We Cannot Ignore Nigeria's Human Rights Abuses

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Late last year, Nigeria became the first secular democracy ever to be designated a “country of particular concern” by the U.S. State Department. And, unfortunately, the designation appears to have become even more fitting with each passing month.
The State Department releases an annual list of the countries around the world it deems to be the worst violators of religious freedom. In accordance with the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, the government officially designates “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs). The government’s CPC review process is taking place right now, even though the list of designated countries is not officially released until December of each year.
The likes of China, which is committing genocide against Uyghur Muslims and destroying thousands of churches, and Pakistan, which regularly hands out the death penalty to individuals for allegedly blasphemous speech, are certain to make the 2021 list. But Nigeria, a newcomer to ranks of CPC status, is rumored to be less of a sure inclusion, despite the fact that it squarely meets the criteria of tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.
If anything, the crises facing Nigeria have gotten worse. Armed attacks by gangs and militants increase by the day, and have become more brazen in many instances. Priests are regularly kidnapped, and some are beheaded. In the Northeast, the decade-long war waged by Islamist insurgency groups against the local population remains underway, targeting both Muslims, who reject the extremists and adhere to West Africa’s long history of peaceful Islam, and Christians alike. A recent study found that at least 3,462 Christians were murdered for their faith in 2021 so far, just 68 shy of the total number of Christians killed throughout all of 2020.
In the Northwest, mass kidnappings of school children are becoming so frequent that they don’t even register internationally (unlike the kidnapping of the Chibok girls in 2014 that caused #BringBackOurGirls to go viral). There is even evidence that spoils from the kidnappings and other banditry are making their way back to the Islamist insurgents, and some states are shutting down schools in response. And throughout the North, Sharia and blasphemy laws are increasingly harming atheists, Christians, Sufis, and LGBT persons.

But Nigeria’s crises go far beyond only religious freedom concerns. Last year, massive protests erupted over corruption and human rights violations committed by Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, who often used their authority to rob and attack Nigerians themselves. Armed gang attacks against the government are ravaging the Southeast. Ordinary Nigerians have simply become fed-up with their government.

While all of this is occurring, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is clamping down on free expression in the country while making excuses for the country’s problems or ignoring them altogether. Nigeria’s decision in June to ban Twitter and prosecute its citizens if they dared to use the social media platform was a shock to many, but to those living in the country, it was merely another indication that the current government has lost its grip on power and is heading in an increasingly dangerous direction.

All of this should serve as a reminder to the Biden Administration, as it’s currently reviewing its sanctions policies, that now is not the time for the United States to pull back its pressure on a regime whose ham-fisted overreach is exacerbating its country’s human rights problems.

There is now an international consensus that Nigeria is on the brink, and that President Buhari’s failure run deep. Recent headlines about the country – such as “Nigeria Is a Failed State” and “Is it too late to restructure Nigeria?” – point to growing concern that the country is returning to dictatorship rule and failing to protect the human rights of its citizens. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings called the country a “pressure cooker” of violence. Even Congress is now calling for more aggressive measures. And last year, an influential group of parliamentarians raised the specter of potential genocide of Christians and Muslims that reject the extremism of terrorists.

Although there are multiple causes for the crises in Nigeria, there is consensus that more must be done. The designation last year of Nigeria as a CPC was a step in the right direction. And the pressure must remain, not only because of religious freedom concerns, but because of all the human rights concerns facing Nigeria. President Buhari is increasingly unpopular throughout the country, across various political, ethnic, regional, and religious lines. Any let up by the U.S. and the international community will signal to the people of Nigeria that they have been abandoned, and the President will be empowered to crack down even harder.

No single solution will suffice, but the international community, and the U.S. in particular, cannot stand by while the Nigerian government allows terrorists and criminals to attack faith communities and commit gross human rights violations with impunity. Local communities must be able to live and work free of violence and discrimination. And the international community should work with local faith leaders to best support interfaith peace and counter extremism. Only a coordinated and holistic effort will be effective – and only if it’s carried out in time. As one major Nigerian advocate for kidnapped girls stated last month before an audience of policymakers in Washington, D.C.: we don’t want to revisit the crisis in Nigeria a year from now and say “the action has come too late.”

Kelsey Zorzi practices international human rights law and serves as the Director of Advocacy for Global Religious Freedom at ADF International. Her work has appeared in several outlets, including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, The Hill, and Real Clear.

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