U.S.: Nigeria ineffective in quelling violence

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In Nigeria
Jul 31st, 2014
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The latest United States’ Department of State Report on Religious Freedom has more of knocks for the Federal Government than kudos

The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom. The Federal Government did not prevent detentions and restrictions affecting religious groups reportedly carried out by some state and local governments. The Federal Government was also ineffective in preventing or quelling religious-based violence, only occasionally investigated, prosecuted, or punished those responsible for abusing religious freedom, and sometimes responded to violence with heavy-handed tactics.

There were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Some Muslim and Christian religious leaders stated the terrorist organization known as Boko Haram sought to incite hostilities between Muslims and Christians in the northern and central states, where local laws, discriminatory employment practices, and fierce competition for land exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions. In areas where it was active, Boko Haram attempted to force non-Muslims to convert and targeted Muslims who did not follow its version of Islam or support its activities. Both Muslims and Christians experienced societal pressure if they changed their religious affiliation.

The U.S. embassy and consulate discussed and advocated for religious freedom and tolerance with government, religious, civil society, and traditional leaders. U.S. government officials discussed Boko Haram in high-level bilateral meetings. Visiting U.S. delegations, including the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, raised religious freedom with state and federal government officials. The embassy met with persons displaced by violence, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) expanded a project aimed at promoting tolerance in six northern states.

 

Religious demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 174.5 million (July 2013 estimate). Most observers estimate 50 percent is Muslim, 40 percent is Christian, and 10 percent adheres to indigenous religious beliefs. The predominant Islamic group is Sunni, divided between Sufi groups including Tijaniyah and Qadiriyyah. Growing Shia and Izala (Salafist) minorities exist. Christian groups include Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, evangelicals and Pentecostals, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Groups that together comprise less than 5 percent of the population include Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Bahais, and individuals who do not follow any religion.

The Hausa-Fulani and Kanuri ethnic groups dominate the predominantly Muslim northern states. Significant numbers of Christians also reside in the north, and Christians and Muslims reside in about equal numbers in central Nigeria, the Federal Capital Territory, and the southwestern states, where the Yoruba ethnic group predominates. While most Yorubas are either Christian or Muslim, some adhere to traditional Yoruba religious beliefs. In the southeastern states, where the Igbo ethnic group is dominant, Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists constitute the majority, although many Igbos combine traditional practices with Christianity. In the Niger Delta region, where the Ogoni and Ijaw ethnic groups predominate, Christians form the majority, while an estimated 1 percent of the population is Muslim. Pentecostal groups are growing rapidly in the central and southern regions. Ahmadi Muslims maintain a small presence in the cities of Lagos and Abuja.

 

Government Inaction

The Federal Government did not act swiftly or effectively to prevent or quell communal or religious-based violence and only occasionally investigated and prosecuted perpetrators of that violence. The government also failed to protect victims of violent attacks targeted because of their religious beliefs or for other reasons. The government did not adequately equip and train security forces to contain violent extremist groups in the north who attacked religious freedom.

Legal proceedings against five police officers charged in 2011 with the extrajudicial killing of Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf did not resume during the year. The court was not in session on continuation dates set in February, March, May, and June after the presiding judge transferred to a different jurisdiction in 2012. There were no indictments or prosecutions following three fatal attacks on high-profile Muslim leaders in late 2012.

Christian groups continued to assert local and state authorities did not deliver adequate protection or post-attack relief to rural communities in the northeast, where Boko Haram killed villagers and burned churches throughout the year.

Some Christian groups reported discrimination and a systematic lack of protection by state governments, especially in central Nigeria, where communal violence rooted in decades-long competition for land pitted majority-Christian farmers against majority-Muslim cattle herders. Federal, state, and local authorities did not effectively address underlying political, ethnic, and religious grievances leading to this violence.

Recommendations from numerous government-sponsored panels for resolving ongoing ethno-religious disputes in the Middle Belt included establishing truth and reconciliation committees, redistricting cities, engaging in community sensitization, and ending the dichotomy between indigenes and settlers. Nationwide practice distinguished between indigenes, whose ethnic group was native to a location, and settlers, who had ethnic roots in another part of the country. Indigenes and settlers often belonged to different religious groups. Local authorities granted indigenes certain privileges, including preferential access to political positions, government employment, and lower school fees, based on a certificate attesting to indigene status. The federal government did not implement any recommendations despite ongoing calls by political and religious leaders to do so.

