Report on Interest

Nigeria, US and the Question of Religious Freedom

By Reuben Abati

On December 20, the United States government issued a statement, speaking through the US Department of State and US Secretary of State, Michael R. Pompeo, designating Nigeria “a country of particular concern” with regard to religious freedom and the freedom of thought and conscience.

The statement opens with the patronizing declaration that “the protection of religious freedom is a top Trump Administration foreign policy priority.” It adds that: “The United States continues to work diligently to promote religious freedom and combat abuses.

These recent designations continue that important work.” We are further told: “…The Department renewed the placement of Comoros, Russia, and Uzbekistan on a Special Watch List (SWL) for governments that have engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom” and added Cuba, Nicaragua, Nigeria, and Sudan to this list. Sudan was moved to the SWL due to significant steps taken by the civilian-led transitional government to address the previous “systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom…”

The statement goes further: “…These designations underscore the United States’ commitment to protect those who seek to exercise their freedom of religion or belief…Our actions have been and will continue to be, consistent with our position on religious freedom. No country, entity, or individual should be able to persecute people of faith without accountability. We have acted, and we will continue to do so.”

The enabling reference for the American government’s position is the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. Our interest is the inclusion of Nigeria in the Special Watch List and the response that this has generated over the weekend, and whether this has been useful or not.  There has been a variety of responses.

One: the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed says Nigerians enjoy unfettered freedom of  thought, conscience and religion, and in his view, the United States Government is wrong because Nigeria does not deserve to be on any watch list for religious persecution or the violation of the right to the freedom of thought. He adds that failed politicians and disgruntled elements are the ones latching on to the tag and narrative of religious persecution in Nigeria as a “trump card”.

Let’s unpack the Minister’s claims.  Yes, constitutionally, the Nigerian Constitution, 1999 as amended, upholds in Section 38 that every citizen shall enjoy the freedom of thought, conscience and religion. The only caveat that is inserted here is Section 38 (4) which says no public official is allowed to be a member of a secret society or take part in its activity. But the problem with this provision is that it is ambiguous as to what constitutes a secret society or its membership.

In addition, Section 10 of the Nigerian Constitution is of interest. It says: “the Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as state religion.” So, in responding to the US State Department, on the question of religious freedom in Nigeria, the Minister of Information may have had at the back of his mind, Nigeria’s constitutional provisions which can be tendered as textbook evidence. But the question that has been asked is: does Nigeria respect these constitutional provisions or the rule of law generally? Is there religious freedom in Nigeria or the freedom of thought and conscience?

Alhaji Lai Mohammed avoids this question in attempting to respond to it. The truth is that religion remains a complex issue in Nigeria, and when the state supports, tolerates, condones or promotes one religion against a particular religion, it sows the seeds for organized intolerance, religious conflict, violence and discord. The US Department of State specifically cited Boko Haram as “an entity of particular concern” because its ideology is rooted in the politics of religion and hate. The Nigerian Government in its own National Security Strategy (2019), a 60-page document, only recently disclosed that the Boko Haram is linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and that it poses a fresh risk with its plans to deploy Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive (CBRNE) weapons. Boko Haram is opposed to Western education and seeks to hoist an Islamic Sharia flag in every part of Nigeria. To the best of everyone’s knowledge, the Nigerian government has not been able to stop the Boko Haram menace.

Another problem that we tend to have is that depending on who is in power, Nigerian governments have been known to violate Section 10 of the Constitution by adopting either Christianity or Islam as “de facto State religion.” Nobody may ever say so publicly or admit any bias, but it is often the case that there is mistrust in parts of the country on the basis of nothing else but religion.

This is currently the position of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), for example, in response to a situation whereby most prominent positions in the country, at the Federal level are occupied by Muslims from a particular part of the country.

The conflict between herders and pastoralists in the country that has resulted in the killing of thousands and the destruction of properties, may in reality be a conflict over land and economic power, but it has also been interpreted from a religious dimension with particular accent on the failure of the government to sanction the guilty. However, religious conflict may not always be inter-religious.

It could be intra—religious and sectarian. For example, the continued detention of the leader of the Shiitte Islamic sect in Nigeria, Ibrahim el-Zakzaky and his wife, has also been seen as the victimization of a rival sectarian group by a Sunni-dominated Nigerian ruling elite. The Nigerian Government says the problem of the Shiitte movement in Nigeria is of a criminal nature but the predominant narrative is that this is a case of religious persecution.

Beyond these recent and topical examples, over the years, Nigeria has had to deal with issues of religious persecution dating back to the Maitasine riots between 1980 and 1992, and the repeated religious riots in Bauchi, Plateau and Southern Kaduna, characterized by Muslim-Christian conflict, the destruction of lives and properties, worsened by the politics of ethnicity.

