Christian Persecution in Nigeria
(Robert A. Destro and Mark Jacob Nzamah, August 28, 2021)
Transcript available below
About the speakers
Robert A. Destro is Professor of Law and founding Director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law and Religion at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C. He has recently served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy Human Rights and Labor. Professor Destro also served as a Commissioner on the United States Commission on Civil Rights. He is the co-author of the book Religious Liberty in a Pluralistic Society.
Mark Jacob Nzamah is a barrister in Abuja. He is the former Attorney General of Kaduna State and former national legal adviser of the then-ruling People Democratic Party from 2007 to 2009 afterwards he was director of legal services federal airports authority. He is currently engaged in private legal practice and advocacy for the rights of minority indigenous people.
Robert R. Reilly:
Hello, I am Robert Reilly, the Director of the Westminster Institute. Welcome to our program on Nigeria and the subject of Christian persecution. In late 2020, the U.S. State Department added Nigeria to its list of Countries of Particular Concern, which names governments that have “engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.” Apparently, Nigeria is the first democracy ever added to the list. Also, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has warned of a potential “Christian genocide.”
Joining me today to discuss this troubling situation are two guests. Robert Destro is Professor of Law and founding Director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law and Religion at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C. He has recently served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy Human Rights and Labor. Professor Destro also served as a Commissioner on the United States Commission on Civil Rights. He is the co-author of the book Religious Liberty in a Pluralistic Society.
Joining us from Nigeria, Mark Jacob is a barrister in Abuja. He is the former Attorney General of Kaduna State, and former national legal adviser of the then-ruling People Democratic Party from 2007 to 2009. Afterwards he was Director of Legal Services Federal Airports Authority. He is currently engaged in private legal practice and advocacy for the rights of minority indigenous people. Gentlemen, welcome to the program.
Thanks for having us.
Robert R. Reilly:
Perhaps, Mark Jacob, you could begin by providing some broad background of this subject matter we are about to treat.
Thank you, Bob, for giving us this opportunity to speak on this subject, and I would like to start by saying that what I will be talking about is based on factual events that I have primary knowledge of; I am not talking from second guess or hearsay position. The events or circumstances I will be speaking on are events and issues that I am closely related to. I have been part of several mass burials. I have been part of enlightenment and encouragement of motivational events to encourage victims and survivors of some of these events. It has been a painful experience since around 2014 when unprecedented killings, selected killings of Christians particularly in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria, commenced, heightened, and taken to a very high level in 2015, 2016.
It got so dangerously unprecedented that we had to organize a lot of outreaches, a lot of discussions in the social media and in the formal media to draw attention to the atrocities being undertaken in the very face and before the eyes of a so-called democratic government. We had to highlight that atrocities against citizens are being committed across several states of Nigeria that we refer to as the Middle Belt, and that the events and the killings are not at all traceable to climate change, which is what some people wanted to push across to the world, that climate change has caused a shrinking of grazing land, and therefore Fulani herdsmen, seeking land to take care of their cattle, are driving down to the south and now coming into the Middle Belt, and disabuse the minds of people from that narrative because it is not true.
The events surrounding us between 2015 and 2017 to date are completely not as a result of climate change. They are all organized crimes, a genocide that is ongoing and is being precipitated by an organized team of sophisticatedly armed militia, made mainly of the Fulani tribal group. They are organized. They are well trained. They are well armed and they moved from village to village, from town to town, from community to community.
And when we raised alarm over this some years ago, some people say that it was a general issue, that the attacks were not religious, they were not selective, but the point is very clear. I want to emphasize that all the attacks have religion as the very background and the purveyor of the attacks. The attackers come into your community and they are shouting the Islamic slogan of Allahu Akbar.
They come into a community. If there is a church, it is destroyed. If there is a pastorium, that pastorium is attacked. Anybody found there is killed and the building is destroyed. If there is a mosque in the village or in the town, the mosque is spared and the occupants of the mosque are not touched, and the homes of Muslims in those communities are spared, they are not touched, so when people begin to say that it has no religious coloration, it is just falsehood. And we have said it over and over again that the Nigerian government, particularly from 2015 has, in total disobedience to the Constitution of Nigeria, taken sides with the attackers.
Who is arming these groups?
Robert R. Reilly:
Yes, sorry, I do not mean to divert you from these excellent remarks, but I just wanted you to stop for a moment and answer the question; when you say these organized Fulani groups that perpetrate these attacks are well armed, could you just take a moment to explain who is arming them?
Well, I will start from the perspective pushed forward by the Nigerian government. The Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, and his handlers have on several occasions claimed that the Fulani attackers get their arms from Libya, that the conflict in Libya made arms and ammunition available to several groups, and as far as the President of Nigeria was concerned most of these attackers and their arms come from Libya. That is the perspective that the Nigerian government officially has given as far as the source of arms are concerned.
But we are also not oblivious of the fact that the Islamic world is organized in this matter. Several Islamic countries are alleged to be funding and supporting these attacks because the entire program is described as a jihad, is described as an attempt to Islamize the territories, and that is why the attacks take on the Islamic coloration and they use the Islamic language and slogan, mobilizing those who do the attacks. And they have a great following in Nigeria.
So, as I said, we are seeing this happen from state to state, from community to community. It has happened. In fact, it started very harshly in Plateau State around 2010, 2011, 2012. By 2014 it was at its highest, and it got worse by 2015 and 2016 in Plateau State. People thought that it would end there, but it has spread [to] the southern part of Kaduna State. It has spread to Nasaruwa State. It has spread to Benue State. And the records are there for everybody to see.
