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U.S. raise concerns of abuses, religious discrimination, rising tensions in Nigeria

The U.S. has voiced concerns over abuses and discrimination against individuals based on religion and religious tensions in Nigeria.

In the 2020 International Religious Freedom Report released by the Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, on Wednesday, the U.S. noted that measures by the federal government to stop the “numerous fatal inter-communal clashes” in North Central region “between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Muslim Fulani herders” including 20 targeted military operations to root out bandits and armed gangs and arrest perpetrators of communal and criminal violence “were largely reactive and insufficient to address the violence.”

On December 2, 2020, the U.S, Secretary of State designated Nigeria a “Country of Particular Concern” for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. But it announced a waiver of sanctions that accompany designation in the “important national interest of the United States.”

The 2020 report says that the year witnessed significant government restrictions on religious practice, as well as societal intolerance of, and violence against, individuals on account of their religious beliefs. Anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim hatred, and other forms of bigotry continued to rise, with four out of every five people in the world living in countries with high or very high restrictions on religious freedom.

The report blamed the inability of governments to safeguard religious freedom as the major cause of alienation, radicalization, and violent extremism, undermined economic development, and threatened social cohesion and political stability.

The U.S., while acknowledging that “banditry and ideologically neutral criminality was the primary driver of violence in the North West region,” said that “religious figures and houses of worship were often victims.”

It however stated that “various sources stated the government did not take significant measures to combat insecurity, including ethnoreligious violence, throughout the country. The NGO International Crisis Group said in a report released during the year, “A further factor that has exacerbated violence in the North West is the state authorities’ negligence in dealing with the crisis.”

Stating that many State governments relied primarily on arming vigilante groups to counter the violence, it quoted an ACLED report as saying that “responding to communal violence is not a priority of Nigeria’s State forces. A lack of government engagement leads to an increased reliance on local vigilante groups, and in turn, an increased accessibility to arms. Despite increasing their activity substantially since 2015, the overall presence of state forces is too inconsistent and limited to protect or support communities or mitigate and suppress violence.”

The report alleged that “some religious freedom activists said the Buhari administration was sympathetic to foreign Fulanis and that many State governors made it easy for foreign Fulanis to receive documents referring to one’s ancestral home that could facilitate access to government services or certain privileges, which compounded resource disputes and sectarian conflict. Some civil society representatives protested President Buhari’s appointment of primarily Muslim Northerners to high-level positions. They said there was a culture of impunity in the country and a lack of accountability for those who commit mass civilian killings.”

It noted that the government’s proscription of Shia-dominated Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) remained in place with the group claiming that its members were being unlawfully targeted.

The U.S. report emphasized that “blasphemy laws were part of the expanded sharia laws introduced between 1999 and 2000 in 12 Muslim majority states in the northern part of the country. Although in past years blasphemy laws were rarely, if ever, implemented, authorities arrested two individuals for blasphemy during the year. In September, a Kano State sharia court convicted and sentenced 16-year-old Farouq Omar, who had no legal representation at the time, to 10 years in prison and menial labor for committing blasphemy during an argument with a friend; after his case was reported in the press, Omar gained volunteer legal representation and his lawyers appealed the ruling.

“The same Kano State sharia court in August convicted and sentenced 22-year-old Yahaya Aminu-Sharif to death for blasphemy after he allegedly elevated a Tijaniyyah saint above the Prophet Mohammed in lyrics for a song he had written. Aminu-Sharif’s lawyers appealed the court’s decision. On April 28, authorities arrested Mubarak Bala, president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, without charge. His attorneys said they believed it was related to Bala’s alleged insulting of Islam on social media. Bala was detained in a Kano prison without formal charges but was granted access to his lawyer in October. On December 21, the High Court ordered the police and other federal authorities to release Bala; however, because he was in Kano State custody, he remained in detention at year’s end.”

The U.S. alleged that “criminal groups committed crimes of opportunity, including kidnapping for ransom, armed robbery, and banditry in North West and South East regions. According to security experts, this criminal activity increased in volume, geographic scope, and attendant violence during the year. Clergy were often targeted as victims of these crimes, according to Christian organizations, because they are viewed as soft targets who often travel conspicuously without security in the evenings, are typically unarmed, have access to money, and generate significant media attention. While many churches, including the Catholic Church, formally refused to pay ransom, some communities raised money to ensure the return of their religious leaders.

“Family members of kidnap victims also sometimes paid ransom. Federal and state governments responded to increased criminality in the region with new security initiatives. The Nigerian Police Force increased the number of police checkpoints on major road networks. State governors across the regions ran local “community policing” operations to combat kidnappings, primarily through state-supported vigilante groups such as neighborhood watch groups, the Enugu Forest Guard, and the Abia State and Anambra State Vigilante Services. Media reports often said Fulani herdsmen were responsible for these attacks, particularly those in the South West region, but, according to analysts, most incidents were perpetrated by local armed criminal groups.

“According to Muslim leaders in Nasarawa State and Benue State Governor, Samuel Ortom, there were groups of foreign Sahelian nomadic Mbororo pastoralists present in the country since 2017 who were often mistaken for indigenous Nigerian Fulani herdsmen. Christian leaders throughout the country criticized what they stated was a formal role that state governments played in welcoming the influx of these foreigners in a situation of increased levels of poverty and reduced job opportunities for permanent residents. Yoruba sociocultural groups, community leaders, and politicians in Oyo, Osun, and Ekiti States increasingly employed what sources stated was incendiary speech against the Mbororo, blaming them for a rise in crime and accusing the “invading herdsman” of looking to “Fulanize the south.”

The report said that the federal and State levels put temporary limitations on public gatherings, including religious services, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, causing most churches and mosques throughout the country to close. In addition, various State governments arrested both Christian and Muslim leaders for violating lockdown orders imposed during the quarantine season.

The U.S. report also said that estimates from the Council on Foreign Relations online Nigeria Security Tracker shows that Islamist terrorist violence killed 881 persons (including security forces and civilians) during the year 2020 “with more than 22,000 persons, most of them children, remained missing as a result of the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency, according to an International Committee of the Red Cross statement in September.

“Terrorist groups including Boko Haram and ISIS-WA attacked population centers and religious targets and maintained a growing ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets across the North East, according to observers. The groups continued to carry out suicide bombings – many by drugging and forcing young women and girls to carry out the bombings – targeting the local civilian population, including churches and mosques.”

The report also stated that “the U.S. embassy, consulate general, and visiting U.S. government officials voiced concern over abuses and discrimination against individuals based on religion and religious tensions in the country in discussions throughout the year with government officials, including the Vice President, cabinet secretaries, and National Assembly members. Embassy and consulate general officials further strengthened their engagement on religious freedom issues with a wide range of religious leaders and civil society organizations, emphasizing the importance of interfaith relationships. The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials engaged with various religious groups throughout the year and delivered remarks on the importance of the respect for religious freedom at large religious gatherings.

“To mark Religious Freedom Day on January 16, the Ambassador hosted an interfaith roundtable with religious leaders to discuss issues of peace and security and to promote religious freedom. In July, the embassy held a roundtable with prominent religious leaders from different churches and dioceses in the country and discussed the violence occurring in the country, providing an overview of challenges and opportunities for affected communities. Interfaith discussions sought to identify areas of consensus and narrow the gap between competing narratives over the drivers of conflict in the country. Embassy officials and the Counselor of the Department of State met with religious leaders to discuss religious freedom and security during his visit in October.

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