The U.S. government has added Nigeria to a “Special Watch List (SWL)” of countries that have engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom.”
This is coming at a time many Nigerians and the international community have criticised the Nigerian government for its serial violations of court orders and the shrinking civic and media space in the country.
The inclusion of Nigeria in the religion violations list was announced by the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo.
“On December 18, 2019, the Department of State re-designated Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan as Countries of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated “systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom.”
“The Department renewed the placement of Comoros, Russia, and Uzbekistan on a Special Watch List (SWL) for governments that have engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom,” and added Cuba, Nicaragua, Nigeria, and Sudan to this list,” Mr Pompeo said.
According to Mr Pompeo, the U.S. also designated al-Nusra Front, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qa’ida, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, the Houthis, ISIS, ISIS-Khorasan, and the Taliban as Entities of Particular Concern.
The 2018 report of the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which recommended Nigeria’s designation as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), noted that religious freedom trended negatively in 2018.
“Religious freedom conditions in Nigeria trended negatively in 2018. The Nigerian government at the national and state levels continued to tolerate violence and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief, and suppressed the freedom to manifest religion or belief.”
The report added that “religious sectarian violence increased during the year, with Muslims and Christians attacked based on their religious and ethnic identity”
Another case cited is the violation of rights of Shi’a members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN).
“The Nigerian military and government continued to violate the religious freedom and human rights of the Shi’a members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN). IMN leader Sheikh Ibrahim Al Zak Zaky remained in detention”.
“However, in 12 Muslim-majority northern Nigerian states, federalism has allowed the adoption of Islamic Shari’ah law in the criminal codes. The Nigerian constitution also establishes the roles of customary law and Shari’ah courts for Islamic personal law, family”.
PREMIUM TIMES has reported on how the Nigerian government has continued to clamp down on Shiites with maximum force since 2015. Over 300 members of the Shiite IMN were killed in December 2015 for blocking a public road.
The leader of the IMN, Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, and his wife, Zeenah, have been detained since then for their alleged roles in the death of a soldier during the massacre. Nobody has been prosecuted for the mass murder of the Shiites by Nigerian soldiers.
Dozens of Shiites demanding the release of Mr El-Zakzaky and his wife have been killed since the 2015 incident.
The Nigerian government and the Kaduna State government have in the past accused the Shiites of disobeying constituted authority and not recognising the government.
The government also denied that it was tolerating or engaging in violations of religious freedom, saying crimes such as those occurring in the Middle-belt states of Benue and Plateau were more economic, between herders and farmers, than religious.
The government also said it was doing everything possible to tackle such crimes across the country.
Perhaps based on the clarifications by the government, the U.S. did not designate Nigeria a CPC but rather included the country in the lower level SWL.
International human rights lawyer, Emmanuel Ogebe, in reaction to the development, highlighted the shortcomings of the USCIRF report saying it lacked accuracy and was not robust enough.
“We are happy to note that despite these shortcomings, the US government saw enough to escalate Nigeria’s designation to the penultimate Warning Watchlist. Nigeria is the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian and it is high time this is recognized,” he said.
“With the atrocities committed by the Major Gen. Buhari in the 2019 reporting period including the elimination of Christians from top government positions and replacement with Muslims, such as Chief Justice Onnoghen amongst others, it is very likely that Nigeria will join the list of the global worst persecutors by next year,” Mr Ogebe said in a statement sent to PREMIUM TIMES on Friday.
The rights activist, however, urged President Muhammadu Buhari to be fair in his treatment of all Nigerians, something the presidency has always said Mr Buhari does.
In addition, U.S. Congressman Chris Smith welcomed the addition of Nigeria to the SWL.
Mr Smith, who had visited Nigeria to consult with stakeholders on religious freedom, promised that “We will pay particular attention to Nigeria and the deteriorating situation under the government of President Muhammadu Buhari in the year ahead.”
He added, “President Buhari must address the murderous attacks conducted by Fulani extremists on Christians in the Middle Belt and the oppression of Shia Muslims in Kaduna State.”
Congressman Smith stayed further, “I also call upon the State Department to monitor the actions of Miyetti Allah with regard to its complicity in attacks by Fulani extremists.”