The US no longer considers Nigeria a ‘Country of Particular Concern’, but what has changed?

In December 2020, the United States’ (US) State Department designated Nigeria a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), finding that the government was responsible for engaging in or tolerating “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.”

The rather belated decision marked the first time Nigeria had been placed on the State Department’s list, despite having been recommended for designation since 2009, and was also the first time a nominally secular democracy had been designated a CPC.

It reflected the severity of an ongoing crisis in the country,  which includes longstanding systemic and systematic violations of the rights of religious minorities in the north and central regions, and violence in which thousands of vulnerable citizens – many of them Christians – have been killed, while hundreds of thousands more have been forcibly displaced by armed non-state actors, including assailants of Fulani origin, and members of the Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Ansaru terrorist organisations.

It was therefore deeply disappointing that on 15 November, a little less than a year after being designated a CPC, Nigeria was removed from the list, despite the fact the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) had recommended its redesignation less than two months earlier.

The rationale for this removal is hard to fathom, as there has been no improvement in the situation of religious minorities in the last 12 months. On the contrary, it has deteriorated significantly.

News of Nigeria’s removal from the CPC list has met with widespread condemnation, including from USCIRF, whose Chair Nadine Maenza said in a statement: “While the State Department took steps forward on some designations, USCIRF is especially displeased with the removal of Nigeria from its CPC designation, where it was rightfully placed last year.”

CSW shares these concerns, and our question to the State Department is: “What changes within the last 11 months warranted Nigeria’s delisting as a CPC?”

The failure to re-designate Nigeria comes amidst ongoing, egregious religion-related violence by terrorists in the northeast, by assailants of Fulani origin in central states, and ongoing historical violations targeting Christian communities in the country’s Shari’a states. 

This violence, which has increased exponentially under Nigeria’s current administration, has also been insufficiently addressed. Instead, it has metastasised, occasioning similar death and displacement in Muslim communities of Hausa ethnicity in northwestern states, and a general rise in abductions for ransom across the country by assailants of predominantly Fulani origin, with the lives of civilians regularly commoditised and extinguished on the slightest pretext by non-state actors.    

The last year has witnessed a scourge of armed attacks on educational establishments resulting in over 1,100 students being abducted for ransom and at least seven being killed since December 2020. 

The shoes of children abducted from Bethel Baptist High School, Kaduna. Photo: Bosan Yakusak.

Beyond the targeting of educational establishments, Fulani militia remain responsible for widespread violence against vulnerable communities, including notably on 26 and 27 September when at least 49 people were killed and 27 were abducted in attacks in three Local Government Areas (LGAs) of Kaduna state.

Recent attacks include the abduction for ransom of 66 members of Emmanuel Baptist Church, in Kakau Daji, Chikun LGA during Sunday service on 7 November, five of whom were killed by their abductors; three women and one man killed in separate attacks in Zangon Kataf LGA in Kaduna state on 10 November; and 11 people killed in an attack on the Ta’agbe community in the Miango Chiefdom of Bassa LGA, Plateau State, on 25 November.

In an indication of the inefficacy of official responses to this violence, these attacks, and more, have occurred despite an increased security presence. In the case of Kaduna state, an internet and mobile network blackout was billed as disrupting the abductors communications, however, as the abductors boasted openly of using walkie talkies and satellite phones while continuing to kill, abduct and maim, the communications blackout prevented victims from calling for assistance.

Leah Sharibu

The Nigerian government has taken woefully insufficient action to address these threats, with many abductees, including Christian schoolgirl Leah Sharibu and an estimated 110 remaining Chibok girls, remaining in terrorist captivity.

While the State Department’s designation of the Islamic State West Africa Province and Boko Haram as entities as Entities of Particular Concern (EPCs) is welcome, it further highlights the shortsightedness of the country’s de-listing as a CPC. 

There are credible concerns that Fulani militia have now cemented ties with terrorists in the north-east, amidst reports of the relocation of two Boko Haram leaders, their fighters and several bomb makers to forests in the south of Kaduna state, and of the presence of the Al Qaeda affiliate Ansaru in the area. The most recent abductions and murders along the notorious Kaduna-Abuja road are also being attributed to terrorists.

In the words of a senior religious leader: “This thing is not abating; it is becoming more complex, is expanding and is being institutionalised.”

In addition to its apparent tolerance of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) such as these, the Nigerian authorities also meet other criteria for CPC designation by engaging in systematic, ongoing and egregious FoRB violations.

In Shari’a states, Christian communities continue to face a host of violations, including the abduction, forced conversion and marriage without parental consent of underage girls, and land seizures without compensation. In Rogo LGA in Kano state, for example, Muslim local authorities are reportedly currently involved in the collection of dowry for three underage girls, the youngest of whom is aged 14, on behalf of perspective suitors. To the dismay of their parents, they are offering the girls for marriage “at no cost” in January 2022, if not earlier.

In October, the Kaduna state government demolished 263 buildings in the predominantly Christian Gracelands community in Zaria, including six churches, a school complex and homes, despite a court ruling against any demolition in at least one instance. The demolitions were carried out overnight, giving families little time to salvage any of their possessions, and on the pretext that the land belonged to the National College of Aviation Technology (NCAT), even though the proprietors had been granted official certificates of ownership for the land and had been paying all necessary taxes. Many were retirees who had sunk life savings and gratuities into their properties.  At least one is reported to have been hospitalised by the shock of what occurred, and to have died soon thereafter.

And Christians are not alone in experiencing violations. 

