Although it has occasionally made headlines due to the rise of the violent Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram in its northern hinterland, Nigeria is still largely misunderstood and major events in the country remain under-reported in the American media. There are significant U.S. values and strategic interests at stake in Nigeria’s forthcoming election, including questions about the persecution of Christians, the future of U.S. military cooperation in Nigeria, and the spread of Islamist terrorism.
Nigeria is Africa’s largest democracy, with approximately 200 million people and expected to grow to more than 300 million by 2050. The country has long had a history of religious tension and conflict between the mostly Muslim north and predominately Christian south.
This conflict has intensified over the past several decades, engendered by the rise of a new radical Islamism, which has preached a brutal campaign of international holy war against unbelievers. In recent months, Nigeria has witnessed shocking anti-Christian violence, resulting in thousands of deaths and maimings.
Americans Largely Ignorant About What’s Happening
Few Americans are aware that the United States is in the process of selling a dozen light attack aircraft to the government of current President Muhammadu Buhari––a government that has continually soft-peddled and enabled a campaign of violence and ethnic cleansing carried out by Islamic militants against Nigeria’s Christian population.
This new radicalism was initially fueled by the ideology of groups like Al Qaeda, whose influence began to expand rapidly after the end of the Cold War. The ideology reached Nigeria in the form of Boko Haram, the radical Islamist group that made international headlines in 2015 when it kidnapped more than 200 school girls and publicly pledged its allegiance to the infamous and barbaric Islamic State.
The Islamist campaign against nonbelievers in the country hasn’t been limited to Boko Haram’s activities. Nigeria’s middle belt region (which serves as a de facto border region between its Christian and Muslim populations) has seen a running campaign of murder and intimidation against the Christian community there.
The campaign of religious murder has long been marketed by much of Nigeria’s leadership, particularly by its current president, as little more than a petty, mafia-style conflict between Fulani tribesmen, who are predominantly herdsmen, and Christian farmers over rights to grazing land. This approach, led by the current Buhari, downplays the significance of the violence. The violence is predominantly of a religious nature, with Christians being targeted for extermination by radical Islamists, as the Nigerian pastor Hassan John recently reported in the Wall Street Journal:
Boko Haram, a radical Islamic movement whose name roughly translates to ‘Western education is forbidden,’ has ramped up attacks on Christians this year. Since 2009 when Boko Haram began its rampage, about 20,000 Nigerians have been hacked with machetes or shot. Two million have been displaced. Pastors and their families have been specifically targeted for death…Pastors in northern and central Nigeria face daunting pressures. Some conduct funerals almost every week for victims, often in mass burials. They struggle to answer their parishioners’ questions about God’s love and justice. They hear powerful voices dismiss this as an ethnic clash, but they understand it is a strategic scorched-earth war, a jihad against Christianity.’
Who Is Muhammadu Buhari?
Buhari has sought to downplay the violence caused by Boko Haram-linked Islamist militants in the region. This policy of soft peddling the jihadi campaign of aggression against Nigeria’s Christians may be in Buhari’s personal and political interest. It makes arms sales and foreign support easier to obtain, and Buhari is a member of the very tribe that has been largely responsible for the anti-Christian violence.
Buhari’s tribe, the Fulani, have, according to a comprehensive report by World Watch Monitor, become a kind of nomadic vanguard for the spread of Islamic militancy and terror in Nigeria:
‘Herdsmen terrorism’ in Africa always needs to be seen in the context of Uthman Dan Fodio’s war of jihad: ‘Allah prescribed the jihad upon us in order to remove us from the harm which arises from leaning towards an impure world and clinging to its things which actually amount to nothing and the only benefit from it is regret.’… The transformation of the nomadic Sufis into guerrilla fighters, army commanders and even state leaders resulted from the ideology espoused by Ibn Taymiyya that jihad was not only a struggle for personal spiritual reformation but also a struggle against the degradation of the Islamic faith and those causing it, either Muslims or foreigners…Today’s nomads use sophisticated weapons, and in Nigeria, there has been a resurgence of violent conflict and Islamic jihad perpetrated by Muslim nomads belonging to the Hausa-Fulani group. Some have settled in the Middle Belt region, particularly Southern Kaduna, and some are migratory from across the Sahel.
Buhari was initially the military dictator of Nigeria during the 1980s, leading a regime known for its strict discipline and frequent human rights abuses. He rose to power once again during the 2015 presidential election in which he defeated President Goodluck Jonathan on a platform of anti-corruption and a vow to crush the Boko Haram insurgency.
Although Buhari’s opposition to Boko Haram seems to be at least partially genuine, he has also consistently supported the imposition of Sharia law in the country’s north and has had to continually shrug off rumors that he is a crypto-Islamist. These persistent suspicions have long earned him the distrust of much of Nigeria’s Christian population.