These are Christian communities, predominantly Christian communities, that are brought under severe attacks, and these attacks take the shape of nighttime attacks. Villagers will be sleeping, and the village will be surrounded, and the shooting commences. Once you run out of your house, they either shoot you or they follow you with their daggers and hack you down. And as you are running, they are looting properties from the houses while another group is setting the houses on fire. And we have seen this repeated the same pattern in most of all of the villages, and it is ongoing.
Thousands are in IDP camps with governments doing little or nothing except in Benue State where the governor has gone all out to side or to take a position with the people. Now, in Kaduna state where thousands were chased out of their communities, they were left at the mercy of faith-based organizations or individuals to fend for themselves. Others found succor in the houses of friends or relations. And for years that has been the situation. There is no organized intervention from government as far as the IDPs are concerned. We have thousands of internally displaced persons and they have been left to their own faith.
Education has been permanently disrupted. Children no longer go to school in most of these communities because if the schools were not destroyed, they have been turned into the IDP camps, so education for most parts of the past three years has been stunted. And in Kaduna State currently most of the secondary and tertiary decisions are crossed because these killers adopted the style of going to schools to kidnap school children.
Kaduna State has had the highest number of school kidnappings. As I speak to you over a hundred school children are still in captivity from a Baptist secondary school, and there is no effort from government to rescue these children. What is happening is that peoples from schools are kidnapped and the parents are left alone to negotiate with the kidnappers and pay ransom before their wards are released from the kidnappers.
And it is open. It is open and known, the location where these people are [located] is known. The villagers will tell you that they hear them singing and dancing after their attacks. Government will sit down and do nothing. We have a claim by the Nigerian metro agency that they have total radar coverage of Nigeria, but it is shocking that with all the aircrafts that belong to the Nigerian Air Force, that belong to even the navy, the customs, that the location of these kidnappers is not visited by the government forces to either free the victims of these kidnappings or to confront the kidnappers. So it is a free reign.
And we are seeing pictures and videos of these kidnappers. When one of the Islamic leaders took the effort of visiting the camps of these kidnappers, Sheikh Ahmed Gumi was escorted by Nigerian security agencies to visit all the camps of these kidnappers, and they were recorded on video, pictures were taken, and they stated their grievances. They said their grievances are against the government of Nigeria, that the government of Nigeria has not been treating them nicely, the government of Nigeria has not been giving them contracts, has not given them accommodation, education, has not given them economic succor like they do to other people in the country, and because of that as far as they are concerned that is why they are doing what they are with the kidnappings, that a select group will launch [or] mount [a] war against a sovereign state.
And that that will be condoned and continuously condoned is what baffles us as citizens of Nigeria. We have a situation where people have come out openly to challenge the federal government of Nigeria to come out and fight. They have boasted that they have capacity to to handle the Nigerian military and sometimes they display their weapons. You see rocket launchers. In fact, they posted that they now have anti-aircraft missiles that can bring down Nigerian military or air force airplanes, and they demonstrated the seriousness of that a month ago when they brought down one of the Air Force jets, and nothing has happened.
So as we speak Nigerians are totally helpless. You survive only by god’s will, and we have not failed, and we cannot close our eyes or pretend that we do not see the religious slant in the approach of government and the approach of the attackers. They are totally in unison. The entire arms-bearing agencies of government have been skewed to the Muslims, either the investigatory organizations like the NIA, the DISS, the Nigerian army, the Nigerian air force, everything since 2015. This government made sure that all the people heading these organizations were Muslims, and despite the outcry of Nigerian citizens, all complaints were drawn to the wind. The government, the federal government, ignored all efforts and cries by Nigerians to mix, to have a mixture of leadership at least at that level.
Today, the entire Nigerian security apparatus can meet in a mosque because actually all of them are Muslims. In a country that has such a religious mix this is not correct. This is not healthy. Even [if] a government is sincere, it speaks volumes about sincerity in that you make sure that all the heads of the arms-bearing agencies of government that have the power to enforce law, they have the duty and responsibility of chasing crime and stopping crime, are all Muslims. And this has aided and connived and has given to the allegation that government is complicit in all that is happening.
And we have seen a reputation of action, the reaction of government to incidences recently sir. Last week a very sad incident occurred when a bus loaded with Muslims was attacked in a particular village and 20 something or 23 or 25 people were killed, and within two hours the federal government of Nigeria responded. The presidency, the Nigerian inspector general of police, the DSS, the NIA, the Nigerian governors, everybody responded to that single incident.
In fact, just a week before that incident within the same community where this incident occurred, over 70 people, mainly Christians, were killed by this same Fulani group. They went to these villages, killed everybody they could find, went to the farmlands and destroyed all the farms that had crops that were ready for harvest. They went to the houses. Any storehouse of food was destroyed and we had thousands of people in an IDP camp in Jos.
Now, throughout the week that these people were killed there was no word of empathy from the Nigerian government. There was no response from the inspector general of police. The Nigerian army barracks in Rukuba is just a trekking distance from where these over 70 people were killed. Sir, there was no response from the Nigerian army even though the proximity of the Nigerian army barrack to the scene where these people were being killed and hacked down is not more than 15 minutes. You can trek it. Nothing, no response.
Now, when you compare that to the swift action that took place when Muslims were now attacked on Saturday, you will know, you will be left with no other interpretation. The simple interpretation is that the government is complicit in what is happening because the entirety of the occurrences could not have been the way they are without intervention from the government, and the government chooses when to react, government chooses when to send in security troops to stop a killing.
And the security architecture in Nigeria is such that the entire police is federal. There is no state police so unless and until the federal government or the president gives authorization, the inspector general of police cannot order his troops, his men, to move into any community even if there is an attack that he is aware of. The same thing with the army. The army is centralized just like the police. Everything comes from Abuja so even if a governor is willing to intervene, he will have to go and seek clearance and permission of the president of the country before troops move in even if an attack is happening behind their door, behind their window, which happened in Jos recently. They will not take action unless there is approval from Abuja.
And this is the situation we have seen repeatedly. You will see soldiers armed, ready with their guns and in vehicles, but they are still waiting for that command and approval that comes from Abuja, and [in] most instances that approval never comes when Christians are being attacked, but the moment a Muslim community or a Muslim is attacked anywhere, immediately the approval will come, and the troops will move in. We have seen this happening.
Robert R. Reilly:
Mark, may I ask you, you know, more than several years ago, the Nigerian federal troops did move against Boko Haram, particularly when there was an international outcry over the kidnapping of all those schoolgirls in the north. Now, why react against Boko Haram and not come to the assistance of the persecuted Christians in Kaduna and Plateau?
The situation in 2013 when the girls in Chibok were kidnapped [was different]. The Nigerian President at that time was Goodluck Jonathan, and the response certainly was professional. Today, we have an army that is tied to the apron strings of the president. The president from 2015 has been Muhammadu Buhari, who if you may want to recall was appointed by Boko Haram as their leader to lead in any negotiations with the Nigerian government before 2015. He was the one he was one of the persons named by Boko Haram to represent them in any negotiation with the Nigerian government, so when he now took over as president, we have seen a horrifying picture where Boko Haram dissidents are brought in the name of repentance.
They all claim that they have repented and they are now rehabilitated. So-called rehabilitation takes place in a Nigerian army facility in Gombe. And then they are reintegrated, and some of them are even recruited into the Nigerian army. Clear, confessed, arrested, fully-known members of Boko Haram have been forgiven their sins by this government, and have been reintegrated into society, and have indeed been employed in the Nigerian army today. So that is the situation that we are facing.
It is horrifying and scary that non-terrorists who have owned up to being terrorists come up and just say they have repented and you now declare them free. They are never tried, they do not go to prison, they do not serve any sentence. By word of mouth they are taken back into society. This is the clearest form of injustice we have ever seen in the world and it accounts for the lackadaisical approach of the Nigerian military to some of these attacks because once you have an ideological conviction to kill people in the name of religion, and then you are just brought back and given the uniform of the Nigerian army. How do we know that that radical position has been exposed from your brain? The same persons are now coming back to the Nigerian armed forces and this is ongoing.
Robert R. Reilly:
But Mark, if I may interrupt with a quick question, has the Nigerian military itself ever been implicated in these attacks on Christians?
Certainly, in most of these attacks, the failure it is just a refusal. The Nigerian military has capacity to contain these terrorist activities because like what happened in Plateau State last week, the barracks of the Nigerian army is just 15 minutes from the scene of the killing of the Christians. They sat down there. Hundreds of homes were destroyed. Over 70 people were killed. There was no single shot or even a shout out from the Nigerian armed forces. The Nigerian army that is just there.
There is no better proof. For example, in Jemaa local government, particularly on the 24th of December 2016, a young girl who had served me a drink two days earlier was killed. [She] was among the about 24 people that were killed in Goska Kanikon village by this same killer machine. And when this killing was going on, on the 24th of December, a detachment of the Nigerian army, a combined attachment [of the] Nigerian army with the police were not more than 15 kilometers away from that village. The attack continued from midnight up to dawn. They managed to demolish most of the town. That detachment of the Nigerian military did not go to that village until everybody that could not run was killed and the houses were destroyed.
We have seen this repeated over and over. They will be there. Sometimes they will be very close to the scene, but they will tell you that they have not received approval to go into the [area], and most of the time their commanders come out with an explanation that it is just a mere internal strife over land, or it is a herder farmer crisis. We have said this is a total falsehood.
What we used to know as young men when we were growing up in the 70s was that there used to be clashes, of course, with the herdsmen when they drove their cattle across the farms. Their cattle, their animals, sometimes stray and enter the farmer’s farm and eat of his crops. Such incidences will be reported to the leadership of both the Fulani and the indigenous community. They will call each other, sit down, and resolve. It never resulted in bloodshed.
What we have today, sir, is a situation where armed men will come into a community, kill those they can kill, and then go back to the farms with cutlasses, and cut down all the crops that have been planted and are growing. They cut them down physically with long swords, and make sure that nothing survives. It is not a situation where somebody comes with cattle to graze, and the cattle strays into to the farmland.
No, there is a deliberate, organized arrangement to destroy the farmlands of the indigenous people, and this is done with impunity. After you have killed the people, the survivors are not left with anything to survive on. Their storehouses are destroyed. Some of the store houses’ crops, the farm produce, are stolen. They load some of these things on vehicles and drive them away.
Robert R. Reilly:
Mark has this, in fact, been successful in depopulating parts of the state, and who takes [the produce]?
