Lela Gilbert is FRC's Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom. This article appeared in Providence Magazine on April 21, 2020.
How much do Westerners know about Nigeria? Do we recognize it as Africa’s largest nation? Are we aware of its considerable economic importance? Are Western Christians alert to the dangers faced by our fellow believers in Nigeria?
Granted, it’s a little challenging to learn about Nigeria’s woes because we have to search for reports. Sadly, they only appear randomly on Christian websites. But it’s increasingly conspicuous that with every passing week, violence and terror in Nigeria intensify.
In fact, at this very moment—another genocide against Christians is silently unfolding there.
If you read the reports, you’ll often see photographs that accompany them. They might have been taken days ago, maybe last week or even last year, but the scene is eerily the same. A poor village with a few small buildings is surrounded by open fields. In the foreground is a pile of torched debris smolders. A dozen or so Africans stand staring at the indescribable remains, with one or two turning toward the camera, dazed expressions on their faces.
And the story is also nearly always the same: heavily armed jihadis suddenly appear in the dead of night. They attack house after house, breaking down doors, shouting Allahu akbar. They shoot the elderly and able-bodied men. They rape, mutilate, and murder women. They kidnap young boys and girls. They torch houses, schools, and churches.
Some villagers managed to flee into the bush and haven’t been seen since, so no one can say for sure who is still alive. Survivors’ faces reflect the agony of trying to remember just what happened, exactly when the screaming and shooting began, and how they managed to escape with their lives.
In short, there is a bloodbath in Nigeria. Those of us who track religious freedom violations and Christian persecution agree with those who increasingly speak of another genocide. Murderous incidents are acted out with accelerating frequency, perpetrated primarily by two terror groups—Boko Haram and Fulani jihadis. Tens of thousands of Nigerians have been slaughtered in the last decade. But their stories rarely appear in mainstream Western news reports.
ICON—International Committee on Nigeria—is a research group that reports on terrorism in Nigeria. According to ICON, Boko Haram was responsible for nearly 35,000 deaths there between 2015 and 2020. Meanwhile, Fulani jihadis reportedly murdered some 17,000 between 2010 and 2020.
Unfortunately, no one really knows the precise numbers thanks to mass burnings, chaotic aftermaths, disappearances, and population displacement. Still, the numbers are horrifying no matter how inevitably imperfect the recordkeeping may be.
To make matters even worse, now COVID-19 has also arrived in Nigeria with its own deadly risks, and the population’s fears have multiplied. At the time of this writing, Worldometers registered 493 cases and 17 deaths—numbers that are about to exponentially increase.
Meanwhile, in the midst of panicky lockdown orders, BBC reports that security forces have taken more lives than the pandemic.
Because of these multiple deadly threats, despair haunts Nigeria’s Christian communities, despite their deep faith and commitment. There are more than enough reasons for their uncertainty, as these examples show:
On April 16, Morningstar News reported, “Six children and a pregnant woman were among nine people that Muslim Fulani herdsmen killed in north-central Nigeria Tuesday night (April 14).”
Days before, on March 24, Fulanis killed at least 20 people in two predominantly Christian villages. And on March 2 they had kidnapped eight Christians in raids on a mission station. In that attack 3,000 were displaced.
In Nigeria’s northeastern states, Boko Haram’s Islamist jihadis first gained notoriety during the 2014 #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Radically anti-Christian and anti-Western, they carry out their own violent invasions, kidnappings, and beheadings.
Today their best-known victim is Leah Sharibu, one of 110 young schoolgirls kidnapped in 2018 during an attack on an all-girl science and technical school. Leah was just 14 years old when abducted, and today she remains in captivity. Because she refused to renounce her Christian faith, Leah was not released with her classmates. Instead, she was enslaved.
Recent reports claim that she was forcibly married to one of her captors, and has given birth to his child. Still, Leah’s mother continues to travel internationally, pleading for her daughter’s release. When I met her in Washington, DC, a few months ago, her heartbreak was etched on her weary face.
On January 30, 2020, Christian Solidarity International (CSI) issued a genocide warning for Nigeria. “The conditions for genocide exist in Nigeria, with Christians, non-violent Muslims, and adherents of tribal religions being particularly vulnerable,” CSI’s John Eibner announced. “The increasingly violent attacks and the failure of the Nigerian government to prevent them and punish the perpetrators are alarming. CSI therefore calls on the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to take swift action to uphold this commitment to genocide prevention in Nigeria.”
My colleague Nina Shea, director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, is also deeply concerned about Nigeria. “More Christians have been targeted and slaughtered by extremists in Nigeria,” she told me, “than in the entire Mid East in recent years. These vulnerable Christian communities, who are being attacked on two fronts by Islamic terrorists and jihadis, need help.”
Just last year, President Donald Trump himself raised the issue of Christian persecution with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. “We’ve had very serious problems with Christians who have been murdered, killed in Nigeria,” Trump said, with Buhari seated next to him. “We’re going to be… working on that problem very, very hard because we can’t allow that to happen.”
The appeal fell on deaf ears. It’s noteworthy, by the way, that Buhari is himself a member of the Fulani tribe. Nina Shea concludes, “The US must act. It’s time to shine a spotlight on this crisis. We need to demand that the Nigerian government protect the Christians there.”