The Imposition Of Sharia Law
Although usually associated with brutal regimes in the Middle East like Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, or the Islamic State, sharia has seen a resurgence in Nigeria’s Muslim-dominated northern provinces since 1999 and has been expanded to include both civil and criminal cases. Although in theory only applicable to Muslims, sharia’s legitimization by the government has emboldened Islamist forces in north Nigeria, some of whom have established roving gangs who seek to impose sharia codes on Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
This has created a climate of terror and fear among Nigeria’s Christians. The country’s Christian population have the dual agony of finding themselves facing the guns and machetes of anti-Christian vigilantes and criminals, but also of having their pleas for help and protection dismissed by a Muslim president who publicly calls their plight a local “ethnic conflict.”
Bloomberg reports that conditions have grown so bad that the United Nations issued a statement about a recent spate of violence that left more than 90 people dead in a matter of days. If it is allowed to continue, such violence may even endanger local food supplies and potentially lead to the risk of famine, as farmers may simply be too afraid to harvest their crops.
Just this week a U.K. aid group, the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), released a report into the crisis affecting Christians following an in-country investigation. HART reports:
As recently as 1 October, four people including a soldier were killed by Fulani herders in Nkiendoro village, Plateau State. As with other similar attacks, the village was remote and vulnerable. Herders used sophisticated weaponry, forcing families to flee their homes and farmland. Two churches were burned, 17 water pumps were demolished, and 47 farms were cut and destroyed.” HART concludes its report by stating even though the “causes of violence are complex, the asymmetry and escalation of attacks by well-armed Fulani upon predominately Christian communities is stark and must be acknowledged.
In spite of the ongoing campaign of Islamist violence and terror against Nigeria’s Christians––and in spite of Buhari’s soft-pedaling and enabling of it all––the Trump administration has decided to go through with a $500 million sale of a dozen Super Tucano light attack aircraft to the Nigerian government, ostensibly to fight Boko Haram.
Buhari’s government has, for years, sought to obtain the aircraft, but the sale was blocked by the Obama administration due to concerns about atrocities carried out by Nigerian government troops, which included: “committing extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, arbitrary detention, and widespread violence.” In addition, Nigeria’s air force has carried out reckless airstrikes in the past, including one which managed to kill over 100 innocent civilians.
Although it is propeller-driven and, at first glance, seems to more resemble a vintage World War II fighter plane than most of today’s modern military fighter jets, the Super Tucano’s potential lethality, including against civilians, should not be underestimated. Designed as an effective, low-cost alternative to the expensive operating costs of modern, high-tech jet aircraft, it has carved out a niche as a go-to counter-insurgency aircraft in the global arms market. In Afghanistan, the Super Tucano is now being employed by the Afghan air force to attack insurgents with rockets, bombs, cannons and now even laser guided bombs.
Is Wall Street Financing Christian Terror?
There is growing alarm over state-sponsored involvement in the killing of Christians. Report after report suggests some level of involvement by the Nigerian military. In September, armed Fulani herdsmen accompanied by Nigerian soldiers slaughtered 17 Christians, including four children. The attack took place near the Rukuba Barracks, an army cantonment.
In 2015, soldiers killed six Christians, who had mounted a temporary roadblock during a church service. In a more serious attack, 35 people were killed by the Nigerian military’s air raids on villages in January. Witnesses described the jets bombing houses, as well as specifically targeting civilians trying to escape the carnage.
In a statement by Amnesty International, the human rights group says by failing to act, Nigerian authorities are encouraging impunity that is only causing the violence to escalate. For example, the Buhari administration refused to intervene on behalf of five Christians sentenced to death by a court in Adamawa for killing a herdsman.
While violence in any form is deplorable, the current Nigerian government is willing to look the other way while Christians are murdered, yet won’t intervene to protect Christians. This conflict is growing, claiming 1,800 lives this year alone. Armed Fulani groups have now surpassed Boko Haram jihadists as the deadliest threat to civilians.
These developments pose troubling questions for Wall Street financial institutions as the Nigerian government seeks more than $2.86 billion in Eurobonds to fund government operations. Leading Wall Street banks like Citibank and Standard Chartered are the lead underwriters for the bond offering. Last week, the Nigerian government went on a roadshow in London selling this bond. Unfortunately, not on the agenda of these banks was a full account of the slaughter of thousands of Nigerian Christians.
Perhaps this is about to change. Just before Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs Tibor Nagy arrived in Nigeria recently for an official visit, Rep. Mark Meadows (an ally of President Trump) wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with concerns about “reports of ongoing persecution of Christians in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria.”
Buhari’s government has shown consistent contempt and disregard toward its Christian population, despite the appalling violence committed against them. It has enabled the rise of elements, including radical Islamists, who strike at the heart of the core values of U.S. foreign and domestic policymaking. It now seeks weapons from the United States, with Trump’s blessing, and financing from Wall Street to carry on its morally bankrupt campaign against Christians. The situation in Nigeria deserves far more scrutiny than it currently receives.