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Why should Christians be afraid in Nigeria?

By Martins Oloja
03 July 2022   |   3:34 am
My brother, it is becoming increasingly disconcerting and very curiously so that it is safer to be a Christian in Afghanistan and Pakistan than in Nigeria. It is really concerning

[FILES] US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during meeting with Nigerian Vice President at the Aso Rock Presidential Villa in Abuja, Nigeria, on November 18, 2021. (Photo by Andrew Harnik / POOL / AFP)

My brother, it is becoming increasingly disconcerting and very curiously so that it is safer to be a Christian in Afghanistan and Pakistan than in Nigeria. It is really concerning…How are you and family faring…?
THAT is an excerpt from one of the many messages that I have been receiving from diplomats, family friends in the diaspora since the beginning of the year. I received the above message at the weekend from a prominent and significant family friend who works for an international agency located outside Nigeria. The family friend is apparently frightened by a recent letter (dated June 29, 2022 some U.S senators signed to the U.S Secretary of State, Antony Blinken on the danger Nigerian Christians now live with even as government of the day appears unconcerned about coordinated attacks on Christians.  

It is really very sad for me to be writing on my faith when we should be writing contextually on what political leaders who have declared their intention and turn to run Nigeria should be saying and doing at this time. I mean here that at a time when we should be asking what most of the presidential candidates and their party leaders are doing abroad at this time when they should be cashing in on the current wave of get-your-PVC revolution to mobilise voters, we are here commenting on existential threat to Christians in a country that has produced some of the most respected Christian clerics even in global context. It should be out of my character at this level but Buhari’s Nigeria today has made this inevitable because I shouldn’t be ‘ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth…’ 

I have been confessing several times here that I have benefited a great deal from a newspaper business Muslims set up in Abuja some 34 years ago. As I have been saying here, most of the Editors of the newspaper, Abuja Newsday (1988-1993) are Christians. 

And as I have noted here twice, not many young people are aware of the reasons I have always been very passionate about Abuja affairs. The nation’s capital is actually my second home. My journalism career grew luxuriantly like yam tendrils in the rainy season, thanks to my relationship with the capital city about 34 years ago when Alhaji Bukar Zarma, former editor of New Nigerian established the first newspaper the Abuja Newsday there.

I was pioneer Lagos Bureau Chief from 1988 to 1990 when I was promoted Editor of the newspaper. Abuja is the place my colleagues (bureau chiefs) including the dangerously hardworking Yusuf Ali, the ever-clean Sam Akpe, never-say-die Yomi Odunuga, etc named me “The Dean” of the Bureau Chiefs’ ‘cabal’ while some others outside journalism would call me “The Mayor of Abuja.” There is nothing extraordinary about the sobriquets other than my long-standing experience as a reporter, writer and editor in the 45-year-old “capital of the federation.”

This background is germane to the points at issue today in Abuja where religion and ethnicity have become political tools in the hands of our politicians. I would like to use this background to trigger some rhetorical questions later about where rains began to beat us as a nation. We are talking about a nation where the bugbear called the national question is threatening the security of the nation again, no thanks to some emerging political mismanagement of the complex federation.

I mean here that when the newspaper civilisation kicked us in the face in Abuja in 1988, there was a good country where religion and ethnicity did not play so much overt role in interpersonal relationships, let alone in recruitments into private and public enterprises. Then Alhaji Bukar Zarma, who hails from Borno State shaped the business plans of publishing the first newspaper in Abuja with Alhaji Hassan Adamu Wakilin Adamawa, from Adamawa state. They are both Muslims. But the striking element in the story in 1988 in Abuja was that Alhaji Zarma, who advertised for vacancies for journalists in a national daily, then did not consider religion and ethnicity when he hired very resourceful journalists from different parts of the country. One thing was clear then: he never asked any candidate’s state of origin.

And so coincidentally, all the senior editors and most reporters recruited from the North and South were Christians. This is the evidence: Mr. Nick Dazang (Christian from Plateau) was the pioneer Editor; Mr. Jackson Ekwugum (Christian from Delta State) was News Editor, Mr. Dennis Mordi (Christian from Delta State) was Chief Sub Editor; Mr. Samm Audu (Christian from Kaduna State) was Sports Editor; Mr. Skekwogaza Wasah (Christian from Abuja) was Features Editor, Martins Oloja, (Christian from Ondo State) was Lagos Bureau Chief. Other notable names in the newsroom then included Shok Jok, Camillus Eboh, Moji Olaniyan, Moji Olajide, Alex Kabba, Emmanuel Obe, etc, all of them Christians. I have written this story several times. This background shaped the atmosphere that led to the choice of Muslim-Muslim presidential election ticket of 1993, which some desperadoes are artfully referencing today. 