Under the current regime, some 700 unarmed men, women and children belonging to the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), a Shi’a organisation, were killed in December 2015 over two days in attacks on their facilities by the Nigerian army that were launched after an IMN religious procession blocked a road on which a convoy carrying the former Chief of Army Staff (COAS) was travelling. While IMN leader Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky and his wife, Zeena Ibraheem, who had been detained since 2015, were finally released on 29 July 2021 after being acquitted of all eight criminal charges brought against them by the Kaduna state government, the organisation he founded was banned in 2019. 

Armed attacks on IMN members seeking peacefully to observe their faith have continued to occur, the most recent being the killing in September 2021 of eight members in the federal capital, Abuja, who were participating in a procession to mark Arbaeen.

Moreover, Nigeria’s blasphemy laws continue to occasion miscarriages of justice.

In another case highlighting intra-religious violations, on 10 August 2020 a Shari’a court in the Hausawa Filin Hockey area of Kano city, the capital of the notoriously volatile Kano state, sentenced Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, 22, to death by hanging after deeming him guilty of blaspheming in a song he had shared via WhatsApp in late February 2020. His accusers claimed that the song elevated a renowned scholar from the Tijjaniyya Sufi order above the Prophet Mohammed.  The court also sentenced a minor aged 13, to ten years in prison with menial labour for using foul language against God during an argument with a friend.

Both sentences were subsequently overturned on 21 January 2021 by the appeal division of the High Court in Kano state.  However, Mr Sharif-Aminu’s future remains uncertain as he faces a retrial.  The cases highlight the continued misuse of Nigeria’s blasphemy law, and its incompatibility with the country’s national and international obligations.

In a case highlighting the ongoing violations of the rights of the non-religious, the President of the Nigerian Humanist Association, Mubarak Bala has been detained arbitrarily since 28 March 2020, when he was arrested at his home in Kaduna state for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed in Facebook posts.

Mr Bala, who is currently imprisoned without formal charge in Kano state, was held incommunicado for the first 162 days of his detention, and an order for his release issued the Federal High Court of Abuja by on 21 December 2020 continues to be ignored.

Mr Bala’s case also highlights the intersection between democracy and FoRB, particularly the seeming disregard of the current administration for the rule of law as part of a worrying and progressive clawing back of Nigeria’s democratic gains.  2016 saw raids on multiple homes of senior judges in Abuja, Enugu, Gombe, Kano, Port Harcourt and Sokoto, allegedly due to financial irregularities, while two more were recommended for early retirement.

The lead up to 2019 elections saw the harassment and removal on dubious bases of the Chief Justice Walter Samuel Nkanu Onnoghen, and his replacement by Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed, formerly a Shari’a court judge, who subsequently oversaw appeals against electoral malpractices in a perfunctory manner, summarily handing victory to the ruling party.

The period immediately preceding the US Secretary of State’s announcement of Nigeria’s delisting as a CPC witnessed a return of the wanton intimidation of judges.

The federal authorities are attempting to deny all responsibility for a raid in which over 50 armed security operatives raided the home of one of Nigeria’s most senior judges, Justice Mary Odili, on a warrant allegedly issued on the orders of Attorney General Abubakar Malami (SAN) that was later revoked following an unprecedented outcry by the public and the Nigeria Bar Association. 

Additionally, the freedoms of expression and of the press are being increasingly curtailed by a draconian broadcasting act and the regular levelling of cyberstalking charges against journalists and bloggers. They often face lengthy and arbitrary pretrial detention for speaking out about violations or corruption, as is currently the case once again with journalist and spokesperson for the Southern Kaduna Peoples Union, Luka Binniyat.

During a visit to Nigeria earlier this month, the US Secretary of State made public statements which appeared to herald a return to business as usual. However, he also met privately with Christian religious leaders who left him in no doubt about their deep disappointment, and he expressed an interest in how the government would take forward the findings of the damning report by the Lagos End SARS Panel, which recently found the army and police complicit in a massacre at the Lekki Toll Gate on 20 October 2020, and in subsequently covering up the death toll and preventing medical assistance from reaching the injured.   

On the first anniversary of the massacre presidential spokesman Lai Mohammed had dismissed the event as “a massacre without bodies,” but claimed to have been misquoted while the US Secretary of State was in the country.  However, soon after he left, Mr Mohammed again denied a massacre had occurred, and began describing the report, among other things as “fake news” and “tales by moonlight.”

Worse still, the army officer who supervised the massacre has reportedly been promoted; a panel member has expressed fears for his life after receiving threats, and several people who stepped forward to testify before the panel are also being threatened, with one woman requiring stiches after suffering a serious assault.

These are just a few examples of violations of the right to FoRB and intersecting rights, which highlight the need for continued international vigilance and scrutiny. Nigeria is on a precipice, and as much as it may wish to do so, the US administration cannot simply resume business as usual.

The removal of the CPC designation at such a critical time sends the wrong message to perpetrators of religion-related violence and general lawlessness that shows no sign of abating. The State Department must strongly affirm that the lives of Nigeria’s religious minorities matter by restoring Nigeria’s CPC designation as a matter of utmost urgency, thereby ensuring that economic and other nebulous gains are not prioritised at the expense of the rights, freedoms and lives of individuals and communities.

By CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas CMG

2 thoughts on “The US no longer considers Nigeria a ‘Country of Particular Concern’, but what has changed?

  1. Is UN waiting for a complete genocide to respond or act? Already hundreds of Christians killed & more wounded, having homes/churches burned & threat of danger so cannot work their land. Nigerian govt. must be preasured or aided in protecting Christian people from Boco Haram, militant, radical Fulani herdsman & State west Africa province terrorists.

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