The administration of President Muhammadu Buhari has accused the United States government of President Donald J Trump of hatching a sinister plot to destabilize the country by sowing seeds of distrust and mistrust among Nigerians. In an angry reaction to the designation of Nigeria by the USA as a country that perpetrates or tolerates severe violations of religious freedom, the federal government said the “iniquitous tag” stemmed from an orchestrated narrative that has long been discredited and accused the United States of attempting to gaslight the religious fault lines in Nigeria.
The US government had last week included Nigeria on a watch list of countries it accused of stifling religious liberty. According to a statement signed and released by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, at the weekend, it was obvious that Nigeria was put on the list due to Boko Haram activities in the North-east. Pompeo said Boko Haram was designated as “Entities of Particular Concern. These designations underscore the United States’ commitment to protect those who seek to exercise their freedom of religion or belief,” Pompeo noted.
In the report, the United States had put Nigeria on its Special Watch List (SWL) for governments that have engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom. With that tag, Nigeria has joined Russia, Cuba, Sudan and Uzbekistan on the list.
But speaking through his Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, Buhari dismissed the report saying the US government decision to place Nigeria on its watch list does not make Nigeria a country of concern on religious freedom. Shehu told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that Nigeria and the US would deliberate on the matter early next year.
In his view, “The watch list carries no immediate implication, except for the need for both countries to discuss areas of concern over the next year. We are looking forward to such discussions with our partners, the US.” He maintained that Nigeria has “no policy that promotes one religion against the other. The right to freedom is guaranteed by the constitution and we have no problem observing that.”
In another statement issued Monday, in Abuja, Information and Culture Minister, Lai Mohammed, while refuting the report, said Nigerians enjoyed unfettered freedom to practice their religion and blamed failed politicians and disgruntled elements – some of them supposedly-respected leaders – for latching on to religion as their trump card, especially in the run-up to the last general elections, to oust the Buhari administration.
The minister said it was unfortunate that the US fell for the antics of “the discontented and the unpatriotic few, who will not hesitate to hang Nigeria out to dry on the altar of their inordinate ambition and their sheer animosity towards the Buhari-led administration,” adding: “The deliberate effort to give religious coloration to the farmers-herders clashes and the Boko Haram insurgency, in particular, has undoubtedly helped to mislead the US into concluding that the government is doing little or nothing to guarantee religious freedom in the country.
“But, as we have always said, the farmers-herders clashes have nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with environmental and socio-economic realities. The religious tag given to the clashes has no basis in fact, but it is very convenient for those who will very easily give the dog a bad name just to hang it. On its part, the Boko Haram terrorists are extreme fanatics who do not subscribe to the tenets of any religion, in spite of their pretense to Islamic adherence.” He added: “On the El-Zakzaky issue, which was referred to in the report by the U.S. government, it is purely a criminal matter, which is being handled by a court of competent jurisdiction.”
The development came after a new report into the persecution of Nigeria’s Christian communities said 7,000 Christians were killed by Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen since 2015, with 1,000 killed in 2019 alone and 12,000 displaced. Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) said the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), headed by a member of the British House of Lords, Baroness Cox, discovered that believers in the north and central regions of Nigeria were the most severely affected. It said the killings took place in the north and central Nigeria.
“Islamist Fulani militias continue to engage in an aggressive and strategic land grabbing policy in Plateau, Benue, Taraba, Southern Kaduna and parts of Bauchi State,” read the report, which was titled “Your Land or Your Body. They attack rural villages, force villagers off their lands and settle in their place, a strategy that is epitomized by the phrase: ‘your land or your blood.’”
According to HART, the exact number of Christians killed by Islamic militants Boko Haram and Fulani Herdsmen was unknown, though the data suggests the figure to be around 1,000 for the year. The organisation said 6,000 were killed since 2015 with an additional 12,000 displaced.
“In every village, the message from local people is the same: ‘Please, please help us! The Fulani are coming. We are not safe in our own homes,’” the report said. The Fulani herdsmen “seek to replace diversity and difference with an Islamist ideology which is imposed with violence on those who refuse to comply,” Baroness Cox told the Christian Institute. “It is, according to the Nigerian House of Representatives, genocide.”
But Lai Mohammed dismissed such reporting and described the US decision as “unfortunate,” insisting that the Nigerian government was acutely aware of how the opposition, in particular, had spared no resources in deriving political capital from the various security challenges in the country. “On its part, the Boko Haram terrorists are extreme fanatics who do not subscribe to the tenets of any religion, in spite of their pretense to Islamic adherence,” the minister noted.
According to the Minister, the good news is that the government has curbed the farmers-herders’ clashes through the implementation of proactive and multi-dimensional strategy, which is yielding remarkable results, just as it has largely defeated the Boko Haram insurgency.
Meanwhile, rights group, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) lauded the US report, saying the indictment could not have come at a better time. It accused the Nigerian government of willfully refusing to arrest, prosecute and punish Fulani herdsmen allegedly responsible for the serial mass killings of farmers, Christian worshippers, and villagers.
“To say that religious sectarian violence increased in 2018, with Muslims and Christians attacked based on their religious and ethnic identity as indicated in the American report is to state the obvious,” the group said in a statement by its national coordinator, Emmanuel Onwubiko, in Abuja.
It noted: “The Nigerian Federal Government failed to implement effective strategies to prevent or stop such violence or to hold perpetrators accountable as disclosed in the United States’ report. These are factually accurate and can’t be contradicted by anybody. We plead with the U.S. government to impose sanctions on the Federal Government headed by the former military leader, Muhammadu Buhari.”
Another rights group, Centre for Social Justice, Equity and Transparency (CESJET) however took a different stance in an open letter to President Donald Trump. It insisted that Nigeria encourages peaceful co-existence among all religious groups, and asked how the US reached its conclusion. It further urged the US to retract its statement and issue an apology to the Nigerian government.