Christian Victims in Nigeria Fear Future Attacks

Religious violence is growing despite the pandemic.

Christians hold signs as they march on the streets of Abuja, Nigeria.
Christians hold signs as they march on the streets of Abuja praying for peace and security in Nigeria on March 1. Kola Sulaimon/AFP via Getty Images

Amaka Nwoke stood in front of St. Bernadine Catholic Church in Oyo, in Nigeria’s southwest region, holding a placard that read: “Stop killings in Nigeria.”

Nwoke, 24, had joined hundreds of Christians in the region to protest the growing killings and abductions happening across Nigerian Christian communities.

“Every day, when I turn on the TV or on social media, I see killings and violence, targeted at Christians,” Nwoke told me by phone. “I’m scared,” she said. “These killings and abductions are so much and, on the increase, even in communities you thought were safe and could not be penetrated have been attacked.”

Insecurity still remains one of Nigeria’s biggest challenges, according to the Institute for Security Studies. Across Nigeria, millions of Christians are living in fear because of the growing attacks by armed men or cattle herders from the Fulani ethnic group.

Abductions and killings by the cattle herders are frequent and random in Nigeria, and Christian ethnic groups are the main victims. The herders are Muslims who make regular journeys with their cattle to pastures down south—an area mostly dominated by Christians.

Cattle grazing often destroys crops, causing friction between the herders and local farmers. And since the herders are Muslims, it reignites the religious tension between them and Christians.

Under President Donald Trump, who depends on political support from white evangelicals, the United States has taken a renewed interest in religious freedom issues worldwide—with a specific focus on persecuted Christians.

On June 2, Trump released an executive order on advancing international religious freedom. The order directs the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development to take action to combat religious freedom violations and calls for a budget of at least $50 million for programs to fight religious violence and persecution abroad and protect religious minorities.

“This new order demonstrates a continued commitment to promoting and protecting religious freedoms abroad by stopping crimes against people of faith—and it comes at a critical time for Nigeria,” the International Committee on Nigeria, a nonprofit working to promote religious freedom and human dignity in Nigeria, said in a statement.

But U.S. efforts have borne little fruit so far. Multiple reports are coming in of increased killings this year, despite the country’s coronavirus-related lockdowns. According to a report last December by the United Kingdom-based Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, more than 1,000 Christians were killed in Nigeria in 2019. The organization further reported that at that point 6,000 Nigerians had been killed and 12,000 displaced since 2015.

Attacks on Christian communities have spiked under President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration. Buhari, who is also from the Fulani tribe and took office in 2015, has been accused by Christian leaders and human rights advocates of doing little to protect the vulnerable groups that have been facing attacks over the years. Killings are often not investigated, and victims do not trust the government’s sincerity or its capabilities to bring perpetrators to justice.

The International Crisis Group, an independent nonprofit organization, says farmer-herder conflicts in the country have taken an even higher toll than the better-known Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast. An estimated 2,500 people were killed and tens of thousands displaced in 2016.

The relationships between farming communities and herders have become increasingly violent, with over 8,000 people killed since 2011 and more than 200,000 displaced, a May report by the group says.

Christian religious communities are also being specifically targeted. On Jan. 8, four Catholic seminarians were abducted by gunmen in northern Nigeria from the institute where they were studying. Three of them were later released, but Michael Nnadi, 18, was killed because he professed his faith even in captivity, according to a confessional statement by one of the suspects. His killing caused outrage in the country.

Priests are not spared, either. Last year, eight priests were kidnapped in different parts of the country. Over the last two years, more than five priests have been killed by gunmen. In August 2019, more than 1,000 priests protested the killing of their colleagues and called for the government to protect them.

In January, the Boko Haram terrorist group, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015, beheaded a leader of the Christian Association of Nigeria after rejecting ransom paid for his release. Back in December 2019, the same group had executed 11 Christians in a released video. The group said it was in retaliation for the killing of their leader by the United States government.

During Ash Wednesday, a large number of Catholics wore black to protest the continuous insecurity that has resulted to kidnappings, violence, and assassinations of Christians in the country.

“The level of insecurity in Nigeria today is such that whether at home or on the road, most Nigerians, in all parts of the country, live in fear; the repeated barbaric executions of Christians by the Boko Haram insurgents and the incessant cases of kidnapping for reasons linked to the same group and other terrorists have traumatized many citizens,” the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria said in a statement.

Before the executive order, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2020 Annual Report, which documents the state of religious freedoms around the world, listed Nigeria as a “country of particular concern”—a designation considered the most serious category of documenting religious freedom violations and infringement.

Last year, the U.S. State Department placed Nigeria on its Special Watch List for governments that have engaged or tolerated in severe violations of religious freedom.

“Our prayers go out to the loved ones of those killed in recent attacks across Nigeria,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted after a series of killings in June. “We condemn this senseless violence and call on the Nigerian government to redouble its efforts to protect civilians.”

Nwoke said the government needs to take responsibility for the killings.

“I fear for the safety of my family and friends,” she said. “We want the authorities to know that people are being killed and nothing has been done about it.”

Patrick Egwu is a Nigerian freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg, where he is an Open Society Foundations fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand.