House Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission
December 17, 2020
Statement of Nina Shea Hudson Institute - Director of the Center for Religious Freedom & Senior Fellow
Excerpts follow. The entire Statement, including recommendations, can be found here.
Nina Shea, Hudson Institute
• On December 7, the United States made a significant policy shift on Nigeria when it designated Nigeria as one of world’s ten worst abusers of religious freedom, as a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. The government of Nigeria was found to be “engaging in or tolerating” “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.”
• As Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom Sam Brownback stated in a press conference, a major concern in the CPC designation is “the lack of adequate government response in Nigeria.” He said that despite “expanded terrorist activities,” and “a lot of it associated around religious affiliations,” “the government’s response has been minimal to not happening at all.” The ambassador was right to note the terror threat this poses: “The terrorism continues to happen and grow, in some places unabated…We don’t want this place to devolve into a very difficult, lawless terrain in places.” I wholeheartedly agree with his conclusion: “The government really needs to act.”
• A growing list of places in Nigeria are engulfed in violence and mayhem from various sources, not least, rapidly spreading Islamist extremism. We are still reeling from the dreadful news of the abduction of 344 Middle School boys, on December 11, in Nigeria’s Katsina state, apparently by the terror group Boko Haram and its allies. That the boys have been rescued today by security forces is a rare bit of good news.
• This atrocity was the latest example of mass attacks against tens of thousands of innocent civilians in the northern and middle areas of Nigeria by several groupings of Islamist extremists and those collaborating and supporting them. This kidnapping follows a pattern of large-scale kidnappings of school children: There are the 112 predominantly Christian schoolgirls from Chibok who remain captive, nearly seven years ago, who were forcibly converted to Islam and taken into sexual enslavement by Boko Haram. There is Leah Sharibu, who, rather than renounce her Christian faith, is suffering this same horrific fate, following a 2018 mass kidnapping in Dapchi of 110 mostly Muslim schoolgirls, all of whom but Leah, were released.
• In addition to its being an alarming sign of Boko Haram’s reach into western Nigeria, this latest case is distinct in that the students include Muslims, albeit ones who reject the extremist views of Boko Haram. I am confident of this because their school specializes in science, a forbidden subject for the terror group.
• The influential Nigeria blog of the Council on Foreign Relations discounted the possibility of any involvement of Boko Haram. On December 15, it posted a piece entitled “Nigeria Schoolboy Kidnapping Likely Criminal, Not Boko Haram,” and concluded that Fulani bandits were responsible, without any consideration that these Fulani could themselves be allied with Boko Haram.
• Increasingly, these cases are not either, or, but a mix of Islamist terror and criminality. A recent Nigerian news report was headlined that two sisters were released after kidnapping by “bandits.” Deep into the article the freed girls are quoted saying that their captors forcibly converted them to Islam. Clearly more was involved than simply banditry but no doubt the case was dutifully recorded as “banditry” in government databases.
• In the proof of life video, the kidnapped schoolboys, under instructions from their captors, were seen pleading for the closing of all schools except Qur’anic ones. On Dec. 16, AFP reported that local sources asserted that the operation was carried out on Boko Haram’s orders by a notorious local gangster called Awwalun Daudawa, who enlisted his own gang and two others. The respected Nigerian press Vanguard reported that Daudawa “was an armed robber and a cattle rustler before he turned to gun-running, bringing in weapons from Libya, where he had received training, and selling them to bandits.” It commented, “Over time, he forged an alliance with Boko Haram and became their gunrunner, taking weapons the group seizes from the Nigerian security forces in raids and ambushes and selling them to bandits for a cut.” Under international law, this makes these criminals participants in the Islamist terror group Boko Haram, which, itself, is the mastermind of the kidnapping.
• In these cases, victims are often targeted for their religious views or identity, not solely for purposes of robbery, ransom, rape or human trafficking, but also for the jihadist intent of forcibly converting, punishing, humiliating, or eradicating them. An example is the murder on Dec. 10, in Niger state, of 37-year-old Rev. Jeremiah Ibrahim of Evangelical Church Winning All, and the abduction of his wife, along with four other women, who are now being held hostage for large ransoms.
• The identification of ideological factors, where they exist in Nigeria’s relentless violence, is key to finding more effective policy solutions.
• I recall the searing words of Bishop Kukah of Sokoto at the funeral Mass of seminarian Michael Nnadi, who was murdered in cold blood by kidnappers after he quoted Scripture to them during his captivity: “We are being told that this situation has nothing to do with Religion. Really? It is what happens when politicians use religion to extend the frontiers of their ambition and power. Are we to believe that simply because Boko Haram kills Muslims too, they wear no religious garb? Are we to deny the evidence before us, of kidnappers separating Muslims from infidels or compelling Christians to convert or die?
• Due to the emphasis and resources the Biden administration will be placing on climate change issues, also a serious problem for Nigeria, I am concerned that the religious freedom threat there could be downplayed and sink into obscurity in the future.
• State’s report for 2019 narrowly defines the accelerating violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt mainly in terms of mutual hostility between different classes of rural workers over economic competition due to climate change pressures, with religion being incidental. As the report states, it is a “violent conflict over land and water resources, which frequently involved predominantly Muslim Fulani herders and settled farmers, who were both Muslim and Christian.” Climate change and economic resources, as well as religion — specifically Islamic extremism — are all significant in driving this violence. Additionally, some smaller scale defensive and retaliatory violence by Christians against Fulani Muslims has occurred.