Christians claim to be the worse victims. Muslims also insist that they have suffered losses over the years and that Nigerian Christians cannot claim to be innocent. The key issue is: how well do our leaders deal with the problem? Is the ruling elite neutral? Nigeria is a country of very religious people. People pray as if their entire life depends on it. They worship clerics and pastors. The best business in Nigeria is the business of religion. But does religion unite us or divide us? Has it helped us?

The Minister of Information’s additional riposte that “failed politicians and disgruntled elements” from Nigeria are the ones instigating an iniquitous narrative against Nigeria sounds rather easy and familiar. Is he suggesting that the US Government is acting as an agent for some Nigerian politicians? And disgruntled elements?  Earlier in the year a group called Nigerian Christian Elders’ Forum petitioned the UK Parliament urging its members to compel the UK to take action against the Nigerian Government for tolerating religious persecution. That protest which was signed by General Theophilus Danjuma (rtd)  – (when is he going to carry out his threat to talk by the way?) – and General Zamani Lekwot (rtd) was supported by the Middle Belt Forum and other concerned Nigerians. Incidentally, a year earlier in 2018, the UK House of Lords had discussed the issue of violence and religious persecution in Nigeria.

It is also instructive that just as the US Department of State placed Nigeria on a Special Watch List on December 20, the Christian Broadcasting Network and a UK-based Group – the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) issued a report accusing Nigeria of tolerating religious persecution.

Are these the disgruntled persons and groups the Minister has in mind? Rather than dismiss feedbacks on religious freedom in Nigeria as untrue, the Nigerian Government should pay attention. Could there be something that we are overlooking?

Two: in addition to the reaction by the Minister of Information, the Presidency also reacted through the President’s Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu who equally dismissed the US position, noting that it carries “no immediate implication” for Nigeria. On the contrary, it does. It is a subtle threat to Nigeria and a cautionary note of warning.

Other Western countries may be tempted to toe the US line and place Nigeria on similar watch lists thus branding the country negatively within the international community. The US position on Nigeria has also further strengthened the hands of the Christian community in Nigeria, which through the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has already welcomed the US position as a correct characterization of a planned Islamization of Nigeria.  CAN insists that the US Government has more facts than the Nigerian Government. Human Rights Groups in Nigeria are echoing the same narrative.

The Muslim community represented by the JNI has accused the United States of bias and discrimination against Muslims. Meanwhile, Garba Shehu says Nigeria would meet with the United States to discuss ‘areas of concern” early next year.

Three: while the suggestion by Garba Shehu that the Nigerian Government will discuss its position with the United States may seem like a subtle back-track, his colleague, Femi Adesina, the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity had something entirely different to say. Adesina has been reported has having told the United States Government to stop interfering in Nigeria’s activities because nobody has appointed the US as “the policeman of the world”.  He added, we are told, that the US has its own issues and should face those issues.  Femi Adesina said precisely the same thing when, less than a month ago, the US, UK and EU expressed concern about Nigeria’s respect for human rights and the rule of law and the continued detention of activist, Omoyele Sowore. Adesina claimed that Nigeria is protected by its own sovereignty.

He forgets however, each time he says this, that Nigeria is a member of the international community, bound by rules of international conduct and rules and conventions to which Nigeria is signatory. No country may cherry-pick as to which standards are most convenient for it, particularly with regard to the rule of law, due process and human rights.

No one may have appointed the United States “the policeman of the world”, but the US as a global superior power (note that I have not said super-power but superior power – there is a difference) operates a rewards and sanctions foreign policy process that is beyond the counter-poise of other nations including China, Russia and Japan.

Is Nigeria in a position to tell the US, EU and the UK to shut up? Femi Adesina would probably have been better off pointing out the hypocrisy at the heart of the Trump administration’s foreign policy process. Can that administration legitimately accuse Nigeria of condoning religious persecution when under Trump, Muslims from six Muslim-majority countries were blacklisted from entering the United States were it not for the intervention of the courts? Or is the  Trump administration waxing lyrical about religious freedom  in order to appeal to the Republican, pro-Trump, conservative, Christian base for election purposes?

By now, it should be obvious that the Nigerian Government responded through three different persons in three different directions to a single statement by the US Department of State, all within 24 hours. This has become standard practice on recent issues, be it the rule of law, or the DSS and Sowore, the Punch Editorial on President Buhari or allegations of religious persecution in Nigeria and we wonder why key government spokespersons blow hot and cold at the same time in an un-coordinated manner. There should be greater harmony in the Presidency’s public communication process. With three different reactions on the US position on religious freedom in Nigeria, what exactly is the US expected to react to? And is there still a Ministry of Foreign Affairs? If there is, does it have any say in this matter?

Allegations by the American Government that there is indeed evidence of religious persecution in Nigeria are too serious to be treated so perfunctorily. Religion is a very sensitive issue not only in Nigeria but all over the world. It has been exploited for political purposes with grave consequences. In Nigeria, political leaders exploit religion as a tool of manipulation. The combination of this with ethnicity and sectarianism has created some of the most terrible moments in Nigerian history. This is the enlightened context in which we should consider the word of caution from the United States.

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