•Presidency: Label carries no immediate implication
Iyobosa Uwugiaren and Kingsley Nwezeh in Abuja
The federal government has rejected the designation of Nigeria by the United States as a country that engages in or tolerates severe violations of religious freedom, saying that the “iniquitous tag’’ stemmed from an orchestrated narrative that has long been discredited.
Meanwhile, the presidency has allayed fears that the US’ description of Nigeria as a religion intolerant nation could have consequences for the country, assuring the people that the US government’s decision to place Nigeria on its Watch List carries no immediate implication, stressing that the two countries would deliberate on the matter early next year.
Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, while refuting the report, said Nigerians enjoyed unfettered freedom to practise their religion and blamed failed politicians and disgruntled elements – some of them supposedly-respected leaders – for latching on to religion as their trump card, especially in the run-up to the last general elections, to oust the Buhari administration.
In the report, the United States had put Nigeria on its Special Watch List (SWL) for governments that have engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.
With that tag, Nigeria has joined Russia, Cuba, Sudan and Uzbekistan on the list.
According to a statement signed and released by US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, at the weekend, it was obvious that Nigeria was put on the list due to Boko Haram activities in the North-east.
Pompeo said Boko Haram was designated as “Entities of Particular Concern.”
“These designations underscore the United States’ commitment to protect those who seek to exercise their freedom of religion or belief.
“We believe that everyone, everywhere, at all times, should have the right to live according to the dictates of their conscience. We will continue to challenge state and non-state entities that seek to infringe upon those fundamental rights and to ensure they are held to account for their actions,” the US added.
This is coming as a new report into the persecution of Nigeria’s Christian communities said 7,000 Christians were killed by terrorist group, Boko Haram and herdsmen since 2015, with 1,000 killed in 2019 alone and 12,000 displaced.
But the minister described the US’ decision as “unfortunate”, saying the US fell for the antics of the discontented and the unpatriotic few, who will not hesitate to hang Nigeria out to dry on the altar of their inordinate ambition and their sheer animosity towards the Buhari administration.
He said the Nigerian government was acutely aware of how the opposition, in particular, had spared no resources in deriving political capital from the various security challenges in the country.
”The deliberate effort to give religious coloration to the farmers-herders clashes and the Boko Haram insurgency, in particular, has undoubtedly helped to mislead the US into concluding that the government is doing little or nothing to guarantee religious freedom in the country.
”But, as we have always said, the farmers-herders’ clashes have nothing to do with religion but everything to do with environmental and socio-economic realities. The religious tag given to the clashes has no basis in fact, but is very convenient for those who will very easily give the dog a bad name just to hang it.
On its part, the Boko Haram terrorists are extreme fanatics who do not subscribe to the tenets of any religion, in spite of their pretence to Islamic adherence,” the minister added.
According to him, the good news is that the government has curbed the farmers-herders’ clashes through the implementation of proactive and multi-dimensional strategy, which is yielding remarkable results, just as it has largely defeated the Boko Haram insurgency.
On the El-Zakzaky issue, which was referred to in the report by the US government, he described it is purely a criminal matter, which is being handled by the court.
The minister said while the government welcomed constructive criticism from any quarter, it would reject any attempt to cause mistrust among the various religious groups in the country.
Tag Carries No Immediate Implication, Says Presidency
Meanwhile, the Presidency has said the decision by the US government to place Nigeria on its Watch List carries no immediate implication, adding that the two countries would deliberate on the matter early next year.
It said the decision did not make Nigeria a country of concern on religious freedom.
Speaking to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) on this development, Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, said Nigeria and the US would deliberate on the matter early next year.
According to him, placing Nigeria on US watch list carries no immediate implication, and that does not in any way make the country an area of concern as being asserted in some quarters.
“The correct US government position is that the addition of Nigeria to the watch list of the IRF does not make Nigeria a country of concern on religious freedom.
“The watch list carries no immediate implication, except for the need for both countries to discuss areas of concern over the next year. We are looking forward to such discussions with our partners, the US.’’
The presidential aide stated that Nigeria as geo-political entity had no policy promoting one religion against the other.
According to Shehu, the right to freedom of worship for all citizens is guaranteed in the Nigerian constitution.
“We have no policy that promotes one religion against the other.
“The right to freedom is guaranteed by the constitution and we have no problem observing that,’’ he said.
Boko Haram, Herdsmen Killed 7,000 Christians Since 2015, Says Report
Meanwhile, a new report into the persecution of Nigeria’s Christian communities said 7,000 Christians were killed by terrorist group, Boko Haram and Herdsmen since 2015, while 1,000 were killed in 2019 even as 12,000 were displaced.
It said the killings took place in the north and central Nigeria.
Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) said the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), headed by a member of the British House of Lords, Baroness Cox, discovered that believers in the north and central regions of Nigeria were the most severely affected.
“Islamist Fulani militia continue to engage in an aggressive and strategic land grabbing policy in Plateau, Benue, Taraba, Southern Kaduna and parts of Bauchi State,” read the report, which was titled “Your Land or Your Body.”
“They attack rural villages, force villagers off their lands and settle in their place, a strategy that is epitomised by the phrase: ‘your land or your blood.’”
According to HART, the exact number of Christians killed by Islamic militants Boko Haram and Fulani Herdsmen was unknown, though the data suggests the figure to be around 1,000 for the year. The organisation said 6,000 were killed since 2015 with an additional 12,000 displaced.
“In every village, the message from local people is the same: ‘Please, please help us! The Fulani are coming. We are not safe in our own homes,’” the report said.
The Fulani herdsmen “seek to replace diversity and difference with an Islamist ideology which is imposed with violence on those who refuse to comply,” Baronness Cox told the Christian Institute. “It is, according to the Nigerian House of Representatives, genocide.”
Giving testimony of his experience, one local Nigerian pastor said brutal attacks at the hands of Islamic fighters were becoming a daily occurrence.
“Every day, we carry new corpses to the cemetery. They kill farmers. They destroy our homes and churches. They kidnap and rape women,” he explained.
In a bid to help change the situation for the hard-pressed Nigerian Christian community, Cox pleaded with the British Foreign Office to “ensure the Nigerian government takes effective action to protect all its citizens and call to account those who perpetrate atrocities.”