Beyond Boko Haram: The Lethal Persecution of Nigeria’s Christians

The history of hostility goes deep into the social fabric.

Regina Luka lost her husband and two children, ages 2 and 4, in Feb. 21 attack by unknown assailants in Plateau state. (Morning Star News photo)

Regina Luka lost her husband and two children, ages 2 and 4, in Feb. 21 attack by unknown assailants in Plateau state. (Morning Star News photo)

(Morning Star News) – The publicly reported Christian casualties in Nigeria last year were greater than the Christian casualties of Pakistan, Syria, Kenya and Egypt combined. In fact, Nigeria alone accounted for almost 70 percent of Christians killed globally. This makes Nigeria the most lethal country for Christians by a huge margin.

While media reports do not tell the whole story, and death tolls are not the only factor in persecution, such a great list of martyrs demands our attention. In 2012, over 900 Christians were killed in Nigeria in attacks that specifically targeted Christians for their faith. By the first quarter of this year, at least 128 people have been killed in northern Nigeria, mostly Christians.

Much of the violence in 2012 was attributed to the Jihadist terror group Boko Haram. With 3,000 casualties affecting citizens from a dozen countries in three years, Boko Haram has earned a dubious distinction as one of the top five lethal terrorist organizations in the world. In the last three years, however, the three most deadly incidents of anti-Christian persecution – with triple- digit casualties – in Nigeria were the March 7, 2010 massacre in Jos, Plateau state, the April 16, 2011 pogrom in the country’s sharia (Islamic law) states and the Jan. 20, 2012 onslaught in Kano. Two out of these three incidents were not the handiwork of terrorists but of average northern Nigerian Muslims.

While Boko Haram’s bloody terrorist tactics certainly merit serious concern, the focus on this group has overshadowed a pattern of systemic religious violence in Nigeria. It obfuscates the pervasive history of the killing of Christians by Muslims in northern Nigeria going back over a quarter century.

Transferred Aggression

In 1999, after a pro-democracy movement successfully ended military dictatorship and a Christian was elected president, 12 Muslim-controlled states in northern Nigeria reacted by imposing Islamic sharia law in open violation of Nigeria’s constitution. This resulted in horrific violence the following year that left thousands dead when Christians protested peacefully.

Such acts of violence continue to this day with virtual impunity. In November, for instance, the mispronunciation of a dress style by a non-Muslim tailor led to his death – along with several other Christians – and church burnings in spontaneous riots. This ultimately fatal fashion mistake was not the handiwork of terrorists but of average northern Nigerian Muslims.

Persecution in Nigeria is discernible in three widening concentric circles: sect, state and street levels. While much has been said regarding the smallest circle – sect-level actors such as Boko Haram – most analysts overlook the ongoing and serious persecution in the wider state and street circles, which provide an enabling environment for groups like Boko Haram.

Street-Level Aggression

Let us first consider the street level. The most serious attack on the Christian community in Nigeria’s recent history was not carried out by Boko Haram or any organized Islamic sect. Rather, it was an act of ordinary Muslims across most northern states. This Anti-Christian pogrom, referred to as the “post-election violence,” deserves examination as a bellwether of the real conditions in Nigeria’s tottering political union.

In April 2011, in what was dubbed one of the “freest and fairest” elections in Nigeria’s recent history, Goodluck Jonathan was elected president. Before his victory was announced, violence erupted in the 12 northern sharia states – again.

The final toll for the Christian community was staggering. In a 48-hour period, 764 church buildings were burned, 204 Christians were confirmed killed, more than 3,100 Christian-operated businesses, schools, and shops were burned, and over 3,400 Christian homes were destroyed. While there have been similar death tolls in certain incidents in terms of scope and coordinated scale of destruction, there has been no equivalent attack against the church in recent decades, with the possible exception of government-backed genocides in Sudan.

Yet this was not a government-backed endeavor. Instead, thousands of Muslim youths in 12 states gathered together with machetes, knives, matches and gasoline and carried out this pogrom. The “freest and fairest” elections resulted in one of the “fiercest and most ferocious” violence against innocent Christians that Nigeria has seen.

In several states that our fact-finding teams visited, taxis were randomly stopped by rampaging Muslims and the Christians ferreted out for murder. In one instance a taxi driver, despite the pleas of sympathetic Muslim passengers, drove a pastor to a mob and handed him over to be killed.

While the homes of certain prominent ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) politicians and a few PDP offices were attacked in the initial spate of violence, this was clearly an anti-Christian pogrom. Muslim rioters in Zaria would enter a federal campus and attack only the Christian chapel, leaving the other buildings untouched. People were randomly required to recite the Koran or be killed. Throughout northern Nigeria, this violence was carried out along religious lines, with Muslims attacking unsuspecting Christians. More church buildings were destroyed than any properties associated with the ruling party, the government or any other category.

The post-election violence only scratched the surface of the street-level persecution suffered by northern Nigeria’s Christians. In several months of fact-finding across northern Nigeria, investigators from aid and advocacy organization Jubilee Campaign interviewed pastors whose church buildings have been burned half a dozen times or more in the last decade. In one case, police even watched as Christian women were raped on church premises and did nothing.

