Escalating bloodshed in Nigeria is fueled in part by religious extremism – and the United States must recognize this in order to achieve peace, says the former U.S. religious freedom ambassador.
“This thing’s going to blow up on us, as we would say, ‘bigger than Dallas,’ if we don’t get into there and really start taking this seriously at this point,” Sam Brownback, former Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, told CNA on Wednesday of violence in Nigeria.
Due to the scope of violence against civilians in Nigeria, the State Department in December designated Nigeria a “country of particular concern (CPC)” for the first time ever—a listing reserved for the countries with the worst records on religious freedom, such as China, Iran, and North Korea.
In addition, the agency’s annual religious freedom report published on Wednesday cited numerous terror attacks on civilians in Nigeria in the past year in the country’s northeast, including attacks on churches and mosques.
“Terrorist groups including Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa (ISIS-WA) attacked population centers and religious targets,” the report noted, targeting “the local civilian population, including churches and mosques.”
In the country’s north central region, a long-standing conflict “between predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers” continued in 2020, the State Department said.
The report cited “[s]ome religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)” who said “this conflict had religious undertones.”
“Some domestic and international Christian groups stated that Muslim Fulani herdsman were targeting Christian farmers because of their religion. Local Muslim and herder organizations said unaffiliated Fulani were the targets of Christian revenge killings,” the report said.
Brownback said the references to the religious nature of the terror attacks and killings is a positive sign that the U.S. diplomatic corps is beginning to acknowledge the role of religion in Nigeria.
“Radical terrorist Muslim groups” such as Boko Haram and ISIS-WA are moving into the Sahel region in an attempt to create an Islamic caliphate, he said. They are calling on local Muslims to kill their Christian neighbors, “and they are saying this from a theological basis,” Brownback said.
He disputed characterizations of violence as primarily disputes over land or water, or ethnic or “rural-urban” conflicts.
U.S. diplomats have long called the conflicts “[a]nything but ‘Muslim-Christian’,” Brownback said. Religion, he added, “is not the only issue, but it’s a key issue.”
Members of the Islamic State “are winning the hearts and minds of the villagers that are killing people,” he said of terrorists using religion to promote civilian violence. “We’re being attacked theologically, and we don’t respond there.”
“But that’s the most powerful thing in most peoples’ lives in the world, is what they believe. And we won’t respond there. And we’re getting killed by a force that we should be able to subdue,” he said.
The United States, he said, must work with faith leaders in the region to promote peace through religious leaders.
“We need to do something that we are nervous about doing, but that we have to do,” he said. “We need to go to Muslim leaders and Christian leaders who are for peace, and say ‘we’ve got to have you out at the front of the discussion saying that our faith does not support the use of religion to kill other people as a way of proselytizing.”
The country was rocked by violence in 2020. The Bishop of Gboko, in the center of Nigeria, told a U.S. congressional commission in December that “[t]he mass slaughter of Christians in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, by every standard, meets the criteria for a calculated genocide from the definition of the Genocide Convention.”
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, noted that Fulanis have been driven into the country’s Middle Belt by desertification caused by climate change; they have also been targeted for counter-reprisals, he said.
Nevertheless, “[t]he largest, dominant driver of conflict in the Middle Belt region is committed by Fulani extremists, who appear driven in large part by ethno-religious chauvinism, against mostly Christian farmers – though I do note that elsewhere Shia Muslims are also victims, and that intra-Sunni conflicts also exist within the Muslim community as well,” Smith said.
Nigerian Catholic clergy and seminarians have been targeted for kidnappings and attacks this year.
In February of 2020, an 18 year-old Nigerian seminarian was kidnapped and killed by gunmen. One year later, the local Bishop of Sokoto lamented that the spate of kidnappings had gotten “progressively worse.”
“The harvest of death has gotten richer, more and more people are dying,” Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto said in February.
In March, gunmen attacking a church in Benue State killed a priest and at least six others. Just days before, another Nigerian priest in the diocese of Warri was released after a week-long kidnapping by gunmen.