Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Numerous fatal clashes continued throughout the year in the North Central region between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Muslim herders of mostly Fulani ethnicity. Scholars and other experts, including international NGOs, cited ethnicity, politics, religion, lack of accountability and access to justice, increasing competition over dwindling land and water resources, population growth, soil degradation, and internal displacement from crime and other forms of violence as drivers that contributed to the violence. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s December 2020 report Countries at Risk for Mass Killing 2020-21, “violence [in Nigeria] is being perpetrated by many groups with a variety of motivations (e.g., land disputes, banditry, ethnic grievances, etc.) and though some may share an ethnicity and many of these groups target civilians, we do not see sufficient evidence that they are working in coordination as part of a campaign against a particular group of civilians.” Several international and domestic experts noted that armed conflicts in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin had altered grazing routes and brought foreign transhumance (movement of livestock) groups in contact with new communities, sometimes leading to conflict because they were unaware of preexisting agreements between the local herding and farming groups. According to the UN, demographic and ecological pressures also exacerbated crime and intercommunal strife in the North Central and southern regions of the country in recent years. According to ACLED data, total civilian deaths numbered 2,454 during the year, compared with 2,198 in 2019 and 3,106 in 2018.
Multiple Christian NGOs stated that religious identity was a primary driver of the conflict between Muslim herdsmen and Christian farmers.
The president of CAN, Reverend Samson Ayokunle, stated in a press conference on January 27 that the country was “under siege” by Boko Haram terrorists, Fulani terrorist herdsmen, bandits, and kidnappers “with a goal to Islamize Nigeria.” Ayokunle stated Muslim terrorists “have been going around invading predominantly Christian villages and towns…killing, maiming…and raping.” The Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs reacted to what it said was Ayokunle’s inflammatory language and voiced concerns that CAN was playing politics, fearmongering, and fueling divisive attitudes throughout the country.
According to Morning Star News, Fulani herdsman burned down a pastor’s home and a church building on January 26 and 27 in Plateau State. Morning Star News reported that Fulani herdsman entered the home of Pastor Matthew Tagwaif of the Evangelical Church Winning All in Ngbra Zongo village, Plateau State on April 7 and killed the pastor and three others including a 10-year-old boy. According to Morning Star News, Fulani herdsman entered a church in Tegina Kabata village, Niger State, on April 12 in which a wedding was taking place. They abducted the bride and groom and several other persons in attendance. Five other Christians were also killed in a series of attacks in the village.
There were also incidents of violence involving predominantly Muslim Fulani herders and settled farmers, who were both Muslim and Christian, in the North West region. On November 20, hundreds of individuals described as bandits attacked a mosque in Zamfara State during Friday prayers, killing at least five worshippers and abducting 30 members of the congregation, including the imam and other prominent members of the community. Zamfara governor Bello Mohammed Matawalle publicly condemned the attack and successfully organized the release of 11 kidnap victims.
Media reported that gang members kidnapped four Catholic seminary students on January 8 in Kaduna State. The gang subsequently released three of the victims but killed 18-year-old Michael Nnadi on January 31. On April 25, the Nigerian Police Force announced the capture and arrest of the Nnadi’s alleged kidnappers and killers.
Media reported on October 5, armed bandits ransacked the St. Augustine Catholic Church in Benue State and robbed the parish priest and the church offertory at gunpoint. According to media reports, on September 29, 10 armed gang members entered a Pentecostal church in Akwa Ibom State during Sunday morning services and shot several parishioners.
On May 28, unknown gunmen abducted the CAN chairman of Nasarawa State, who was released unharmed several days later after a ransom of 20 million naira ($51,900) had been paid.
The Southern Kaduna Peoples Union (SOKAPU), an organization stating it represents Christians in the southern part of Kaduna State, said that violence and criminality were neglected throughout the state, suggesting that publicized security measures were mostly for “political optics” and only served a particular segment of the population. SOKAPU said the creation of emirates and appointment of Muslim emirs in predominantly Christian chiefdoms had heightened tensions in southern Kaduna.
Interfaith activists such as Christian Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa of the Kaduna Interfaith Center said the government was not doing enough to combat thuggery and violence in their communities. In response to interethnic communal violence in southern Kaduna State in July and August, the Sultan of Sokoto decried the unwarranted killings of hundreds of Muslims and Christians as “madness that has to be stopped immediately.” CAN president Reverend Ayokunle, noting the conflict was predominantly ethnic, said he was ready to partner with the Kaduna State government to ensure the swift end of the crisis.
On October 24, in the wake of “#EndSARS” (referring to the Special Antirobbery Squad [SARS] arm of police) protests against alleged police brutality, Christian Igbo youths allegedly killed 11 Muslims in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, and burned down the central mosque in Orlu, Imo State. In November, Enugu State governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi ordered the immediate rebuilding of two mosques that had been destroyed during the #EndSARS protests in the Nsukka Local Government Area in the predominantly Christian state.