 

Abuses by terrorist organisations

The Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, or People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad (commonly referred to as Boko Haram, Hausa for “Western education is forbidden”), continued to commit violent acts in its quest to overthrow the government and impose its own religious and political beliefs throughout the country, especially in the north. On November 13, the U.S. government designated Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization.

Boko Haram killed more than 1,000 persons during the year. The group targeted a wide array of civilians and sites, including Christian and Muslim religious leaders, churches, and mosques, using assault rifles, bombs, improvised explosive devices, suicide car bombs, and suicide vests. An attack on the Emir of Kano in January was widely believed to be an attempt by Boko Haram to silence the anti-extremist Muslim leader, although the group did not officially claim responsibility. On September 28, Boko Haram killed at least 50 mostly Muslim students at a technical college in rural Yobe State. After this and other incidents, security forces faced public criticism for arriving at the scene hours after the assailants had fled.

Boko Haram claimed responsibility for many of the scores of fatal attacks on churches and mosques, which often killed worshipers during religious services or immediately afterward. There were reports Boko Haram had burned down dozens of churches, often at night or during clashes with security forces. Christian groups stated the media underreported the razing of churches. Several Christian leaders reported church attendance rates in the north remained low after decreasing by 30 to 70 percent during 2012, attributing the decline to fear of Boko Haram.

There were multiple confirmed reports Boko Haram had targeted individuals and communities because of their religious beliefs, including Christians in remote areas of Borno and Yobe states. Survivors and relatives of victims said armed men had attempted to force them to renounce Christianity, killing those who did not convert on the spot. One Christian group reported suspected Boko Haram fighters had attacked a majority Christian town near Gwoza, Borno State on 11 separate occasions, attempting to force residents to convert or flee. There were also reports Boko Haram had targeted persons engaging in activities they perceived as un-Islamic. On January 18, gunmen reportedly killed 18 hunters selling non-halal meat at a market in Damboa, near the Borno State capital of Maiduguri. Also in January gunmen reportedly killed five men gambling by the side of the road in Kano State.

Civil society groups, media outlets, and politicians stated Boko Haram killed more Muslims than Christians because its primary bases of operation were in the predominately Muslim north and it frequently targeted schools, security forces, and government installations. In one such August incident, Boko Haram killed more than 20 soldiers and policemen in an attack on the Borno village of Mallam Fatori. Boko Haram also targeted Muslim civilians who aided the security forces; this was widely accepted as the motive of an attack on a mosque in Konduga, Borno State, which killed 44 worshippers on August 11.

Government attempts to stop Boko Haram were largely ineffective. Actions taken by security forces under the state of emergency, declared in May in the three northeastern states of Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa, often increased the death toll, as bystanders were caught in crossfire during urban gunfights, security forces committed extrajudicial killings of suspected terrorists, and detainees died in custody. Religious leaders, civil society, and international human rights organizations condemned the government’s heavy-handed military response. Some of the more than 10,000 refugees who fled to neighboring countries reported fear of both Boko Haram and the military had prevented their return. Although most residents reported improved security for part of the year in Maiduguri, where large clashes between Boko Haram and security personnel had occurred frequently, Boko Haram continued to operate freely in rural areas in the northeast and a large Boko Haram force mounted an attack on Maiduguri in December.

 

Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Because ethnicity, religion, and socio-economic status were often inextricably linked, it was difficult to categorise social abuses or discrimination cases as either ethnic or religious intolerance.

Some Muslims or Christians who converted to another religion reportedly faced threats and ostracism by adherents of their former religion. In some northern states, those wishing to convert to Islam were strongly encouraged to apply to the sharia council for a letter of conversion to be sent to their families, which served to dissolve marriages to Christians and to request Hisbah protection from reprisals by relatives. Similar procedures did not exist for those converting to Christianity. In July a woman living in northern Niger State who had converted to Islam requested local authorities protect her from her father, a Christian pastor who rejected her conversion and insisted she had been coerced, despite her public statements otherwise.

There was no progress in the investigation of the murder by unknown gunmen of family members of a woman who converted from Islam to Christianity in 2012.

