Violent targeting of Christian and Muslim civilians is escalating in Nigeria. According to the recent report entitled “Violence and Religious Freedom in Nigeria”, published by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan commission of the United States government, violations of religious freedom by non-state actors have increased in this West African countries. Even though Nigeria’s constitution spells out freedom of religion and belief, with the government’s incompetence on security, there are no security bars to protect civilians.
According to the report, the military and police are poorly equipped and often do not receive a salary. Instead, they sell weapons and attack civilians. Federal officials have shown an unwillingness or inability to curb widespread corruption, but instead “allow, encourage, and even partner with vigilante groups and vigilante militias to supplement their weak capacity.”
In addition to the lack of security, there has been significant violence from Islamist militants and armed criminal groups: identity violence, mob violence and violence affecting worship, which have a significant impact on the religious freedom of Nigerians. In 2021, Nigeria ranked eighth in the world at risk of another mass killing event according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Early Warning Project.
The report called on the US government to send a special envoy or include Nigeria “as a priority country for the Atrocity Prevention Task Force” in response to international religious freedom law and the Elie Wiesel Act on prevention of genocide and atrocities. These two laws oblige the US government to take action against the risk of atrocities and violations of religious freedom.
On September 28, USCIRF held a hearing titled “Religious Freedom, Violence, and American Policy in Nigeria,” inviting four panels of civilian/NGO witnesses.
Commission Chair Nury Turkel and Vice Chairs Abraham Cooper and Commissioner Frederick A. Davie delivered opening remarks. They then turned to the testimony of the panels.
Witness Oge Onubogu, director for West Africa at the American Institute for Peace, pointed out that Nigeria’s overlapping conflicts have killed thousands of people. Onubogu agreed that these conflicts stemmed from government incapacity.
“These ongoing crises, along with widespread corruption and violent crime, are rooted in a disconnect between government and citizens,” said the director of the American Institute of Peace.
Emmanuel Ogbudu, Senior Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning Manager at Mercy Corps, continued to testify. Ogbudu’s research reveals that, contrary to our idea, violence decreases along religious lines, supporting the fact that such violence is driven by insecurity and weakened social cohesion.
Even though there was no supporting evidence that religion drives people to commit acts of violence, Ogbudu argued that religious identities can stoke conflict through religious leaders and ordinary individuals.
Ogbudu further explained that religious leaders have politicized religion to make people act, which is even more present during election time. Additionally, misunderstandings between different religious people can become significant religious conflicts as they make claims of solidarity to gain support for their arguments. One of the people interviewed by Ogbudu said:[Conflict] starts out as something as little as a misunderstanding between two people of opposite religion, but later escalates into religious violence so the perpetrators can pick themselves up.
However, Ogbude claimed that religious leaders have played a role in resolving disputes among Nigerians and recommended “training of religious leaders (and other local leaders) in negotiation and dispute resolution” and “the increased efficiency and accountability in security and service delivery”.
Witness Barnett, a nonresident member of the Hudson Institute, summarized that jihadists and bandits have different motivations for violence. While jihadists deliver violence to civilians pursuing their religious ideology, most bandits are motivated by both material and political ambitions, which “can be more violent against civilians than jihadists”.
“The victims of bandits and jihadists are not limited to any single religious or ethnic group: these victims include Muslims, Christians and practitioners of traditional religions,” Barnett insisted.
After the panel testimony, Turkel asked why Nigeria is experiencing issues of poor governance that threaten religious freedom there.
“I think Nigeria has a long history of bad governance, and it’s a very complex situation,” replied the director of the Institute for Peace. When violence continues and no one is held accountable, victims are likely to become perpetrators due to government incapacity.
Commissioner Davie sought the opinion of the panels on the USCIRF’s recommendation: send a special envoy to Nigeria and re-designate Nigeria as a Country of Special Concern (CPC), a designation by the US Secretary of State. CPC status can bring a non-economic policy or even an economic measure to Nigeria to end particularly serious violations of religious freedom.
“It is important for peacebuilding efforts to understand why some of these communities are grieving and also to be able to help pave the way for the Nigerian government to engage more effectively with these groups,” said Onubogu.
Onubogu felt that a deep understanding to resolve the different conflicts is needed to ensure that it does not create more damage in the communities “because from some of these groups, with some of these grievances, these [recommendations] easily become breeding grounds for extremist ideas.
Hopefully, the US government will adopt the USCIRF recommendations and expert panel advice in their dialogue with the Nigerian government.