Absolutely, the Fulani. There are so many villages in some of those local governments that have been depopulated. In fact, a large segment of the people is now living in IDP camps, and the Fulani are occupying the land. So many local governments! [unintelligible] is one of them. If people come there physically, you will see that the Fulani have occupied those villages, and the villagers dare not go there again. In Benue State, we have so many local governments that have been visited with this wickedness. The owners of the land are in IDP camps, and the strangers have come, and they are now living on those lands.
Robert R. Reilly:
Mark, there is no chance of property rights enforcement in the courts of Nigeria?
You go to court. How will you enforce it when the people are a law unto themselves, and then the enforcement agency, which is the police, it is a federal agency that is controlled by somebody who is indebted to those who are grabbing the land. You get a court order, you cannot enforce it, and they live with impunity, and tell you to go and do whatever you want to do. They say it publicly. All the forests, all the places they occupy, you dare not go there.
In the southern part of Nigeria, when the governors of the south came together and banned open grazing, the Fulani umbrella organization, Miyetti Allah, came out openly and condemned the actions of the southern governors. Surprisingly, the President of Nigeria also condemned the decision of the southern governors, and [he] lambasted all the governors for taking such a decision. In other words, there is an understanding between the people who are taking land by force and the government of Nigeria, and they move together [to] any place they want to settle. And some governors, like the governor of Kaduna State, have told everybody that the land, every piece of land, belongs to government, and that anybody can go and settle anywhere.
Now, that is the greatest dissipation of the rights to property guaranteed by our constitution. I am entitled to my inheritance, but you wake up one day because you are a governor, you announce to the world that even the land that my father purchased or inherited from his grandfather, that I do not own it, that it belongs to government, and that you can take it and give it to anyone.
And the government of Nigeria surprised everybody in the world by engaging and announcing policies like the RUGA policy and the cattle roots policy. The RUGA policy is something they wanted to do to carve out thousands of kilometers of land and give it to the Fulani. It is a federal government policy that they have been insisting on implementing. Owners of land, traditional owners of land, have resisted this policy, but the federal government has said it must be implemented to take land from indigenous owners and give it exclusively to the Fulanis to use.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well on what pretext does the government undertake such actions? Is there a law passed or is it simply an executive order coming from the presidency?
It is an executive order, and they rely on the Nigerian Land Use Act that said the government should act as custodian of the land, so that there will be even distribution of land, so that no one person comes to take the land in a whole village. But instead of being a fair habitat, the government is going about it wrongly by coming to communities and chasing away traditional owners of such land and giving such land exclusively to the Fulani for their business. The business of cattle rearing all over the world is a personal business. You do not rear cattle and then give it to other people. You rear cattle, you sell the cattle, make money, and build yourself a big house.
Now the government will make it a policy to come into any state in Nigeria, take the land from the traditional owners, and give it to stranger elements like the Fulani. It is such an obnoxious policy that the world needs to know. And the government of Nigeria is insisting that that policy must be implemented. And since 2015 that has been the singular, consistent policy that the government of Nigeria has been seeking to enforce.
Robert R. Reilly:
In fact, does the world know about what is taking place there? I mean we do know that in the past administration President Trump talked to the President of Nigeria and raised the subject of Christian persecution with him, and at the beginning of the show, I mentioned the designation of Nigeria by the State Department as a [Country of Particular] Concern (CPC), and the U.S. Commission on International [Religious] Freedom (USCIRF) [said] that there is a potential Christian genocide there, but that that is not enough apparently.
The Nigerian government was very upset and angry with that assessment. And we know the kind of language that was deployed by officials of the government against the Trump administration for taking that position, and it is so unfortunate that although the world is now a global village, the world still appears to be ignorant of the realities on [the] ground in Nigeria. This policy has been highlighted by government. They have, in fact, displayed it on their international websites, displayed it as their policy, as their core policy. In fact, they boast about it and claim that it is their fastest way to bring peace within Nigeria between farmers and the herders, but it is just a surreptitious effort to take land from owners of land, and give it to a particular [group], a specific class of people, including non-indigenous Fulanis who are just coming from anywhere in Africa.
You take our land and give it to them, and their attachment [to] land to the Nigerian is everything. It is his culture, it is his religion, it is his lifestyle. Once you take the land, you have taken life away from him, but the Nigerian government does not care and it takes away this land by force, and it is ongoing. In several states, in Kaduna State for instance, a cattle reserve that was just 40,000 square meters has been extended to 73,000 [square meters] by just a proclamation of government. And that area is exclusive for the Fulanis. Now the owners of those lands have been driven out. If you go there to farm, you are meat. You are either killed or maimed, and the Fulanis tell you that [the] government has given them the land. You cannot raise your hereditary inheritance over the land. It has been given to them, and like I said, these are actions of a so-called democratic government.
Robert R. Reilly:
Speaking of that, this would seem to create a highly unstable situation within Nigeria, which is the largest state, the [wealthiest] state [in Africa. This] would [seem to] have repercussions in adjoining countries, in Benin and Cameroon and so forth. Are there indeed concerns that those governments raise because of this potential for major instability inside Nigeria as a result of these policies?
Well, nobody that has stepped into Nigeria in the last two years will fail to see, will fail to touch and feel the instability all over the place. No single day passes without a report of 20 to 30 to 100 people being killed in Nigeria as a result of some of these actions of [the] government. It is either [that the] government is not willing or [the] government is refusing to address criminality and is pampering those [who are] executing people or [the] government sits aloof.
