Two weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend a private conference sponsored by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office focusing on social cohesion in Nigeria.
At the event, which featured a number of Nigerians from Nigeria, a number of civil servants and parliamentarians as well as representatives from the Nigerian-diaspora in the UK and the US, the vital concerns of security, human rights and aid in Africa’s most populous nation were discussed and passionately debated. Specifically, the conference set out to address the Government’s take-up of the Bishop of Truro’s 2019 report on Christian persecution around the world. Nigeria was featured in that report and also re-appeared on Open Door’s World Watch List of the Top 50 countries where Christians are being persecuted.
This comes in the wake of over 1300 ‘faith-targeted’ deaths last year at the hands of a resurgent ISIS in West Africa, some in the most gruesome manner possible. At the cornerstone of ISIS ideology is the principle of kafir, the unbeliever, of which Christians form a part. And not only are Christians deemed unbelievers, they are maliciously attacked for it. For too long both Britain and Nigeria have ignored, sometimes wilfully, this silent slaughter on the verge of becoming a pandemic.
Despite the good intentions of the FCO in hosting the conference, which I greatly appreciated, as the leader of a humanitarian organisation defending the rights of persecuted Christians and other affected minorities, I am very concerned that the hosting of this gathering could very easily have been a ‘box-ticking’ exercise with no deep desire to change the current narrative or see a change in the ‘on-ground’ realities.
A number of delegates repeatedly made the point that members of both major religions were equally affected by the evil actions of the terrorists but this does not absolve the Nigerian government of its responsibilities to protect all of its people – and especially the minorities whom the terrorist have earmarked in their rhetoric and their actions. As one member of The House of Lords said ‘These killings have a religious motivation to them when you behead 10 Christians on Christmas Day’. Indeed the Nigerian government has itself finally admitted recently that Christians are the particular focus of creeping violence. Then there’s the case of Leah Sharibu whose mother was recently forced to come to London to appeal directly to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the British people to get President Buhari of Nigeria to fulfil his promise to negotiate for her daughter’s freedom as had been done for the other 104 surviving girls (all Muslims) who had been abducted together. Two years on, Leah remains the only one of them to still be held in captivity simply because she refused to renounce her Christian faith.
Ninety-one million Christians live in Nigeria, making up around 46 per cent of the total population of 196 million. There are a similar number of Muslims in Nigeria – over ninety million. In Nigeria, the majority of Christians live in the south of the country, and their religious freedom is respected. But in the north of Nigeria and the ‘Middle Belt’, especially where Christians are in the minority, they face horrific levels of persecution at the hands of Islamic extremists.
The militant group Boko Haram have abducted and killed those who refuse to conform to their extremist brand of Islam. Attacks by armed groups of Muslim Fulani herdsmen have resulted in the killing, maiming, dispossession and eviction of thousands of Christians. Twelve of the northern states are under Sharia (Islamic law), and Christians in these states face discrimination.
The Global Terrorism Index in 2016 and 2017 named Fulani militia as the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world, with only Boko Haram, ISIS and al-Shabab being accounted deadlier. The recent conference was told that the Fulani are not an organised militia group yet many atrocities attributed to them will suggest otherwise. This increases the necessity on the international community led by Britain as former colonial actors in Nigeria to invest more in getting to the bottom of this disconnect and turn the current escalating insecurities around. I guess this is what post-brexit ‘Global Britain’ looks like – especially if we intend to invest billions of pounds and the lives of British people in Nigeria and Africa.
The UK must wake up to the fact that Nigeria, a prominent Commonwealth member, ranks highly (12th) on Open Doors World Watch List 2020 of the countries in which Christians are most persecuted. By comparison, Syria ranks eleventh and Saudi Arabia ranks thirteenth, with Iraq fifteenth and Egypt sixteenth. Nigeria is just one rank below ‘extreme’.
The most disturbing trend throughout the recent terrorist atrocities is their premeditated character. Each year the aggressors strike precisely at a moment when Christians are gathered together in hopeful expectation and are easy targets. According to Open Doors, 40 Christians were slaughtered in the week leading up to last Easter.
This suggests other motives for these unreported attacks than climate change, unemployment or desertification. There is an intentionality to these murders, specifically aimed at Christians during a sacred time of the year, that cannot be ignored.
I welcome the news that the UK, which in artificially defining the borders of West African countries in the twentieth century has partly contributed to the chaos, is now involved in resisting Islamist incursions into Mali. It is high time such military aid was now supplied directly to other affected countries, including Nigeria. This would be a preferable, and more efficient, form of aid to the current measure of UK taxpayer money we give the country each year. Aid can be channelled to local and efficient charities and agencies with proven results of protecting vulnerable citizens, providing crops for displaced farmers and giving educational lessons to internally displaced refugee children fleeing Boko Haram/ISIS.
Britain’s historic involvement in Africa did not directly create the Islamist threat we now face, but it did set the boundaries for it, politically and geographically. It is fitting that it should now set the boundaries for the solution and prepare the arena for a final defeat of the warped dream of a Sharia-fuelled ideologically driven Christian-less state stretching across Africa and the Middle East. This is very much in Britain’s interest. Mayhem in Nigeria will surely precede another exodus of desperate migrants heading for British shores.
Just as important as the eventual defeat of ISIS is the follow-up in affected countries. We have seen in Syria and Iraq that bombing raids on terrorist cells do nothing for the long-term good of a country, as they leave a void to be filled by rival groups. Key to preventing an Islamist comeback is strengthening the Nigerian law and justice system, improving the accountability of politicians, and restructuring the economy so that more jobs and more business will mean investors will have more to lose and less to gain by ignoring the problem.
British military involvement in West Africa is just the beginning of our attempts to destroy a resurgent ISIS in the Sahel. I hope the recent FCO conference is the first of many which acknowledge and address this vital issue, particularly how the UK can help re-make Nigeria a prosperous, autonomous and safe country for all.