It is, therefore, important for the outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari and his men to note that his failure to fulfill his promise and even covenant with the people in the engrafted ‘I-belong-to-nobody’ words has caused more trouble for the nation he will be leaving in a turmoil on May 29, 2023. The president’s governance jet is passing through some areas of turbulence at this moment and what we hear our pilot saying to Christians in the plane is: you have every cause to worry about your safety. 

There is ever growing perception that ‘it is safer to be a Christian in Afghanistan and Pakistan than in Nigeria’ at the moment. It is indeed concerning. A former president once alleged that the Buhari administration has some hidden agenda: Northernisation and Islamisation of the country’s polity. That perception has not been erased by actions and colour of appointments in this administration. 

That is why it is concerning that even some conflict-sensitive senators in the United States who are also aware of the enormousness of the challenges of managing refugees in Nigeria should there be a political crisis nurtured by religious war, are protesting to the Secretary of State, Antony Blinken at the moment. Only very few commentators on public affairs here are asking why in the face of apparent threat to Christians in Nigeria, even the political class and our representatives in National Assembly are curiously silent. 

Specifically, five United State Senators – Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, Mike Braun, James M. Inhofe and Tom Cotton – have jointly sent a letter to the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken urging him to immediately re-designate Nigeria as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the US International Religious Freedom Act.
They alleged that recent acts of violence targeting Nigerian Christians have underscored the deteriorating state of religious freedom in the country.

In their letter, copied to Honourable Rashad Hussain, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, United States Department of State, the lawmakers stated, “As you are well aware, horrific acts of deadly violence have been committed against Nigerian Christians in recent weeks, including the massacre of churchgoers on Pentecost Sunday and the stoning of a Christian college student. Sadly, such violence has become all too familiar for Christians in Africa’s most populous country.

“Last year, however, you inexplicably removed Nigeria’s designation as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) despite no demonstrable improvement in the country’s religious freedom conditions. On the contrary, the situation in Nigeria has grown worse. We previously urged you to immediately reverse your misguided decision, and we write today to renew our call.

“Recent high-profile acts of violence underscore the intense religious persecution that is regularly experienced by Nigerian Christians. On Pentecost Sunday, gunmen attacked St. Francis Catholic Church in Nigeria’s Ondo State, reportedly killing at least 50 churchgoers. Last month, a violent mob brutally stoned to death Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu, a student at Shehu Shagari College of Education in northwest Nigeria. According to reports, some Islamist students were enraged by a “blasphemous” message Deborah had posted in a WhatsApp group, in which she said that ‘Jesus Christ is the greatest. He helped me pass my exams.’ Merely expressing one’s Christian faith has apparently become tantamount to a death sentence in many parts of Nigeria.”

They stated that religious violence and intolerance directed toward Nigerian Christians had worsened in recent years and that one report documented more than 4,650 cases of Nigerian Christians who were killed for their faith in 2021. The lawmakers continued: “Accordingly, Nigeria earns the dubious honour—for the second consecutive year—of being the deadliest country on earth for Christians. 

“We wrote last year that not only has the government of Nigeria failed to take meaningful steps to mitigate such violence, but Nigerian authorities restrict and crack down on religious minorities and detain individuals indefinitely on blasphemy-related charges. We remain concerned that the Nigerian government is failing to protect the religious freedom and basic safety of its Christian citizens.

“Furthermore, as this year’s annual reports from the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and from your own Department make clear, Nigerian government authorities directly participate in the persecution of Christians, Muslims, and even non-theists, most notoriously through arrests and convictions under blasphemy laws. Make no mistake: continued enforcement of state-sanctioned blasphemy laws enables the type of deadly violence that killed Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu and so many others.

“When we previously wrote you, we were met with a response which failed to answer our questions about why the State Department views Nigeria as not having engaged in or tolerated ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom’ or even ‘severe violations of religious freedom.’ This is unacceptable, especially because you are required by federal law to consider the recommendation of USCIRF—which, since 2009, has been to designate Nigeria as a CPC. In fact, USCIRF reiterated in its 2022 Annual Report that it was “appalled” at the removal of Nigeria’s CPC designation.

“Despite public statements from you and other State Department officials condemning the recent bloodshed in Nigeria, the fact remains that the Department still does not officially regard Nigeria as a severe violator of religious freedom. “The State Department released its 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom on June 2, which starts the 90-day timeline for the Department to make its religious freedom designations. Given the abysmal state of religious freedom in Nigeria, it is incumbent upon you to reverse last year’s decision and re-designate the country as a CPC. The moment demands that you do so without delay.”

This letter from the United States Senate is a significant reinforcement of the critical factors that have made a Muslim-Muslim ticket at this time a time bomb that can actually win election for a candidate who may thereafter lose the country. This is an avoidable bogeyman Buhari’s Nigeria has triggered and that is at the roots of why young Nigerians are suddenly registering to vote so that we can retrieve the pearl we cast before a swine in 2015.