Nigeria is currently battling with managing cultural and religious pluralism in a nation that is roughly divided between a predominantly Christian south and a Muslim north. With over 250 ethnic groups, about 220 million people and prospects of being the largest economy in the continent, other nations have always looked up to Africa’s most populous nation for leadership. Despite being the country with the largest Catholic Mass attendance in the world, bad leadership has exposed Christians to various forms of persecution. Over 100 priests and religious sisters were either kidnapped, arrested or killed in 2022, according to Aid to the Church in Need. A similar report by SBM Intelligence indicates that 145 attacks were meted on Catholic priests last year.
In March, Pope Francis marked International Women’s Day by meeting two Nigerian women who were held captive by Boko Haram Islamists. While Janada Marcus, aged 22, spent more than a year in captivity, another teenager, Mariya Joseph was kidnapped when she was eight years. Both survived with harrowing experiences. Between 2012 and 2018, Maiduguri Diocese lost 903 Catholics to the jihadi sect. Similarly, Zangon Kataf, Chikun, Kaura, Lere, Kajuru, Jema’a and Kaura Local Government Areas of Kaduna State are epicenters of attack on predominantly Christian communities where scores have been killed, and others rendered homeless. Kaduna state ranks highest in the kidnapping and killing of Catholic priests. Also, mainly Christian communities in Kwande, Katsina-Ala, Oju, Guma, Gwer and Agatu Local Government Areas of Benue State are affected.
Four priests were massacred in the state. Despite the anti-grazing bill, Makurdi Diocese has lost 13 parishes to activities of Fulani herdsmen. In Plateau State, Solomon Dalyop Mwantiri, a lawyer and youth leader, recently raised the alarm that Fulani militia “have succeed in uprooting and also occupying 102 villages”. The International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law reported that over 1000 Christians were killed in Nigeria this year. In an April 10 report, Open Doors confirmed that Nigeria is one of the most dangerous places ‘”to follow Jesus.”
The organisation’s sub-Saharan Africa analyst, Illia Djadi observed that: “Nigeria is currently one of the scariest places to be a Christian.” Open Doors Watch List indicates that no fewer than 52,250 people were killed in the last 14 years in Nigeria for merely being Christian. This piece attempts to x-ray local and international responses to Christian persecution while offering policy recommendations towards the safety of Christians in Nigeria.
Anti-Christian persecution in Nigeria: Local responses
First, amid persecution by Boko Haram, Fulani herdsmen or armed bandits, the reaction is often psychological. Some who escape with a limb, or some family members undergo shock, pain, and traumatic experiences. Others who loss breadwinners, spouses or children are left in an emotional limbo. Second, survivors look to the Church for spiritual succour. They resign themselves to the will of God. They expect the Church to fight for them by urging government to secure lives and livelihoods. Being that “Africans are notoriously religious” as John Mbiti (1975) would say, most victims resort to an Old Testament God who crushes enemies and protects (Cf. Psalm 68:20) his elect; they call on the “God who answers by fire” (Cf. 1 Kings 18:24). Third, Christian groups in the northern part of the country — Taraba, Plateau, Benue, Gombe, Kogi, Kaduna and the Federal Capital Territory — recourse to political solutions in the face of discrimination and persecution.
Although commentators think that the country has 12 Muslim states and 19 Christian states plus five that can be contested, Christians seem overwhelmed and intimidated politically. The Muslim-Muslim ticket that produced the new president is a case in point. Fourth, the anthropological reaction comes in when Christians resort to self-help. Carnage by extremists on people’s homestead and Churches where their parents and grandparents were baptised, confirmed, and wedded often leads to reprisal attacks and sometimes killing of innocent Muslims in states like Benue, Plateau and Kaduna. Regrettably, vendetta becomes a vicious cycle.
Fifth, legal response is usually the last resort. When faced with discrimination in admission into public institutions, employment, seizure of land, forceful marriage and or Islamisation of minors, Christians hardly take legal action. Those who dare, suffer further threats, which weakens their resolve to recourse to the law in the future. Unfortunately, Christian lawyers have failed to become the voice of the Church in Northern Nigeria by rising in defense of the faith.