In April a Christian leader in a northern state temporarily left the country after receiving threatening messages in response to his public support of religious tolerance and interfaith efforts. He suspected Christians in his area had made the threats and said other Christians and Muslims dedicated to strengthening interfaith ties often received hostile complaints from some members of their own religious communities.

Muslims and Christians continued to fear reprisal attacks based on their religious affiliation. Shortly after a suspected Boko Haram suicide bomber killed 22 people at a bus station in a Christian community in Kano city on March 18, there were unconfirmed reports of threats against the Hausa residents living in Abia State. Several Christian religious leaders publically called for calm, and no known violence occurred.

There were reports some Christians, along with many other residents, moved away from the conflict-ridden northeastern states of Borno and Yobe throughout the year. Several interviewees among approximately 100 internally displaced people who had moved to Jos in Plateau State said they left their homes out of fear of Boko Haram and such incidents as house-to-house killings, attacks on churches, and sustained violence between extremists and government security forces.

While the law prohibits religious discrimination in employment and other activities, religious groups continued to say some sectors discriminated in the work place because of religion. Muslim women in the south reportedly continued to face job discrimination in the private sector, especially in customer service jobs. Advocacy by Muslim groups resulted in three major banks in the south accepting the hijab (a veil covering the hair) in their corporate dress code for the first time.

The Nigerian Inter-Religious Council (NIREC), an independent organization comprised of 25 Christian and 25 Muslim leaders, advised the government on ways to mitigate violence between religious communities. The federal government publicly supported NIREC efforts, but the council met only once during the year. Several Christian and Muslim religious leaders expressed growing frustration with and distrust of NIREC leadership. Although many religious leaders publicly supported tolerance and interfaith methods of conflict resolution, some said growing distrust between Christian and Muslim leaders (and discord among denominations within the same faith tradition) threatened interfaith efforts.

Communities sometimes stigmatized those who did not accept the existence of God. For example, two Christians and one Muslim reported privately they no longer believed in God but continued to attend religious services out of fear their families would ostracize them and they would face extra scrutiny from their neighbors.

 

U.S. Government Policy     

U.S. embassy staff promoted religious freedom and tolerance in discussions with government, religious, civil society, and traditional leaders. The Ambassador arranged and attended meetings with government officials for visiting delegations, including the State Department’s Under Secretary for Political Affairs and Assistant Secretary for African Affairs. These officials encouraged officials at agencies such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Office of the National Security Advisor to address sectarian violence and called for timely legal action against perpetrators of violence. Over 10 other visiting U.S. government officials met with civil society groups and religious leaders, including the Christian Association of Nigeria and the National Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, to listen to and show public support for their concerns. In a meeting with President Jonathan, President Obama expressed U.S. support for Nigeria’s efforts to defeat Boko Haram and emphasized the importance of a comprehensive approach that respects human rights to the success of those efforts, as did Secretary of State Kerry with Nigeria’s foreign minister. Government officials responded with support for religious freedom and requests the United States assist Nigeria in combating Boko Haram.

In August the U.S. Consulate General in Lagos hosted an interfaith iftar to promote religious pluralism. Guest speakers focused on the fundamentally tolerant and peaceful nature of Islam and denounced religious violence. The principal officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Lagos discussed religious tolerance and interfaith relationship building on multiple occasions throughout the year with leaders of the growing Pentecostal Christian movement, other Christian leaders, and influential Muslim clerics. An embassy official noted a common commitment to religious tolerance and strong bonds between Nigerians of different faiths at an event in August, when 25 embassy volunteers served meals to needy youth and Muslims at an iftar.

USAID continued working with the Interfaith Mediation Center in Kaduna State on a program to help interfaith organizations deepen and strengthen community engagement capacities and support interfaith dialogue in six northern and central states.

U.S. embassy representatives supported interfaith dialogue by meeting with persons displaced by Boko Haram violence, speaking at a conference on communal violence hosted by the Plateau State government, and discussing religious tension mitigation efforts with religious, traditional, and academic leaders at several conferences and research presentations in Abuja.

The embassy and consulate general regularly distributed information on religious freedom to journalists, academics, entrepreneurs, civic organizations, teachers, students, government officials, the armed forces, clergy, and traditional rulers.

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