Nigeria: Will inclusion on US religious rights violators’ list hit 2023 election?

By Akin Irede
Posted on Wednesday, 6 July 2022 07:58

U.S. President Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, Britain, November 2, 2021. Paul Ellis/Pool via REUTERS

The United States is under pressure to reclassify Nigeria as a country that violates religious freedom due to recent cases of blasphemy killings which the government has failed to tackle. And with the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), now on the verge of presenting a joint Muslim Presidential ticket for next year’s election in the deeply divided country, Christian conservatives have joined the push for Nigeria to be reinstated on the list. How will this affect the outcome of the country’s election?

Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar probably got more than he bargained for when he decided to put out a tweet condemning the killing of Deborah Samuel, a college student in Nigeria’s Muslim-dominated Sokoto State who was lynched by her colleagues for allegedly blaspheming Prophet Muhammad.

“You just lost a million votes in Sokoto,” replied one of his followers on Twitter. Hundreds of other northern hardliners soon commented, insisting that they would not vote for him in next year’s election.

In a bid to save face, Atiku, who is running for President on the platform of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), immediately deleted the tweet and claimed that his aide put up the tweet without his permission.

This didn’t go down well with the many Nigerian Christians on Twitter who condemned Atiku for failing to stand on the side of justice. They in turn vowed not to vote for him in next year’s election.

This typifies the division in Africa’s largest democracy ahead of an election which comes up in seven months.

Divided country

The division between the mainly Christian south and the majority Muslim north has always been visible. But during election season, as politicians try to gain advantage, it springs into focus.

The Muslim majority states in northern Nigeria enforce Sharia law with a vigour that has heightened religious tension and intolerance. Recently, a court in Kano State sentenced an atheist, Mubarak Bala, to 24 years in prison for blasphemy even though Nigeria’s constitution guarantees religious freedom.

In the last couple of weeks too, notable Christian clerics have been kidnapped including the head of the Methodist church in Nigeria who was later released after paying a ransom of $240,000.

President Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim conservative, is on the verge of completing his eight years in office. Many had thought a Christian would succeed Buhari in the spirit of rotation. However, virtually all frontline contenders to succeed him are also Muslims except Peter Obi who hails from the Christian dominated southeast.

To add salt to injury, the candidate of the ruling APC, Bola Tinubu, a liberal Muslim from the southwest, ordinarily should pick a Christian northerner as his running mate. However, because there are hardly any strong Christian northern politicians, he is now on the verge of picking a Muslim northerner as a running mate to the chagrin of Christian conservatives.

Already, notable Christian clerics as well as the Christian Association of Nigeria have issued statements outlining the “dangers” of two Muslims emerging as the President and Vice-President of the country. Amid this controversy, Africa’s largest democracy now risks being listed as a country that violates religious freedom, a move which could also heighten Christian consciousness and determine how they vote, analysts say.

New threat

Five American senators including the influential Marco Rubio, a former Presidential aspirant, have now written a letter to the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, asking him to return Nigeria to the list of countries that violate religious freedoms.

Rubio and other senators including Josh Hawley, Mike Braun, Tom Cotton and Jim Inhofe asked Blinken to immediately designate Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act as was done by the Donald Trump administration.

The letter read in part, “As you are well aware, horrific acts of deadly violence have been committed against Nigerian Christians in recent weeks, including the massacre of churchgoers on Pentecost Sunday and the stoning of a Christian college student.

“Sadly, such violence has become all too familiar for Christians in Africa’s most populous country. Last year, however, you inexplicably removed Nigeria’s designation as a Country of Particular Concern despite no demonstrable improvement in the country’s religious freedom conditions. On the contrary, the situation in Nigeria has grown worse. We previously urged you to immediately reverse your misguided decision, and we write today to renew our call.”

But the Nigerian government has condemned the five American senators, insisting that Nigeria does not persecute Christians.

In an interview with the state-owned News Agency of Nigeria, the Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, said those demanding for Nigeria to be designated as a religious persecutor were doing so based on a false premise.

“We want to say once again that Nigeria does not have a policy that denies people the freedom to practice their religion. The country also does not have a policy of violation of freedom of religion and it is not true that Nigeria persecutes anybody on account of his or her faith,” he says.

However, a Spokesman for the Christian Association of Nigeria, Reverend Bayo Oladeji, thinks otherwise.

Oladeji tells The Africa Report that the government’s disdain for Christians is systemic such that non-state actors who kill Christians are hardly ever punished. He recalled that even the suspects that stoned the Christian Sokoto student to death were arraigned in court for breach of peace and not murder.

He says the government’s decision to rehabilitate most of the killer Islamist terrorists rather than jail them is evidence that killing Christians is sanctioned by the state. Oladeji argues that many Christians in the north can no longer go to church because of the activities of terrorists pampered by the state.

“The Christian Association of Nigeria supports these US senators. We have always stated that Nigeria should not have been removed from that list in the first place. Concerning the Muslim/Muslim ticket, with what is happening to Christians, if anyone is dreaming of a Muslim/Muslim ticket, that person hates Christians and has declared war on us. Disgrace awaits such a person” he says.

Prof Bola Akinterinwa, an expert in International Relations and former Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, told The Africa Report that the State Department would add Nigeria to the list

“America is a country of laws. I don’t see Blinken having any other choice in this matter given the facts before him. Nigeria will be returned on that list,” he says, adding that the bigger question is not how the designation will affect Nigeria’s election but if there will be elections next year at all going by the spate of insecurity in the country.

Analyst Dare Atoye-Ariyo, who is also the Convener, Coalition in Defence of Nigerian Democracy and Constitution, says with the seeming marginalisation of Christians by major parties in an atmosphere of Christian persecution affirmed by the US, it would only be natural for Christian conservatives to gravitate towards Peter Obi, the only Christian with a fighting chance of victory.

Atoye-Ariyo added that it would be wrong of the APC to field a joint Muslim ticket in the election while the PDP also picks a northern Muslim as it would project the idea that all parties are desperate for the votes of the Muslim north and are willing to ignore the sentiments of the Christians.

“With what is happening in the country, I won’t be surprised if Nigeria is placed on that list by the US. And nobody will blame Christians if they decide to rally around Peter Obi because both the APC and the PDP have failed to make deliberate efforts to take into consideration Nigeria’s fault lines.

“Some even believe that without a northern Muslim on a Presidential ticket, you cannot win an election. That is why the APC is willing to pick a northern Muslim as Tinubu’s running mate while the PDP has picked a fellow Muslim northern Fulani man to potentially succeed Buhari,” he adds.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options