On June 17, the Muslim organization Society for the Support of Islam, known as Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), released a statement condemning the violent actions of Boko Haram in the country and criticizing the government for what it said was an insufficient response to stop the terrorist group. Several Christian leaders expressed support for JNI’s statement.
There were several reported cases of young Christian girls being kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam throughout the year. For example, media reported that a 17-year-old girl went missing in Kaduna State on January 5. According to the report, on January 7, several men came to her father’s house to tell him to attend a sharia court in which the judge read a predetermined judgment that the girl had to stay with her kidnappers. She later escaped, however, and returned to her parents. She said she had been kept in a locked room for more than a month and forced to convert to Islam. In April, media outlets reported there was outrage in the country concerning a video posted on social media showing the Kano State governor leading a Christian girl through the Islamic shahada prayer to show she accepted Islam. According to World Watch Monitor, a local source said the governor did not “force” anyone to convert to Islam but individuals instead came to him to convert. According to the Hausa Christians Foundation, six young women and an older married woman were kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam between March 23 and April 30. Five of the women were kidnapped in Kaduna State, one in Kano State, and one in Katsina State.
In May, a federal high court in Bayelsa State sentenced Yunusa Dahiru to 26 years in prison for abducting a Christian girl and forcing her to convert to Islam and marrying her in August 2015.
On February 2, CAN estimated that five million persons in 28 of the country’s 36 states answered its call for a three-day fast, concluding in a prayer walk, to protest the persecution of Christians.
Due to restrictions on religious gatherings put into place in response to the coronavirus pandemic, many religious groups moved to online services and some increased their followers through virtual means. Christian and Muslim leaders largely worked together to ensure their followers helped to prevent the spread of coronavirus while raising awareness of the hardship the lockdowns had on those who could not provide for their families. In Kaduna State, Christian clerics and their Muslim counterparts sent encouraging text messages of tolerance and brotherhood on Easter.
In October, the Bible Society of Nigeria inaugurated two new areas in Osun and Oyo States. In November, the Jewish worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement established a second emissary position in the country in Lagos in addition to a previously established one in Abuja.
In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 88 percent of Nigerian respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among highest of their priorities for democratic principles of the nine tested.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy and consulate general officials as well as visiting high-level U.S. government officials voiced concern over abuses and discrimination against individuals based on religion, including the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in meetings throughout the year with government officials, including the Vice President, cabinet secretaries, and National Assembly members. They also addressed religious tensions and efforts to bring religious groups together with several state governors, religious leaders, and other officials throughout the country. They discussed government and government-supported grassroots efforts to reduce violence, combat insecurity, and promote religious freedom and interreligious tolerance.
Embassy and consulate general officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith relationship-building with a wide range of religious leaders and civil society organizations. The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials engaged with various religious groups, including CAN, JNI, JIBWIS, and others throughout the year and delivered remarks on the importance of respect for religious freedom at large religious gatherings, such as the Interfaith Dialogue Forum for Peace’s Third Annual Peace Conference on Interreligious Dialogue: Strengthening the Culture of Peace, Reconciliation and Justice on January 22. To mark Religious Freedom Day on January 16, the Ambassador hosted an interfaith roundtable with religious leaders to discuss issues of peace and security and to promote religious freedom. In July, the embassy held a roundtable with prominent religious leaders from different churches and dioceses and discussed the violence occurring in the country, providing an overview of challenges and opportunities facing affected communities. In October, a visiting high-level delegation from the Department of State, led by the Counselor, met with various religious and government leaders to discuss the religious freedom environment. Interfaith discussions sought to identify areas of consensus and narrow the gap between competing narratives regarding the main drivers of conflict in the country.
The embassy funded peacebuilding programs in conflict-prone states such as Kaduna, Plateau, and Nasarawa. The programs trained leaders in farming and herding communities, including traditional, youth, religious, and female leaders, to build mechanisms to resolve tensions before they became violent conflicts. “Peace ambassadors” from embassy-funded projects continued to work to bridge the gap between victims, traditional/religious leaders, and the security apparatus in Kajuru, Kaduna State. During the months of the countrywide lockdown, they visited potential conflict areas to support victims of crisis, provided support to cushion the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and continued to promote dialogue among stakeholders to deter reprisal attacks and promote sustainable peace.
The embassy expanded activities to reduce violent conflicts in the affected religious communities by promoting social cohesion, religious freedom, and the ability to mitigate community disputes peacefully without degenerating into ethnoreligious conflict. It also intensified its work on religious freedom issues through an existing five-year program in six northwest and north central states. This activity provided interfaith dialogue training to leaders with the goal of building capacity among communities to manage disputes. The program produced English and Hausa-language radio programs designed to deepen community engagement in peacebuilding and preventing violent extremism.
On December 2, 2020, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State designated Nigeria a “Country of Particular Concern” for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom and announced a waiver of sanctions that accompany designation in the “important national interest of the United States.”