We see it continuously. The people bearing arms are getting bolder every day. They are getting bold every day, with every passing day, since none of them could be brought to book. Imagine an attack going on in a community not more than 15 minutes moved from the command of the Nigerian barracks, and it goes on for a continuous week, for a whole week people have been killed and displaced. Nobody takes a step to stop them.
Robert R. Reilly:
You would think that there would be broad spread revulsion from the other Christian communities within Nigeria for what is being done to the people in the north and the middle states. You mentioned the actions of the governors of the southern states, which are mostly Christian. Can’t they do something for their confrères in the middle states and the north?
They can do very little, very, very little because, again, there is this configuration that has to do with politics. The governors in the south are mostly in the same political party with the president, so out of political correctness they find it difficult to even raise their finger when their own communities are also coming under attack because these things that are happening in this middle belt have spread to the southeast and to the southwest. Places like Ibadan have been visited. Villages in Oyo State, villages in Osun and Ogun State have been visited with violence, but in most of those instances, politics comes into gap and prevent the governors from being aggressive on the issue.
They like to play political correctness. They speak in low tones, mix it with diplomacy, and then insist that there must be something. Their coming together was actually the very first bold step we saw from that axis. It was a very bold step, and everybody applauded them, but the president wielded his big stick on them, and told everybody to fall in line. And of course, in today’s Nigeria where the entire architecture of security is centralized and in the hands of the president, most of these politicians like to play it safe.
Robert R. Reilly:
What is the potential within Nigeria for a peaceful democratic change that might improve this situation?
The potential is very slim because there is no arm of government that has not been infiltrated with or by the current political style we have, where the president and his men have their hands in everything. Is it the electoral commission? Nobody trusts them to even conduct any sincere election. The system is so muddled up, the judiciary has been boxed in, the security agencies are in the hands of the president.
The electoral commission that is described as independent is nothing at all to write home about because there are elections that have taken place that ought to have been cancelled, but they just approved the elections when there was a very clear display of criminality. Ballot boxes were being taken away by soldiers. People have been chased away from electoral zones, and elections [have been] declared without votes.
And what did we see recently? The National Assembly of Nigeria in the 21st century went ahead to refuse to approve electronic transmission of results. In this era where small countries are embracing electronic way of doing things, Nigeria, the so-called giant of Africa, the National Assembly of Nigeria said that election results should not be transmitted electronically, that we are not yet ready for it, that we do not have internet coverage that would allow results to be transmitted, and that is why [we hear] the hue and cry of Nigerians all over. The National Assembly still stood their ground because that is the policy and the direction of the current administration, to make sure that they leave loopholes in the system that they can use in manipulating election results.
Robert R. Reilly:
And what about the integrity of the court system?
That is the most painful aspect because the general belief around the world is that the court should be the hope for the common man. In Nigeria, the Nigerian government for the first time in our history organized the invasion of the homes of Supreme Court Justices in the night on allegations that they were suspected of corruption. Before any investigation, before any trial took place, the Nigerian Armed Forces in gestapo style moved from house to house, arrested the hallowed Justices of the Supreme Court. Even if these people were guilty of anything, the entire system was dishonored. The entire system was brought to shame by that display of wanton recklessness. There is nowhere you can go ahead.
Now, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, the head of the Supreme Court, was unceremoniously also removed, and another one appointed, so right from the onset, the system, the judicial system, was weakened and rubbished. Its integrity was completely diminished and brought to not in the face of the public, being rounded up like armed robbers in the heat, in the night.
Robert R. Reilly:
With this kind of erosion of the rule of law in Nigeria, how do you as a barrister operate?
Honestly, I am not a proud lawyer. I am not. I am not proud to be a lawyer in Nigeria because the kind of things we see, the kind of justice we expect, very elementary limits that ought to be respected have been abused, and you find judges just sitting down like lame dogs. They cannot hold themselves up to the integrity that the judiciary is known for or is expected of because they have been demystified and shown to the whole world to be rogues because it is only rogues that you ambush in the night, and arrest in the presence of their children. That is what was done to the judiciary. And after that, the courts just became the whipping chair.
They literally became the whipping chair of the administration, and that is why the Attorney General of the federation currently can stroll into a court and get an order designating the IPOB, the Independent People’s Movement of Biafra, as a terrorist organization. The Attorney General of Nigeria strolled into a magistrate court and got an order designating that organization as a terrorist organization. Meanwhile, those who are killing all over the country, kidnapping all over the country, they are working free. Their organization is not at all designated as a terrorist organization.
I do not know whether the American government can review the approach by the Trump administration when it designated Nigeria as a Country of [Particular Concern] in regard to religious freedoms. The rights of Christians and other religions are being trampled upon with impunity, so much so that the lives of Christians do not matter. When Christians are killed in their hundreds, nothing happens, but if a Muslim or some Muslims are touched, the whole world will come down.
And this is the manipulation of information that this government specializes in. Anytime we even make an effort to speak like this on national or even local television, we have classified as haters of the government. You remember the famous hate speech bill that the government wanted to pass through the National Assembly. It was actually targeted at anybody who is trying to speak in strong terms to the government, to speak truth to government, to interrogate the actions of government frankly.
Robert R. Reilly:
Mark, you have spoken very frankly and courageously in this program. Does this put you in danger?
