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Making sense of Christian persecution in Nigeria

On Pentecost Sunday, June 5, at around 11:30 am, gunmen set off explosives at the entrance of St Francis Catholic Church, in the city of Owo, in the Nigerian state of Ondo. In the pandemonium, the gunmen stormed the church and shot the congregants, killing 40 and injuring many more. Then they disappeared.

No terror group has claimed credit, though the Nigerian government baselessly blamed the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). The attack was the latest in a string of atrocities that are slowly turning Africa’s most populous country into a dangerous place for Christians.

Until recently these were largely limited to the north, where armed gangs and terrorist groups like Boko Haram have harassed civilians for years, abetted by majority-Muslim state governments. Thus, the attack in Owo stood out not so much for its scale and brutality, but rather for its location. The state of Ondo is in the south-west of Nigeria, far enough away from the terrorised north that, until it took place, locals did not live in fear of such an attack.

Let us zoom out a little. Unlike most countries with significant Christian and Muslim populations, Nigeria is split almost exactly in half between the two religions. The split is not just religious and demographic, but geographic. There is a line, running east to west, and on either side the adherents of one faith slightly outnumber those of the other, and away from it their proportion grows till one group is absolutely dominant.

Just as significant is the sheer number of adherents on both sides of this religious divide, who number over 100 million each. By some measures, Nigeria has Africa’s largest populations of both Muslims and Christians, outnumbering, respectively, Egypt and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As in Texas, everything is big in Nigeria.

This state of affairs, the result of many historical factors, combined with the general tendency of Islamic-majority jurisdictions towards non-secularism, the prevalence of herders among Muslims and farmers among Christians, especially in the transition zone, as well as the perennial problem of Islamist extremism, has created the cauldron of Christian persecution that is northern Nigeria.

Attacks on Christians in the region have become so routine that they rarely make the news. Nearly every week, sometimes daily, a religious institution or individual is attacked. For instance, barely two weeks after Owo, eight people were killed and 38 others kidnapped in two churches, one Catholic and the other Baptist, in Kaduna, just north of the capital, Abuja. Two weekends later, in the same state, two Catholic priests were abducted.

The trend is undeniable: Christians are predominantly targeted by Muslim assailants. According to Open Doors, in 2021, Nigeria had the world’s largest share of Christians who died for their faith.

But things aren’t simple. The attacks often ensnare Muslim victims as well, blurring the extent to which they can be seen as religious persecution. In fact, the Catholic Archbishop of Kaduna, Matthew Man-Oso Ndagoso, who should know a thing or two about it, frames the violence as an issue of ethnic division and state inaction, rather than religious extremism.

In 2020, the Trump Administration added Nigeria to its list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC), which tracks countries that systematically suppress freedom of religion, and opens them up for targeted US pressure. In November 2021, on the eve of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s first Africa tour, the Biden Administration dropped Nigeria’s name from the list, to the consternation of many anti-persecution advocacy groups.

Back then, I dismissed the move as empty virtue signalling. Now I am not too sure. One the one hand, Nigeria is a secular democracy, flawed but steady. Unlike other countries on the list, like China and Pakistan, the government has not overtly taken part in suppressing any religious group. If anything, its public statements and attitude support religious freedom.

What’s more, the federal constitution of Nigeria bans both the states and the federal government from imposing an official religion or discriminating on religious grounds. Though it permits religion or culture-based legal systems for resolving non-criminal cases (a fairly common practice in multi-religious African countries), it also clearly states that civil law takes pre-eminence, and that anyone can have recourse to the civil law system.

On the other hand, a clear pattern has emerged of government laxity in anti-terror law enforcement, incompetence in the provision of security, and an apparent apathy towards attacks on Christians, which were the main justifications for its addition to the CPC list in 2020. What’s more, though civil law takes precedence in theory, in practice, in states that have instituted Sharia law, Christians and religious minorities are effectively becoming second-class citizens.

Though the CPC list is meant to deter state-committed acts of religious intolerance, its effectiveness, other than as a symbolic gesture, isn’t obvious. Millions of Uyghurs linger in Chinese detention camps. Christians are still harassed in Pakistan. And Jehovah’s Witnesses are yet to have an easy go of it in Russia. If it hasn’t deterred these governments, which actively persecute religious minorities, what will it do to one that is merely negligent?

The question of whether Nigeria belongs on the list, therefore, perfectly illustrates the complexity of the situation, which is so great that, no matter how hard I try, I see no elegant solution to it.

To borrow the wisdom of Leonard Cohen, “there is no decent place to stand in a massacre.” My desire, which I’m sure most people of goodwill share, is that the persecution ends. But that’s about as much as I can say. The real solution lies with God, and the people of Nigeria.


Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno writes from Kisumu, Kenya. His article is printed with permission

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