Blinken singles out Nigeria in 200 country report on international religious freedom

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in announcing the release of the annual 2020 International Religious Freedom report on Wednesday, expressed concern about the Nigerian criminal justice system in cases involving religion.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken participates in a virtual on-the-record roundtable discussion with Kenyan and Nigerian journalists from the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on April 27, 2021. State Department photo by Ron Przysucha 
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken participates in a virtual on-the-record roundtable discussion with Kenyan and Nigerian journalists from the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on April 27, 2021. State Department photo by Ron Przysucha

Out of the nearly 200 countries included in the report, he highlighted six in particular, one of them being Nigeria.

“In Nigeria, courts continue to convict people of blasphemy, sentencing them to long-term imprisonment or even death,” he said. “Yet the government has still not brought anyone to justice for the military’s massacre of hundreds of Shia Muslims in 2015.”

According to the Nigeria country report, “authorities arrested and detained two individuals under blasphemy laws: Yahaya  Sharif-Aminu, sentenced to death for blasphemy on August 10, and 16-year-old Umar Faroup, sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment.”

The report also describes how the Nigerian government’s response to growing terrorism threats, conflict between Muslim herders and majority Christian farmers, and other threats to security have been largely ineffective and even “counterproductive.”

Across the North East region of Nigeria, terrorism groups Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa (ISIS-WA) “maintained a growing ability to state forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets” including both churches and mosques.

Attacks included suicide bombings, indiscriminate shootings, execution of a local Christian leader (read President Buhari’s op-ed here), and abductions of people identified by terrorists as Christians.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets virtually with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama, from the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on April 27, 2021. State Department photo by Ron Przysucha 
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets virtually with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama, from the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. on April 27, 2021. State Department photo by Ron Przysucha

According to Council on Foreign Relations data cited in the report, “Islamist terrorist violence” killed 881 “persons (including security forces and civilians)”. As of September, “More than 22,000 persons, most of them children, remained missing as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency,” as stated by the International Committee of the Red Cross in the report. Additionally, a reported 112 Chibok students abducted by Boko Haram in 2014 “remained in captivity.” 

In the North West and North Central Regions, violence between Muslim Fulani herders and predominantly Christian (some Muslim) “settled farmers” increased somewhat in 2020, though deaths remained below 2018 levels.

Although “some religious groups and [NGOs]” claimed “this conflict had religious undertones” – or was even a “primary driver” –  “local authorities, scholars, and regional experts” argued that the main cause of violence was “increasing competition over dwindling land [and water] resources,” among other factors including ethnicity and lack of accountability.

Violence between these groups resulted in 2,454 deaths in 2020, up from 2,198 in 2019, according to ACLED data cited.

There were also a number of attacks and abductions carried out by “bandits” and “armed gangs” in the North West and southern regions. “Although religious figures and houses of worship were often victims,” perpetrators did not claim any religious or ideological motivation.

As the Nigerian government battled Boko Haram and ISIS-WA in the “northeast,” it was reportedly “unable to keep pace with the growing number and frequency of attacks” in other regions.

The government launched “20 targeted military operations” against bandits and armed gangs, though “multiple sources stated that the government measures were largely reactive and insufficient to address the violence” despite some reports of success in rescuing “kidnap victims,” making arrests, and destroying infrastructure. 

Meanwhile, “counterproductive” measures included state governments’ reliance on “armed vigilante groups” for security services. “Responding to communal violence is not a priority of Nigeria’s state forces,” read a cited ACLED report. “A lack of government engagement leads to an increased reliance on local vigilante groups, and in turn, an increased accessibility to arms.”

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