BY AMOS DUNIA, ABUJA – The Nigerian- US Diaspora Professionals have commended the US State Department and Government for its decision, after years of advocacy, to place Nigeria on the Watchlist of Persecuting Countries.

The group in a letter emailed to the US Secretary of State Pompeo, noted that based on facts on ground with regards to the persecution of Christians in Nigeria, the country is qualified for the Country of Particular Concern (CPC) status.

The Stakeholders however noted that the Watchlist stage is the last stop before full designation as a CPC, adding that the action has move the process forward towards recognizing Nigeria as a major global epicenter of religious persecution about 20 years since the IRFA reporting and ranking mechanism was put into place by the Clinton Administration. 

The Professionals noted that the Nigerian government in its response has rather taken to numerous attacks and diatribes against the US for what they described as “this factual, evidence-based and welcome development,” instead of seizing the opportunity to address the sorry situation by joining the international alliance on religious freedom the U.S is launching in 2020.

They noted that Sudan, on the other hand, whom was also placed on the warning Watchlist has apologized to its citizens for past persecution and recognized Christmas officially as a holiday.

The letter further states; “While we commend you for placing Nigeria on the Warning Watchlist, we respectfully submit that Nigeria is eminently qualified to be designated as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC). Our assessment of the USCIRF REPORT which had recommended that the US designate Nigeria a full CPC, has again over the years shown the need for more in-depth reporting which might have otherwise convinced you of the gravity of the persecution of Christians in Nigeria.

“Their report correctly identifies State complicity through impunity among other things, in condoning ethno-religious violence and discrimination as a key factor leading to the downward spiral in Nigeria’s religious freedom.

“The report also highlighted the failure of government to implement strategies to prevent violence while agents of the State acted in perpetuating violence against civilians.

“Furthermore, the report aptly points out gender biases rooted in religious and traditional belief systems which hinders women and girls from exercising basic human rights.” 

The Nigerian-US Professionals noted that nevertheless, the report was lopsided in a number of respects as listed below:

“First, the report creates an illusion of an equal amount of violence against Christians and Muslims. This is not the case, as a cursory reading of national dailies during the period would reveal. Particularly in North Central Nigeria, Christians and communities of ethnic nationalities have been victims of a steady stream of violent attacks and killings throughout 2018 and in the years leading up to it.

“However, from 2009, Boko Haram escalated frontal attacks against State agents and specifically targeted Churches for attacks in the Northeast.

Secondly, the report speaks of “clashes between farmers and herders.” This is a misleading narrative and a distortion of reality.”

The professionals noted that the 2018 Global Terrorism Index report revealed that Fulani herdsmen killed nearly 1700 people between January and September only, – six times more than those killed by Boko Haram during the same period.

It further said; “According to the report, 78% of deaths committed by Fulani extremists since 2010 have been carried out as armed assaults.

“This certainly does NOT fit the definition of ‘clashes.’ Most of these violent attacks took place in the predominantly Christian “Middle Belt” region, notably Benue, Plateau, Kaduna (Southern), Taraba and Adamawa States. AK-47-wielding gunmen described as herders, some armed with military-cadre sophisticated weapons and machetes, launched attacks against civilian communities leaving many dead, widowed, orphaned, homeless and dispossessed of their lands. Many of the victims fled their communities and thousands are now Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Some Southern States have also come under attacks.

“It is important to note that climate change, desertification, urbanization development have impacted land use pre-dating 2009. Therefore, the upsurge in these attacks requires a nuanced explanatory framework that includes ideology, links with global terrorist agendas, land grabbing/occupation, identity-based interests/hostilities.

“The failure of de-radicalization efforts mentioned in the USCIRF report shows the critical role of ideology/theology of violence in Nigeria. Many who underwent such ideologically inspired programmes went back to their groups and networks.”

The professionals said that the fact remains that Christians in Northern Nigeria are targeted for violence primarily on account of their faith and social identity along with their ethnicity, gender, occupation and land ownership.

They opined that in its summary, substance and recommendations, the report downplayed the incidence, intensity and severity of violent attacks targeted at Christian communities and individuals. According to the Professionals; “For instance, the report specifically identifies the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMIN), and its leader El-Zakzakky as victims of State repression and violence. Yet, it fails to mention Christian religious leaders, such as the two Reverend Fathers – Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha – who were murdered along with 17 other worshippers in St. Ignatius Parish in Mbalom, Benue State on April 24 2018.

“They were targeted and brutally killed during morning mass. They were neither farmers nor land owners involved in any land disputes. In fact, one of the priests had fled from attacks in his Parish.

“Not only did the report not mention these martyrs by name or even the name of their Church, it went on to narrate a fictional claim of reprisals against Muslims which never happened in Mbalon.

“Finally, the report was silent on State-based structural and systemic discrimination against Christians at State, Community and Federal levels. This has been going on in Northern Nigeria since the Usman Dan Fodio jihad a century ago.”

The group specifically said that Structural violence can be seen in the current brazen lopsided nature of federal appointments which are openly skewed against Christians in violation of the Federal Character Principle of fair and equitable representation enshrined under the Section 17 (5) and (10) of the 1999 Constitution.

The Diaspora professionals continued; “In order to guarantee the rights of all to justice, equity and human rights protection and promotion, it is essential that any situational analyses of religious freedom in Nigeria needs to intentionally refrain from political correctness by stating the facts just as they truly are. Perpetrators and victims/survivors of violence should be clearly identified, reported and recommendations put forward accordingly.”

Given the above, we feel that Nigeria qualifies for CPC designation if all the material facts were made available to you. Nonetheless, we very much commend the efforts made by USCIRF and DOS to document these atrocities.”

“It is our hope that in the current reporting year (2019), the full facts will show the need to review the current designation to full CPC status as the government of Nigeria has shown unwillingness to end the impunity and rescue the citizens from sustained insecurity and the existential threat which Christians face in the country today.”

Members of the Diaspora Professionals that signed the letter include; Hajara ESQ – Florida State, C.Mba – California State, A.Ukwuani – Maryland State, J. Esenwone – California State, Ibinabo Snr – Oklahoma State, G. Ukwuani, Ph.D – Washington DC, C. Nwaohia – California State, T. Omole – New York State, G. Ngofa, Ph.D – Texas State and Prof P. Moses – Texas State 

The list also include; N. Obianozie, Texas State – 2019 Participants in the DOS Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom and Barrister Emmanuel Ogebe – US Nigeria Law Group, DC, USA.

The Nigeria based Stakeholders of the group include; The Rev Polycarp Gbaja, CEO Stride Leadership Foundation & Snr Pastor, The Strong House, Abuja, Nigeria, Pastor Esther Ibanga, Executive Director of Women Without Walls Initiative and Founder, Jos Christian Missions int. Jos, Nigeria, Rev Yunusa Nmadu, CEO, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, The Revd Gideon Para-Mallam, CEO/Peace Advocate, The Para-Mallam Peace Foundation, Plateau State, Prof Charles Adisa, President Nigeria Christian Graduates Fellowship, Abia State, Rev Danjuma Byang, PRO, Southern Kaduna Christian Elders Forum, Kaduna State, Mr Caleb Muftwang, ESQ., Legal Practitioner, Plateau State, Ms Hawa Shekarau, ESQ., Human Rights Activist, Abuja, FCT, Mr. Atanda Martins, Lagos State, Engr Bala Khamofu, Community Leader, Taraba State and Mrs Fuldah Fwangchi, mni ESQ, Plateau State.

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