Nigeria: Bishop of Truro, Extremism and Religious Persecution in Nigeria

opinion

The general view of the workshop participants, in my understanding, was that the Bishop of Truro, by his terms of reference, worked from the answer to the question and therefore found what he was asked to look for. Many participants pointed out that there is indeed evidence of the targeting of Christians in Nigeria's growing culture of violence but also evidence of the targeting of Muslims by the same forces.

Last week, I attended a workshop at Wilton Park in Sussex on the theme of fostering social cohesion in Nigeria. It was organised by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The workshop title was framed rather diplomatically, as the focus of discussions was the Bishop of Truro's 2019 independent review for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office's work in supporting persecuted Christians in Nigeria, and globally. The assumption is that Nigeria's multiple and complex security challenges, including Islamist violence in the North-East, worsening violent criminality and insecurity in the North-West and ethno-religious violence, coupled with farmer-herder conflicts across large parts of central Nigeria, are all directed at targeting Christians for persecution. For a country with a highly religiously observant population that is roughly divided between the two main established religions of Islam and Christianity, you cannot have a theme as weighty as this.

The reports say there is widespread evidence showing that today, Christians constitute by far the most widely persecuted due to their religion. They cite the Pew Research Center report that in 2016 Christians were targeted in 144 countries, a rise from 125 in 2015. It affirms that the most serious threat to Christian communities came from the militant Islamist group, Boko Haram in Nigeria, where the direct targeting of Christian believers on a comprehensive scale sets out to "eliminate Christianity and pave the way for the total Islamisation of the country". They cite an investigation which showed that in 2018, far more Christians in Nigeria were killed in violence in which religious faith was a critical factor, than anywhere else in the world; Nigeria accounted for 3,731 of the 4,136 fatalities: 90 per cent of the total.

The other area of focus of the report is what they call the new and growing threat to mainly Christian farming communities, which has emerged from nomadic Fulani herdsmen. The Fulani, says the report, carry out attacks against Christian communities, especially in Nigeria's 'Middle Belt', the border territory between the Hausa-speaking Muslim areas in northern Nigeria and the land further south that is mainly populated by Christians. Reports also show mostly retaliatory attacks against Fulani by "predominantly" Christian farmers, such as the November 2016 killing of about 50 mainly Fulani pastoralists by ethnic Bachama local residents in the Numan district of Adamawa State. The causes of this inter-communal conflict are complex and "attributed to many factors". That said, whilst the conflict cannot simply be seen in terms of religion, it is equally simplistic not to see the religious dimension as a significantly exacerbating factor, and the Fulani attacks have repeatedly demonstrated a clear intent to target Christians, and potent symbols of Christian identity.

The workshop was attended by major faith leaders in the country, inter-faith advocacy groups, academics and human rights campaigners. There was a lot of discussions on expanding the domain of inter-faith dialogue between Muslim and Christian groups to address the continuous flow of inter-faith conflicts and misunderstanding that emerge on a daily basis.

The general view of the workshop participants, in my understanding, was that the Bishop of Truro, by his terms of reference, worked from the answer to the question and therefore found what he was asked to look for. Many participants pointed out that there is indeed evidence of the targeting of Christians in Nigeria's growing culture of violence but also evidence of the targeting of Muslims by the same forces. It is therefore important to have some comparative perspective and balance in assessing the situation. In addition, the multiple conflicts and rapid growth of criminal gangs targeting all sectors of society and the community should guide us into developing a more complex evaluation of what is going on.

One of the participants, who I referred to in my column last week and who is the special adviser on agriculture, Dr. Andrew Kwasari, took up the issue of Fulani herdsmen targeting Christians in the Middle Belt. He drew attention to the work done by the National Committee on the crisis, comprising governors and ministers, that has found out that, essentially, it is a crisis generated by climate change, population growth, the expansion of farming and transhumance agriculture, on the basis of competition in access to land, pastures and water, with feasible solutions. The problem, he argued, is that too many politicians and religious conflict entrepreneurs have a stake in deepening the conflict and making solutions difficult to implement. He argued that the ten-year National Livestock Transformation Plan of the Nigerian government is workable and the surest path to peace and development and should be allowed to work.

The workshop was attended by major faith leaders in the country, inter-faith advocacy groups, academics and human rights campaigners. There was a lot of discussions on expanding the domain of inter-faith dialogue between Muslim and Christian groups to address the continuous flow of inter-faith conflicts and misunderstanding that emerge on a daily basis. Each religious group was also encouraged to counter conflict entrepreneurs from within, who are more interested in generating and exacerbating, rather than ending, the conflicts. Some of the faith leaders complained bitterly that politicians and governments will cause conflicts and then call on religious leaders to pray and resolve these conflicts. We must work together if we are to build peace.

The Bishop of Truro's report advocated for religious protection, promoting inclusive high-quality education for all and addressing social-economic issues. Clearly, the massive growth of poverty in Nigeria over the past decade makes peace building a very difficult enterprise.

One issue that called for a lot of attention was the growing sense of injustice in the country, from virtually all quarters. When people believe they are victims of injustice, it's difficult for them to embrace peace. There can be little progress in peace building unless state actors take up the issue of addressing concerns on the massive injustice in the country. The objective must be for all stakeholders to continue to discuss the challenges of inter-communal violence in Nigeria and examine how collectively government, civil society, faith-based and community organisations and others can work together to build solutions. We need to be more honest in considering the underlying resource competition driving conflicts and insecurity in the country. Nigeria is in a dangerous phase in its development, whereby each community now believes the state is not ready to address its problems and that it has to procure arms to engage in self-help. We need to go back to basics, such as considering alternative dispute settlement mechanisms to address impunity for those responsible and demands for justice is met for all, including members of religious groups. In this regard, participants were urged to highlight and promote examples in which inter-faith initiatives to promote peace and foster social cohesion have worked, and are working, with the objective of replicating them.

The Bishop of Truro's report advocated for religious protection, promoting inclusive high-quality education for all and addressing social-economic issues. Clearly, the massive growth of poverty in Nigeria over the past decade makes peace building a very difficult enterprise. The youth bulge and unemployment for both educated and uneducated young persons makes interlocutors for peace scarce. These are all elements about building a more inclusive State and society that we have to take on board. The challenge here is the dominance of a self-serving political class, whose only objective appears to be the primitive accumulation of capital and self-aggrandisement.

The workshop was conducted under Chattam House Rules, so individuals opinions cannot be quoted. Cardinal John Onaiyekan, however, gave me permission to refer to his major recommendation to the meeting. He said that all of us Nigerians feel that the cost of staying together as a nation is extremely high and too many of us want to opt out of the state. He warned, however, that the cost of our being torn apart would be much higher and we should reflect seriously on what we pray for. I endorse the wise words of the Cardinal.

A professor of Political Science and development consultant/expert, Jibrin Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development, and Chair of the Editorial Board of PREMIUM TIMES.

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