International rhetoric amid genocide
When there is genocide against Christians in Nigeria, the first reaction of the West is offering moral support. This is expressed through outright condemnation of such dastardly acts and call for justice. After such strong-worded statements from US President, Joe Biden or British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, victims are left to nurse their wounds — weeks pass, and the story is left in the coolers until another tragedy occurs. The action of the international community is often curative rather than preventive. The problem is often associated with power tussle between Christians and Muslims and climate change. Swayed by these false narratives, the West takes a bystander posture.
Despite evidence of anti-Christian persecution in Nigeria on the desk of international research bodies such as Open Doors, Pew Research, et al, the West has not shifted grounds. Though foreign-donors send relief aid — food, medicine and erects make-shift houses for victims, Internally Displaced Persons have accused some United Nations’ related bodies of forcing them to accept condoms as a condition to be given food handouts. The Christian Post has reported that several displacement camps have communicated that food and other aid “is not for Christians.”
One wonders why this supposedly “Good Samaritan” approach only comes after villages have been sacked. Is there a business angle to this? Well, although extant studies confirm the place of entrepreneurs of violence, researchers and moralists need to investigate the difference between an action and its basic orientation.
It is crucial to understand how Christians respond to persecution in other parts of Africa. In his study, “To whom do we turn? How Christians respond to religious persecution in Kenya, Nigeria and Sudan,” Robert Dowd (2018) discloses that in countries like Nigeria and Kenya where the persecution of Christians is basically societal persecution, there are mostly two kinds of responses – first, Christian leaders often appeal to government to ensure it secures lives and properties; second, they engage in interreligious dialogue with Muslim leaders towards entrenching peaceful-coexistence. However, the scholar notes that in Sudan where what is happening is state-sponsored persecution, the recipe remains engaging the international community for help. Dowd’s submission sounds persuasive.
However, his conclusion that the persecution of Christians in Nigeria is societal persecution lacks empirical evidence. The testimony of veteran Nigerians like the late former deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Obadiah Mailafia and Bishop of Sokoto Diocese, Matthew Hassan Kukah about the plight of Christians and data generated by international Think-Tanks such as Open Doors, Pew Research, et al, strongly suggests otherwise. Kukah had accused the Federal Government of “using the levers of power to secure the supremacy of Islam, which then gives more weight to the idea that it can be achieved by violence.”
Residents of some parts of Southern Kaduna have claimed that their attackers ambushed their communities in helicopters. Bishop Godfrey Onah of Nsukka lamented: “We no longer have tears to cry. We are now crying blood” while preaching last year at St. Theresa’s Cathedral, Nsukka, Enugu State. Bishop Onah regretted that in Nigeria, “it is not just sorrows that flow, but human blood; our blood.” The fact that those who destroy villages and take people hostage are not brought to justice sends a wrong signal. The complicity of state-actors who collude with non-state-actors to unleash terror on the nation presents the persecution in Nigeria as one which is hydra-headed. Recall that Leah Sharibu and other Christians are still in the hands of their captors and no one appears bothered. Sharibu is one of the 110 schoolgirls that were kidnapped by the Boko Haram from a girls’ high school in Yobe state on February 19, 2018. She was not released because of her Christian faith.
There are thousands of Christians in IDP camps in Borno, Adamawa, Benue and Taraba states. A 32-page report of atrocious anti-Christian persecution in northern Nigeria from January 2022 to February 2023 co-funded by the Hungarian government and The Kukah Centre, Abuja disclosed that: “There is a denial on the part of the government and the military that it is complacent and overwhelmed with terrorist activities in the country.” What further evidence does the U.S. State Department need to re-designate Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern?
Changing the narrative
The Church must deliberately woo heads of international organisations such as United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, European Union, African Union Commission, British Parliament, U.S. State Department, International Christian Concern, World Watch List, Christian Solidarity Worldwide… with enough data of the reality on ground while combining the spiritual and political solutions with massive protests, robust social-media activism and speaking with a united voice. This can change the narrative. It is expedient for Christians across Nigeria to court international media like the BBC, RFI, Voice of America, China Radio International, Deutsche Welle etc. so as to report eye-witness accounts of their plight.
Indigenous Christians in the north should train their children in the local lingua franca and step up their languages towards having a voice in the international media. Will the new government act differently? Well, until the Church in the region and the entire country rises to the occasion, the persecution of Christians in Nigeria will remain an open wound.