Absolutely, but I do not care because we have a common saying in Nigeria now. If you speak, you die. If you do not speak, you die, so it is better to speak and die.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, my god, you are a very brave man and I salute you. Bob Destro, would you like to give the perspective from your experience as an Assistant Secretary at the State Department, which dealt with some of these issues?
Sure. Well, thank you, Mark, for that excellent rundown of the situation. I have a couple of maps that will help the viewers understand the geography a bit. And I want to come back to something Mark said early in his remarks, and that is that the function of the government is to protect the physical security of its people. I mean if you had to summarize in one sentence the problem that the innocent people of the middle belt, the north, and I might add, increasingly, in the southern parts of the country is that when you call the police, nobody comes. I mean, basically, there is no local police protection. In Nigeria, the police are a federal function, that is a holdover from the British, and so there is no local police, so that when Mark says to you that the federal police do not do anything, but then as soon as villagers try and defend themselves, then they get arrested, that is more than a clue that the federal government is, if not supportive of this, is certainly taking a deliberate hands off [approach].
And so, what we want to think about [is what this means]. This was the in my capacity as Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Secretary Pompeo asked me if I would try and make some sense out of what was going on in Nigeria, and so what we did is we looked. We spoke extensively with our own intelligence community. We spoke with people on the ground. We visited Abuja last October, spoke to a number of government officials, and I think once again, to underscore what Mark has been reporting, is there seems to be almost a calculated denial that physical security is the most basic of all human rights. I mean if you cannot walk down the street at night without fear of being kidnapped or mugged, [the state is failing you]. I mean when you look at polls coming in from Nigeria, one of the greatest fears that people have is being kidnapped for ransom, so that means that what we have is a complete politicization and breakdown of the police.
And when you look at the ethnic and linguistic and religious breakdown of Nigeria, what you find is that historically, the north has been Muslim, the middle is a very mixed group, the north and the middle are Nigeria’s breadbasket, and the south is where a lot of the oil and a lot of the commercial activity takes place. And what we find is that in these most recent attacks, we are seeing the invaders destroying crops. They are not only destroying houses and killing people, they are destroying crops too, and the only reason for that kind of behavior is to push people off the land, and so in many respects, what we are seeing here is a government acquiescence in a major land grab by ethno-religious groups from the north and from other areas around Nigeria.
That was my perspective certainly in the State Department. Now, getting the State Department to break out of this received narrative of climate change was literally like pulling teeth. I sat through a lengthy briefing before we left for Nigeria in October, and after the briefing was over, I made the comment [that] I could have learned everything that I heard in this briefing from Wikipedia, so where is this intelligence you are supposed to be telling us about?
It was not until we got to the Embassy in Nigeria in Abuja where the regional security officers basically told us what was going on in the north and in the middle in terms [akin to what Mark has outlined here today]. It was a classified briefing, but nonetheless, what they were talking about is basically what Mark is talking about now. And so, the received narrative here in Washington is that we have to stick with the climate change narrative, that this is a fight between farmers and herders. The Fulani herdsmen you know do graze their cattle. Historically, they have been a nomadic group of people, grazing their cattle, but you know today, if you need to graze your cattle, you can rent grazing rights.
This is not a climate change issue, and because the State Department is so completely wrapped up in both preserving the status quo and its relationship with the Buhari government, it seems either unwilling or unable to come to grips with not only what is happening in the north and middle belt but also to connect the dots with what is happening with Boko Haram and the growth of Islamic fundamentalism across the Sahel.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, what about the effect of placing Nigeria on this list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC)? Did that have an impact internationally and did it have an impact inside Nigeria?
Well, the government was not happy about it. You could see that in the cold shoulder that we got there. Putting a country on [the list] as a Country of Particular Concern means that we should be looking very carefully at our aid programs and our programs in country to direct attention to programs that are supposed to be useful. Once again, the response was [that] there was a lot of resistance to that both here in Washington and certainly in Abuja. And the big issue, I think, and the issue that will eventually get everybody’s attention, is to pay very close attention to the kinds of money that we are putting into Nigeria every year and what it is being used for.
Robert R. Reilly:
Mark, what was the response inside Nigeria to the announcement of placing the country on the State Department’s list? Were you pleased by that or was that helpful in calling attention to the problems you have outlined?
Absolutely, we were relieved that for the first time the world or the United States was rejecting the blatant falsehoods that are being pushed across the world by hired image launders on behalf of the government to hide the truth from the world. While a religious, systemic killing is ongoing, the government, because of its approach and its policy of Islamization, does not want that to let up. That America got to the point of removing the wool, and seeing clearly what was going on, was a gladdening situation, but I can tell you that the government was very angry and very unhappy with that position, and they did not fear or waste time in telling the world that the government of America was going to do that.
Robert R. Reilly:
What about the political situation inside Nigeria, which, after all, has a huge Christian population in the south, and I think as Bob Destro mentioned earlier, it is roughly 50-50 Christian and Muslim? What is the Christian community in the south doing to help their religious confrères in the middle states?
The Christian community in the south of Nigeria has a huge challenge. The challenge has to do with the fact that they have a mixed followership. Yes, many of them are Christians, but the truth remains that they have Muslims within the family, so it makes it difficult for them to respond holistically sometimes because the religious bug in Nigeria is very strong. People are blindfolded. Once religion is propped up, once the issue of religion is lifted up, people refuse to be reasonable again.
