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.

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On freedom of religion or belief, the UK government needs to turn its rhetoric to reality

“The fact is that we simply can’t afford to be religiously illiterate in today’s world. To be religiously illiterate in today’s world is simply to fail to understand how and why others act as they do.” – These are the words of Bishop Philip Mounstephen, the Bishop of Truro, speaking at the deferred 175th anniversary celebration of The National Club earlier this month.

Bishop Mounstephen has been a friend of mine, and of CSW, for a number of years now, so it will come as little surprise that we fully support his assertion. As the bishop outlined so eloquently in his speech, freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), cannot be seen as a “side-bar” or “special interest” issue. In fact, it is a fundamental human right, the abuse of which so often leads to wider human rights violations as it intersects with issues such as poverty, race and gender.

Fortunately, the UK government appears to agree. Last year, upon the appointment of Fiona Bruce MP as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for FoRB, Boris Johnson said: “The UK is absolutely committed to protecting the inalienable right to freedom of religion and belief, at home and around the world.”

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Long Read: One year since the Lekki Toll Gate massacre, Nigeria continues its slide into failed statehood

On 20 October 2020 Nigerian security forces at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos opened fire on unarmed and peaceful demonstrators who had gathered to protest the notorious police unit, the Special Armed Robbery Squad (SARS) and call for good governance. The soldiers opened fire just as the protestors finished singing the national anthem.  When they withdrew, the police arrived and also opened fire.

Estimates of those killed are variable, ranging from nine to over 70. The real number could be higher still, with video footage subsequently emerging which appeared to confirm allegations by survivors that the military had evacuated bodies from the scene in armoured vehicles, as had occurred in 2015 when soldiers attacked Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) facilities in Zaria, Kaduna state, and more recently, during an armed raid on the home of a Yoruba activist in Ibadan.  

Prior to attacking, engineers had arrived at the toll gate earlier that afternoon and removed and disabled the CCTV. Just before the attack began, the lights in the area were switched off. 

The Nigerian army, which was ostensibly enforcing a curfew announced by the Lagos state government just hours before the attack, initially attempted to deny responsibility, and even claimed soldiers were not in the area, despite footage from mobile phones proving otherwise.  The Governor of Lagos also attempted to distance himself from responsibility for the incident, visiting some of the wounded in hospital. However, he later claimed in a television address that there had been no casualties, enraging survivors, families of victims, and all who had followed livestreaming of the massacre on social media. Regardless of the number of casualties, these deaths amount to cynically executed extrajudicial killings of young people merely for demanding good governance and rule of law.

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Long Read: Removing the Obstacles to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Africa

Religion-related tensions continue to arise in many African countries. They come in varying forms and degrees of intensity, and can be intra-religious or occur between religious communities.

Religion is either instrumentalised as a rallying point or is the raison d’étre of armed non state actors seeking to enforce an extremist interpretation of their creed or to gain material advantage. It is used by individuals or political parties as a bridge to power and rallying point.  In addition, some governments view religion, or certain religious or non-religious groups, as threats, exercising control through excessive registration requirements or more forcible means. 

Every country on the African continent is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), with its expanded articulation of the right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), and to the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR), where the right to change or refuse one’s religion or belief as an act of conscience can be inferred from Article 8. However, in parts of the continent, human rights in general, and FoRB in particular, are challenged by arguments about cultural relativism and frequent but erroneous assertions that they are a Western construct. 

Thus, despite being parties to international and regional treaties, many African countries either do not give legal effect to them, or create exemptions for their implementation. This has further exacerbated their already poor profile on human rights protection.

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Ruth Ngladar Pogu’s release is welcome, but the man with her is not her ‘husband’

On 8 August, the state governor of Nigeria’s Borno State confirmed that Ruth Ngladar Pogu, one of around 276 girls infamously abducted from their school in Chibok, was free.

Ms Ngladar is the 108th Chibok Girl to regain some form of freedom. Several are thought to have died whilst in captivity, with an estimated 111 reported to still be in the hands of the now amalgamated terrorist group.

Ms Ngladar had reportedly surrendered herself to the military alongside one of her captors and two children she had given birth to while in captivity at the end of July, and while her freedom after over seven years is good news, the challenges that lie ahead of her and her family remain extensive.

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