• The State Department’s report omits all evidence of radicalization among some Fulani, specifically those involved in militant activity, mass atrocities and supporting or working collaboratively with terror groups. It fails to report the important finding that “Fulani extremists were the most active and deadly perpetrators of terrorism in Nigeria in 2018, ” by the Global Terrorism Database (GTD) of the University of Maryland, established as a “center of excellence” by the US Department of Homeland Security, Science and Technology Directorate.
• The Fulani in the neighboring Sahel have been recruited by ISIS and Al Qaeda but State’s report neglects to examine whether they or Boko Haram are influencing or linked to segments of Nigerian Fulani; the report raises the Sahel conflicts only to note a questionable theory that “altered grazing routes” have caused conflict because the Fulani herders “are unaware of preexisting agreements between the local herding and farming groups.”
• In October, proof of cross border collaboration between networks of criminals and terrorists emerged in the international media when US special forces rescued American hostage Philip Walton from captivity in northern Nigeria. He had been abducted from his home in terror-plagued Niger by six unidentified men armed with AKs and riding motorcycles, and he was trafficked into Nigeria. American officials feared he could be sold to Nigerian terrorist groups. Certainly, State has access to information of cross-border radicalization, terrorist recruitment or support among Fulani nomadic herdsmen in this area that it should have reported.
• The British All Party Parliament Group report of June 2020 finds: “While not necessarily sharing an identical vision, some Fulani herders have adopted a comparable strategy to Boko Haram and Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP), and demonstrated a clear intent to target Christians and symbols of Christian identity such as churches.” It also reported: “During many of the attacks, herders are reported by survivors to have shouted ‘Allah u Akbar’, ‘destroy the infidels’ and ‘wipe out the infidels.’ “It noted that some Fulani now carry out raids, armed with AK47s and rocket propelled grenades. The pontifical Aid to the Church in Need found a pattern of cases in which, “the evidence suggests the Fulani herdsmen are as committed as Daesh (ISIS) affiliates to eliminating Christians in a region where the Church has grown fast.”
• On Dec. 16, 2020, the UK-based CSW reported on Boko Haram’s widening links to the Fulani and other militants across northern and central Nigeria: “In January 2020, Shekau released a video in which he also spoke in the Fulani language, Fulfude, and in early July, an armed group in Niger state declared its allegiance to him. Later that month, HumAngle revealed that Shekau had cemented alliances with armed groups in Zamfara state in the northwest, and he was in the process of formalizing relations with groups in Katsina and Sokoto states, also in the northwest, and in Adamawa, Kogi and Taraba states in central Nigeria.”
• The State Department report is silent about these ominous signs that Islamist extremism is spreading, along with potential genocide. It fails to mention that Christians, Muslims who reject extremist rules, and international aid workers are the primary civilian targets of the designated Nigerian terror groups. For years, Boko Haram’s leader has been pledging in video rants to kill Christians and non-conforming Muslims because, he believes, God wants him to.
• The report does not explain government impunity in these egregious matters, the basis, as Amb. Brownback explained, for Nigeria’s CPC designation this month. Instead it focuses on crediting the government with bringing about declining numbers of violent incidents – even while acknowledging these numbers are “disputed.” After analyzing hundreds of media reports from 2019 and previous years on Nigerian Fulani attacks on Christians, European legal scholar Jose Luis Bazan concludes: “It is difficult to know the exact number of victims of the attacks since the news usually, in particular when the attacks are massive, mentions a minimum number (“at least…”), or even refers qualitatively to them (“many”, “a large number”).” Bazan notes, this is compounded by officials’ “passive attitude” toward the attacks. This was demonstrated again last week, in the kidnapped schoolboys’ case, where the 344 abducted schoolboys were initially reported to the BBC to number ten by Pres. Buhari’s office.
• To reemphasize: Religion is not the only driver of the mass atrocities but an analysis that reduces the violence in the center of the country to socio-economic class clashes due to climate change, as State’s Nigeria report does, is, itself, a dangerous over-simplification. It will not lead to appropriate, short term solutions. Most certainly not all 40 million members of the Fulani ethnic group in the region are Islamic extremists, however, there is evidence that some fraction of the Fulani have an explicit jihadist agenda, not only some in the Sahel who are known to have been recruited by the local affiliates of al Qaeda and ISIS, but also some in Nigeria’s Middle Belt who may or may not be allied with Boko Haram and other such groups. A mounting number of attacks in this region also evidence deep religious hatred, an implacable intolerance of Christians, and an intent to eradicate their presence by violently driving them out, killing them, or forcing them to convert.
• These factors warrant acknowledgement in the State’s religious freedom report. The report is wrong to suggest that there are so many “complexities” in Nigeria’s situation that it would only deepen the conflict to document them. The State annual reports are premised on the importance of shining light on religious freedom abuses, however “complex,” in order to end them.
• A deepening Islamist extremism in Nigeria’s northern and north central states is now readily apparent. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and with its largest economy, is in crisis. Large regions of the country are becoming “one large graveyard, a valley of dry bones, the nastiest and the most brutish part of our dear country,” as Bishop Kukah lamented. There are even signs of genocide, the most heinous of human rights crimes. Nigeria’s instability threatens to destabilize the region.
• Secretary Pompeo has taken an important step this month in designating Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern. USAID has also played an important role this year in supporting faith-based groups under fire in Nigeria’s hotspots. However, the State Department’s human rights and religious freedom programming in Nigeria to address these urgent concerns has been grossly inadequate, if not missing entirely.