State-Level Oppression

The U.S. State Department, among others, claims that the Muslims of northern Nigeria have been marginalized politically and economically by the federal government and have responded to “legitimate grievances” with violence. This has been used to give unconscionable justification to violence against Christians in northern Nigeria, whether by terrorist actors such as Boko Haram (sect level) or the Muslim community at large (street level). The facts surrounding state-level persecution reveal this undeserved justification.

For most of its independent history, Nigeria has been ruled by dictators from prominent northern Muslim families. Suspect census figures and dubious redistricting have bloated the federal revenues that go to northern states. On an economic front, the corruption of these dictators and the amounts of money that they funneled back to their home states – as well as to Swiss accounts – is a matter of public record. Africa’s richest billionaire, according to Forbes magazine, is from northern Nigeria. Inspired by this decades-long hegemony, many in the north reject Western education, leaving their children in the hands of wandering mallams (Islamic clerics) to be instructed in Islam while begging for their bread.

This practice has produced millions of unemployed and unemployable youths who in anti-Christian riots are ready foot-soldiers – and, with the rise of Boko Haram, suicide bombers.

The true victims of marginalization in northern Nigeria are Christians who are totally disenfranchised politically, economically and socially in their own states and by their own ethnic groups due to their religious identity. Discrimination against indigenous Christian communities is endemic in at least 16 of the 19 northern states (three Christian majority or co-equal states did not report state-level persecution), encompassing more than just political disenfranchisement. Christians are denied equal rights, most state jobs and promotions. The level of discrimination is such that many Muslim managers refuse to hire a Christian outright.

Christian neighborhoods are frequently overlooked for development or basic maintenance. In Sabon Gari, a Christian ghetto in Kano City, the roads, water lines and other basic services have not been updated for decades. Many northern cities leave such outer enclaves to “infidels” as a way of separating them out.

In Tafawa Balewa, a Christian area of Bauchi state, the state government refused to maintain public schools and finally shut them down, community leaders say, to deprive Christian children, particularly Christian girls, of education. Many private Christian mission schools have historically been confiscated by the governments and stripped of their faith-based roots. The state legislature of Bauchi relocated the capital of Tafawa Balewa, a Christian community, to a Muslim-dominated town in violation of the constitution. When the Hon. Rifkatu Samson, the member representing the community, objected, the state legislature suspended her from parliament. That was a year ago. She was the only woman and the only Christian in the parliament.

Any public signs of Christian identity, such as crosses, bells, or identifiable church buildings, are prohibited in practice. Governments require permits to construct new church buildings or to repair old ones. These permits are not granted while existing church buildings have been seized via eminent domain. The Muslim community is so determined to prevent Christians from having church buildings that, when selling land to Christians, official land deeds commonly include the proviso, “Not to be used for a bar, a brothel, or a church.”

Christians and Muslims Together

While enduring these injustices, members of the Christian minority are consistently and blatantly faced with pressure to convert to Islam. Christians are regularly and publicly humiliated for their religious identity, and anything that can be construed as disrespectful or contradictory to Islam is met with immediate violence.

These injustices constitute acts of discrimination and group persecution, which have been outlawed by international laws created following the demise of Nazi Germany and the Nuremberg trials. Since then, the international community has seen again and again that persistent cultures of hate among dominant groups produce mass violence against disenfranchised and despised minorities, eventually leading to genocide.

Regrettably, this is the true state of affairs in northern Nigeria. These practices of discrimination, disenfranchisement and incitement are the root cause of Boko Haram and the real danger to Nigerian Christians – and to Nigeria itself. This is the intersection of a trifecta of evil intolerance – persecution at the street, state and sect levels – and Christians are the primary victims.

Rather than call for compensation for victims, the United States has advocated strongly on behalf of the aggressors, pressuring President Jonathan to give more federal resources and create a special ministry for “northern affairs.” At the same time, these northern states are spending millions in public funds on forced mass weddings for widows, pilgrimages to Mecca and rams for Islamic festivals. The victims of the 2011 violence and countless earlier attacks remain without succor, overshadowed by the 2012 victims of Boko Haram. And even some of the Boko Haram victims have received only meager assistance.

The March 7, 2010 massacre in Jos, the April 16, 2011 sharia states pogrom and the Jan. 20, 2012 Kano onslaught mark three consecutive years of triple-digit casualties, each in excess of 200 lives lost from a single incident. These incidents only scratch the surface of persecution in a country that has the world’s largest population of Christians and Muslims living together setting a stage for unfathomable conflict.


Ann Buwalda, Esq. is executive director of Jubilee Campaign, and human rights attorney Emmanuel Ogebe is Nigeria expert for the organization, which promotes the human rights and religious liberty of ethnic and religious minorities; advocates for and assists refugees fleeing religious based persecution; and protects and promotes the dignity and safety of children from bodily harm and sexual exploitation. Jubilee Campaign holds special consultative status with the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Its researchers conducted over a dozen fact-finding missions to document the recent spike in persecution in Nigeria. This op-ed coincides with the upcoming release of Jubilee Campaign’s Justice for Jos 2012 report on April 25.

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