They become blindfolded and try to play a middle course when religion is brought up, so you find a situation where very strong Christian leaders even in the south will hesitate before speaking out. Sometimes they now speak out when their denomination is attacked in the middle belt or in the north. That is when some of them are prompted out of necessity to now speak out, so we have a very complex situation, particularly in Yorubaland. That complexity is there, you know.
Robert R. Reilly:
Can both of you address the photographs that we were sent of a recent incident in Borno State in the destruction of a church there, and could either of you describe what happened and what we are seeing in those photographs?
I wanted to pick up on what Mark had said about people being blindfolded. The difficulty in these inter-religious disputes, especially with the Muslim community, is that that people would prefer not to look. It is a very, very difficult issue to grapple with. I saw it in the State Department when we said look, we need to look at the issue of physical security. That was translated into all Destro wants to do is help the Christians, you know, so this being willing to ignore or not to raise [issues], you know, not to rock the boat in calling these atrocities what they are, is really very difficult.
It affects the State Department. You know, we saw the exactly the same kind of a response with the beginning of ISIS in 2013, 2014, 2015. And people are simply not willing to step up and face the consequences of taking the blinders off, and so you know, Mark’s point is extremely important from a political perspective because the country is a lot more mixed than people make it out to be, and as some of our colleagues in Abuja told me when I was there, basically, the country is at war with itself.
People from the north who are Christian are assumed in the south to be Muslim, people from the south who are Muslim are assumed to be Christian, and the religious and ethnic components of this are simply not understood because nobody talks about them, but it begins with the point that Mark made at the very beginning, which is if the government does not protect each one of us equally as a citizen and protect our physical security, then society is going to devolve into violence like we are seeing in Nigeria. We assume that we have local police protection here, and as we are seeing in certain parts of the country, you do not, and that is the beginning of the politization of a justice system, which in the end cannot really be tolerated.
Now, let me let me talk briefly about the pictures we are seeing from Borno. The Borno government has encouraged the destruction of churches, and so some of the pictures you are seeing from Borno of destroyed churches with people who are going to worship services at the churches anyway, Borno is really the eye of the storm with Boko Haram. As of this time last year, many of the international aid agencies simply cannot do business there anymore, and most of them are either moving or have moved out.
The governor himself has been kidnapped. I had the honor of having dinner with him and with two other governors when I was in Abuja in October. He is afraid to go out on the road himself, and so when you look at the question, what is it that the United States can be doing, we spend a lot of money in Nigeria, we provide a lot of weapons for the military, [and] that has become a big boat of contention. But my preference would be to get everybody on the same page, talking about the physical security of the population.
Robert R. Reilly:
Bob, when you say the government of Borno State is encouraging the destruction of churches, [how are they doing that]? By doing what or by not doing [what]?
Well, I am going to let Mark answer that question because he is the one who is closer on the ground.
Okay, sir, if I had known, I would have brought data of the number of churches destroyed in the last year, not just in Borno, but in the northern part of Nigeria. It is a government policy. It is an agency of government that went to put down the church in Maiduguri, Borno State last Saturday. It is an agency of government, and there is no way that agency of government would go and do what it did without the consent or approval of the governor, it is not possible, so we are seeing situations where certificates of occupancies of churches are cancelled.
In some states, if you want to build a church, you have to go and apply. In fact, the regulation is that if you want land in some states, particularly Yobe, Borno, Kano, Sokoto, you cannot say you want a certificate of occupancy to build a church. The policy is that there is no land for churches and beer drinking places. It is clearly stated they will not give you land to build a church or to build a beer parlor, so people now apply for land, the Christians they have to get land in the name of building houses. And if you go and start a church, God help you if there is a report that you are using your house as a church. They will pull it down.
This has been going on for years, and what happened is not new to us. We saw it. The only sad thing is that Borno State is in the eye of the storm. Nobody among us expected that the governor of Borno State, who has attempted to win public sympathy, would go and thread that line because even previous administrations never took that line. It was not government that was destroying churches, it was Boko Haram, so if we have gotten to the stage where the government of a state will approve the demolition of a church, then they have taken it to another level. And that is what is very scary, very, very scary, that it is no longer the attackers or the terrorists that will come and destroy your church or kill you, it is the government, and that is what is the reality today.
If this is what happens, Bob, when you close your eyes or, as Mark put it, put the blindfolds on, to the religious and ethnic dimensions of this struggle, [you miss the big picture]. I mean that from Boko Haram’s perspective Borno State is Dar al Islam. Basically, it is the land of Islam, and churches have no place in that land. And we see that certainly in other places as well, and so to ignore that dimension means that you are ignoring a big piece. It is not just physical security, there is also an attempt to push people out, and we have not even begun to talk about the number of internally displaced people in places like Borno State and other places in Nigeria.
The country is coming apart, and you have huge refugee camps. We spend a lot of money supporting refugees in Nigeria, but eventually they are going to get on the move just like the Syrians did, but the numbers in West Africa are so much greater than in the Middle East. Then you are looking at a disaster kind of on multiple levels.
Robert R. Reilly:
Where are they going to go?
Well, certainly, they are going to [go north]. Many of them will try and go to Europe. They will try and come here, but how long if you were a parent with kids and a wife, at what point does living in a refugee camp become intolerable? I mean there is only so much money that Europe and the United States can put into this, and I can tell you from a governmental perspective that the conversations we had with the EU, with the UK, with France, with Germany, with The Netherlands, everybody understands what the situation is there, but they were looking to the United States for leadership on the question of physical security and on this issue of particular concern because you have to ask the question: why are you particularly concerned? The answer is you have got to stop the violence. You have got to protect people’s individual physical security, whether it is from kidnappers or from marauding Fulani militants on motorcycles.
