non-state actors are emboldened to attack, while Christian communities feel increasingly victimised and persecuted. Additionally, instead of pursuing perpetrators, the authorities often target those who draw attention to these attacks with judicial and other forms of harassment, accusing them of stoking division.

The international community has also failed to respond appropriately to this violence, with many governments, including the UK, maintaining close economic relationships with Nigeria whilst failing to address the unfolding horrors being perpetrated by the Fulani militia. Often attacks are characterised as 'farmer-herder clashes,' which fails to acknowledge the frequency, organisation and asymmetry with which they are being perpetrated. Regrettably, the UK government often appears far more concerned with challenging the terminology used to describe this violence than with addressing the violence itself.

Attacks by Fulani militia are just one of several threats Christians in central and northern Nigeria contend with. In the north-east, Boko Haram and an offshoot terrorist group known as Islamic State's West Africa Province both continue to be responsible for widespread killings, including of Muslims, and abductions for ransom, with many women and girls currently held captive by both factions.

As the title of the report suggests, there are genuine concerns that the current situation in Nigeria may be evolving into ethnic cleansing, and possibly genocide. Inaction thus far is already a blight on the conscience of the international community. It is past time for that inaction to end.

Mervyn Thomas is the Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a human rights organisation specialising in freedom of religion or belief.

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