U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has since returned to the United States following what the State Department described as “a productive, a constructive, an excellent trip” to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal. But back here at home, Christian groups, a United States government panel and former senior U.S. diplomats are furious over his decision to take Nigeria off a list of countries accused of engaging in or tolerating religious persecution. One former republican Congressman described Blinken’s decision as a “victory for the terrorists.”
The decision was revealed last week without explanation shortly before the Secretary of State was meant to visit Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with tens of millions of Christians and Muslims.
State Department officials only said upon the advice of various department sections it was concluded that Nigeria did not meet the legal threshold to be named as “country of particular concern” in an annual religious freedom list released by the Secretary of State before his trip to Abuja. They said it had nothing to do with the Secretary’s first visit to Sub-Saharan Africa.
In a news release last week, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bipartisan panel, which has been recommending since 2009 that the State Department designate Nigeria as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) on religious freedom, said it was “appalled” at the Biden administration’s removal of Nigeria from the list of violators of religious freedom, especially after it highlighted in a report on Nigeria earlier this year what it said were examples of faith-driven violence, including the 2020 abduction and execution of Reverend Lawan Andini by Boko Haram.
“The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) finds it unexplainable that the U.S. Department of State did not redesignate Nigeria as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) and treated it as a country with no severe religious freedom violations,” the Commission wrote.
“USCIRF is disappointed that the State Department did not adopt our recommendations in designating the countries that are the worst violators of religious freedom,” said USCIRF Chair Nadine Maenza. “While the State Department took steps forward on some designations, USCIRF is especially displeased with the removal of Nigeria from its CPC designation, where it was rightfully placed last year, as well as the omission of India, Syria, and Vietnam. We urge the State Department to reconsider its designations based on facts presented in its own reporting.”
Pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), the countries the State Department designated as CPCs are Burma, China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, all besides Russia previously had been designated. USCIRF recommended CPC designation for all 10 in its 2021 Annual Report and also recommended that India, Nigeria, Syria, and Vietnam be designated as CPCs.
Calls by USCIRF for the U.S. government to designate Nigeria as a country of particular concern had gone unheeded until President Donald J. Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made it a reality in 2020, earning praises from USCIRF.
Pompeo overruled State Department officials who were opposed to the designation. He was, however, supported by Sam Brownback, the former Kansas senator who served as the Trump administration’s special ambassador for international religious freedom.
Politico quoted a former Republican Congressman, Frank Wolf, as saying that Blinken’s decision is “a victory for the terrorists ” and “a defeat for everyone concerned with human rights and religious freedom.”
The publication noted that Wolf spearheaded some of the key legislation requiring administrations to name religious freedom violators; one of the laws named after him.
Even Politico acknowledged that the issue of religious freedom in Nigeria is complicated. “The country of 200 million is roughly evenly split between Christians and Muslims, and the tensions between the two communities are often multifaceted. They may include disputes over land and cattle grazing rights, for example, or tribal differences. In recent years, however, the rise of Islamist terrorist organizations in Nigeria has meant religion is a greater factor, some activists say. Some also point to the use of courts that rely on Islamic law as a challenge. Many further stress that Muslims — especially moderate ones — also face growing threats in Nigeria,” the publication wrote.
That complication can be palpable even in politics. For instance, the President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, is a Muslim who is accused by the Shi’ites of persecuting other Muslims from a rival sect, while the Vice President of Nigeria, Yemi Osinbajo is a Christian.
The U.S. State Department designated Sheikh Ibrahim el-Zakzaky, the leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN), and his spouse, as the only “political prisoners and detainees” in the Nigeria 2020 Country Report on Human Rights published this month. IMN a is popular religious movement in northern Nigeria with close ties to Iran.
Although the language used in the report seemed to be cautious, the Biden administration acknowledged that the IMN leader is a political prisoner being illegally detained by the government of President Muhammadu Buhari. Mr. Buhari’s brand of Islam aligns with that of Saudi Arabia, and he has made many trips there since he was elected President of Nigeria in 2015.
Many have said the detention of Zakzaky, for six years (he was released recently), and the attempt to destroy IMN in Nigeria was a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the heart of Africa’s most populous country.
The designation by the Biden administration marked a stark contrast from the Trump administration’s stance on the situation which was to ignore Zakzaky’s human rights violations because President Trump and previous senior former officials did not want anything to do with Iran.
The U.S. State Department report also noted that the Sheikh Zakzaky, who was detained between 2015 and 2021, was formally charged but stopped short of explaining that he had been held for years without charges and due process. “In 2018, the Kaduna State government charged Zakzaky in state court with multiple felonies stemming from the death of a soldier at Zaria,” reported the U.S. Department of State.
Last April, Today News Africa’s Senior Correspondent, Kristi Pelzel, spoke to the daughter of the jailed IMN leader, Suhaila Ibraheem el-Zakzaky. She hoped the U.S. report would bring more global awareness to the plight of her father who has since been released.
“From the very beginning of my parent’s imprisonment and the initial attack on the Islamic Movement and our home, it has always been politically motivated. It wasn’t purely based on religious differences so, having that acknowledgment is good. I am hoping it will be good as it pertains to people looking into the case. It might help with people’s perception of it,” she said.
That complication makes it even harder to single out Christians as the only ones being persecuted, especially in northern Nigeria.
For those who have lived in Nigeria, the persecution of Christians in Nigeria is often not directly backed by the state but by religious fanatics such as Boko Haram who are trying to create an Islamic state. But Sharia courts that are backed by the state in persecuting those who do not believe in the same religion.