Robert R. Reilly:
When you say the blinders are put on in respect to the religious and ethnic dimensions, are the religious and ethnic dimensions the same? In other words, do you find a coincidence between religious affiliation and tribal membership or is there a mix within tribes between Muslim and Christian?
Mark, do you want to handle that one?
Yeah, I will try. The mix as far as we know, practically on ground here, in my tribe, for instance, we can count the number of Muslims. There may not be more than 10 in the whole tribe for a large population over 300,000, so yes, we acknowledge that there are Muslims, and we respect them, and we expect them to be allowed to practice their religion of choice. In the same way, when we go up north, there are Hausa and Fulani Christians. They are in the minority, a very small minority in Kano State, in Katsina State, in Kaduna State, in Kepi State. There are Muslim [majorities in the] Hausa or Fulani [communities], but [the Christians of these communities] are the worst hit because they can be doctors, they can be engineers, but they will never get jobs all because of the religion that they subscribe to.
And so, the complexity, the position of religion in Nigeria has been raised above competence, above qualifications, particularly in this current regime, that your religion is considered first before your qualifications, before your credentials to serve, and it has been so positioned that it is a situation of helplessness.
And when we see our government go to America, go to Europe and speak flamboyantly on a public platform, calling for equality, calling for equitable treatment of human beings, we are embarrassed because it is like do not do what we do, do what we say. When you are treating us as government, treat us equally. We do not understand how, in fact, foreign countries keep funding this government because the government has breached every norm of democratic and modern existence.
Robert R. Reilly:
And it is against Nigeria’s constitution, is it not?
It is against Nigeria’s constitution. They have blatantly abused this concession. People have gone to court. The judiciary has been intimidated to the extent that, in fact, it has also been taken over by the executive, and that is why they can boldly tell you when you are complaining, they will tell you to go to court because they have completely been taken over by that arm of the government.
Robert R. Reilly:
In our closing moments here then, this has, of course, been a very distressing report from both of you, and Bob, you mentioned the further devolution into violence. Is that what the future holds, and do you agree with that, Mark, or what can prevent this?
Well, there is a renegotiation of Nigeria’s future. We must sit down and discuss the terms under which this nation will continue to exist as a nation. We cannot go on like this because assuming at the end of this government, another regime comes in and continues with these policies, this country will break, and assuming at the end of this tenure, another government comes and then begins to do the opposite, then we have a problem, and so we do not have a choice. And government must accede to the voices of well-meaning Nigerians, who have been calling for the renegotiation of Nigeria’s future.
We must discuss this. We must sit across the table, instead of using the force of arm to muzzle any voice that wants a discussion because that is what has been happening. All the voices that have said look, we are tired of this thing, we need a change, we need a discussion [have been suppressed]. Some of them have been arrested. They are on trial for treason.
Robert R. Reilly:
What would be what would be the forum for such a conversation or negotiation?
Ethnic nationalities should be represented in the discussion, ethnic nationalities, not the political divisions because there is a large outcry that the current political structure of Nigeria was done and manipulated in such a way that Kano State, which is the same size as Lagos brings 44 members, it has 44 local government [representatives] while Lagos has 20 [representatives]. Robert will tell you the size of Lagos and the population in Lagos cannot be matched by any other state. But when it comes to the National Assembly, the people that come to the National Assembly from Kano State alone is almost twice the number that comes from Lagos State, so this skewed arrangement does not go around the situation.
Where do you let the discussion take place? [It should take place] at the National Assembly because the numbers are not [excessive], and the people who are enjoying this skewed arrangement would never allow it to happen, that the discussion would be fair, so let us think outside the box, get ethnic nationalities to be represented at this discussion, then Nigeria can move forward.
Robert R. Reilly:
Bob, do you want to react to that?
Yes, I mean I think that is why, again, what Mark had said earlier about wearing blindfolds [is important]. You know, the international community needs to take a hard look at the programs that it is supporting in Nigeria, and I am not just talking about the United States, I am also talking about France, the UK, the European Union. I mean many of them have their blinders on, and so what we are doing is we are supporting the Buhari government. We are doing so in a way that does not ask them any hard questions, and when you do ask them hard questions, they get very angry. And when you ask questions about discrimination in the job market, in politics, in representation, those are all there.
Anybody who studies political science in any country would know that there is a problem when the central government is organizing things to favor certain groups over others. And we do not know much about ethnicity. Our State Department does not pay much attention to ethnicity. It is completely fixated, like many of our government agencies are, on race, but not on ethnicity, and certainly they do not want to talk about religion, and so what we miss is the analogies that you would have to draw between what is happening among the different ethnic groups and linguistic groups in Africa with the bloody wars that were fought over religion and ethnicity in Europe. I mean we are missing that, and that is a big problem because it is not, I would say to you, it is not that we missed the Arab Spring. We did not miss the Iranian Revolution at the State Department. We saw exactly what was going on. We had no idea about what to do with it.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, I am afraid that is all the time we have today. I would like to thank Bob Destro from the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America, and Mark Jacob from Nigeria [for participating] in this discussion [on] Christian persecution in Nigeria. I invite you to go to the Westminster Institute website to see our other offerings and lectures, covering recent subjects on cybercrime, China, Russia and other things. Thank you for joining us. I am Bob Reilly, your host.