Religious intolerance and deep partisan divides have given rise to nonstate actor violence in Nigeria that increasingly threatens freedom of belief and practice in a nation once known for its widespread religious diversity, according to a new report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
In “Violence and Religious Freedom in Nigeria,” USCIRF cited criminal, political and religious factions as contributors to a 30% increase in deadly violence in Nigeria since 2020.
“As a result of this insecurity, many Nigerians face a daily threat of violence. Some of this violence has significant implications for Nigerians’ freedom of religion or belief. Violence that infringes on freedom of religion or belief in Nigeria includes militant Islamist violence, identity-based violence at the intersection of religion, ethnicity and geographic heritage, mob violence against individuals accused of blasphemy, and violence impacting worship.”
Militant Islamist groups routinely attack Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups in their pursuit of ideological and political dominance.
USCIRF reported that militant Islamist groups routinely attack Muslim and non-Muslim religious groups in their pursuit of ideological and political dominance. Their efforts have resulted in attacks on places of worship, murder, kidnappings and an expansion of territory in the northern part of Nigeria.
“The Islamist State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) currently presents the largest threat, although factions of Boko Haram and the al-Qaeda affiliate Ansaru also operate in some regions. ISWAP, Boko Haram and Ansaru have all stated political objectives to overthrow secular governance in Nigeria and enforce a particular interpretation of Islam.”
In response to the rise in Islamicist terror, the Christian NGO Open Doors declared Nigeria the most dangerous country in the world to be a Christian, Baptist News Global reported in August.
“I’ve told you before that, according to our research for the World Watch List, Nigeria is the deadliest country for Christians — on average, every two hours, a Nigerian Christian dies for their faith,” an Open Doors official wrote after a Pentecost Sunday attack on a Catholic parish killed more than 50 worshipers. “A heinous attack like this one reinforces that truth.”
But USCIRF noted the militant groups also have targeted Muslim worshipers who do not share the attackers’ fundamentalist interpretations of Islam.
Islamicists also seek to curtail the political freedom of Nigerians regardless of faith.
Islamicists also seek to curtail the political freedom of Nigerians regardless of faith, USCIRF reported. “Ansaru’s disapproval of the democratically elected government in Nigeria stems from its criticism of the government’s secular nature, among other things, and attempts to limit Nigerians’ engagement in representative governance may also reflect the group’s agenda to impose governance based on a singular and political interpretation of Islam.”
Violence motivated by identity also has grown more prevalent in Nigeria, the report stated.
“In some states, religion, ethnicity and geographic heritage intersect to create in-groups and out-groups against which violent actors mobilize. Local leaders and inflammatory civil discourse often exacerbate the perceived role of religion in this violence, spreading unsupported narratives of ideological or fundamentalist motivations on the part of perpetrators. As a result, religious communities have grown increasingly mistrustful of one another and fearful of being targeted on the basis of religion.”
The report cites an August 2021 attack by armed youth on a bus convoy that killed 22 Muslims: “In April 2022, clashes in Chando Zerreci killed at least seven people, including Christians and Muslims, when gunmen attacked an annual cultural festival, allegedly as retaliation for the August convoy attack.”
Mob violence sparked by allegations of blasphemy also has claimed Christian and Muslim lives in Nigeria.
Mob violence sparked by allegations of blasphemy also has claimed Christian and Muslim lives in Nigeria, USCIRF said.
“In May 2022, a violent mob of university students in Kano state stoned a Christian student to death and burned her body in response to a comment she made in a WhatsApp thread that they considered insulting to Islam. … In June, an angry mob in Abuja stoned and burned a Muslim man to death for alleged blasphemy, although investigations implicated organized criminal activity as likely playing a major role in the incident.”
During a June 2022 visit to Nigeria, USCIRF investigators found that lack of government oversight has enabled nonstate actors to conduct campaigns of violence nationwide.
“Many of the core drivers of violence in Nigeria relate to poor governance. The state’s inability to provide services, security and justice equitably to its citizens erodes societal capacity to mitigate conflicts without violence,” the commission said. “These drivers intersect with local, regional and global aggravating factors to embed intractable cycles of violence. Low-level religious discrimination and the politicization of religion by elites collide with population growth and economic challenges to further strain governance institutions and contribute to growing grievances.”
As a result, USCIRF labeled the risk of atrocities in Nigeria as “high” and noted that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has ranked the nation eighth in risk for a mass killing in the coming year.
“Nigerians also face abduction, torture, inhumane treatment, sexual and gender-based violence, trafficking and forced or coerced recruitment. Apparent territorial and tactical advancements by powerful armed groups in 2022 heighten atrocity risk still further,” the report said. “These atrocities pose risks to religious freedom, among other rights and freedoms, for Nigerians.”
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