Christians are being targeted in widespread violence
While the UK braces itself for what the governor of the Bank of England recently described as “economic apocalypse”, spare a thought for Nigeria.
The country is home to 20 per cent of Africa’s entire population, and it now accounts for about 14 per cent of the world’s poor. Plagued by crime and corruption, almost half of the population of around 215 million now live below the official poverty threshold of US$1.90 (792 Naira) daily. Nigeria may be oil-rich, but it is undeniably a failing state.
With the population set to double by 2050, its collapse would have vast repercussions for the whole continent and for Europe. Organised crime, political corruption, ethnic and tribal grievances all play a part in Nigeria’s problems, yet above all else it is Islamist extremism that is the core driver for chaos. A well-funded and strategic jihadist campaign to paralyse security, and the rule of law, looks set fracture Nigeria into a lawless nightmare. Imagine Libya, only on a much larger scale.
Our government downplays the reality of Islamist violence
A recent report from the Observatory of Religious Freedom in Africa (ORFA) reveals that the number of Christians killed was 9.6 times higher than the number of Muslims killed in jihadism-related violence between October 2019 and September 2020. In the following year (October 2020–September 2021) Christians were 7.8 times more likely to be killed than Muslims. Christians were also 59 times more likely to be abducted than Muslims by extremists between 2019 and 2020. Alongside these grim statistics, the report also confirms that violence against moderate Muslims is overwhelmingly from jihadist groups.
Meanwhile in the comfort zone of the West, our government continues to deny or downplay the reality of Islamist violence. It prefers to attribute the systematic murders, rapes and abductions to political divides, banditry, farming disputes or even climate change.
Following the massacre of 50 worshippers in Owo district on 5 June, the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Ondo, Jude Arogundade was driven to speak out: “Setting the record straight: the massacre at St Francis Catholic Church Owo has nothing to do with climate change and food security… ” Tragically, and much to the relief of the Nigerian government, such “deflections from the truth” are now commonplace in Western politics and media.
Likewise it is all too common to simply ignore what is happening. While the Owo attack in the south of Nigeria received some media attention, on the same day a similarly deadly attack on a Christian community in the north, by so-called “herdsmen” using a helicopter gunship, went unreported.
Nigeria is number seven on Open Doors’ World Watch List, an annual ranking of the 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution. Notably, if violence were the only measure for persecution, Nigeria would be ranked at number one.
There is widespread religious illiteracy amongst government officials
The former Head of Nigerian Naval Intelligence, Professor of Global Security Studies, Commodore Kunle Olawunmi has spoken of a strategy of “Talibanisation” — a deliberate, religiously motivated degrading of security and order, in which state actors and tribal groups are complicit. Open Doors sees this strategy being replicated across most of the region.
So why are Western political and media elites unable to accept that Christians are disproportionately targeted? There are several possible factors, not least the protection of UK trade interests, especially oil supplies. Trade with Nigeria is estimated at over £6.1 billion per year. With Nigeria being the second largest African market for goods, UK companies are extremely well-known there, and UK brands (especially luxury goods) are in very high demand.
There are other reasons for the denialism: widespread religious illiteracy amongst government officials (an issue identified as a priority in the recent Bishop of Truro’s independent review into Freedom of Religion or Belief); a culture of antipathy to religion among government officials; and finally, plain old fear of Islamist violence.
The deteriorating situation in Nigeria shows that the current policy position is not working. Denying religious persecution, the elephant in the room, not only makes it impossible to identify a potential solution, but it also actively compounds the problem. To emphasise the urgency of the current situation, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief launched its 2020 report in Westminster: “Nigeria — Unfolding Genocide?”
Caliphates are about land, and immense numbers of people are now intentionally being terrorised and displaced from the lands where they live. If spiralling Islamist violence is not addressed, the trajectory for West Africa towards an unprecedented humanitarian disaster is clear. With Nigeria, the UK government has leverage and diplomatic influence. The question is whether it, and others in the West, will find the resolve to act before it’s too late.