On the scale of global conflicts, the internal struggle by the Nigerian government against militant Islamist group Boko Haram, for many, doesn’t register among the worst. With neither the death toll of the Syrian Civil War nor the publicly broadcast brutality of the Islamic State terror group, the barbarism of Boko Haram has slipped in and out of American media coverage over recent years.
Though the terrorist group has been active since 2002, a more recent spate of public violence is responsible for its now global name recognition — namely, the 2014 kidnapping of hundreds of schoolgirls from the Chibok and Garkin Fulani villages of Borno, located in the northern region of Nigeria.
Being a Nigerian immigrant magnified the horror of the kidnappings for me. Where others saw just a group of girls, I saw myself, my sister and cousins. Only the fortune of being born outside of Boko Haram’s sphere of influence protected us from the same fate. For a few weeks, celebrities from Former First Lady Michelle Obama to Salma Hayek flooded social media imploring no one in particular to #BringBackOurGirls, but just as quickly the issue was all but forgotten, replaced in the headlines with more pressing domestic matters.
The collective American attention span has been understandably occupied by the midterm elections, but the escalating violence against Christians in Nigeria needs to be addressed by the Trump administration.
In 2016, the Congressional Research Service issued a report citing, among numerous others, the concerns of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Since 2009, the Commission has recommended that Nigeria be classified as a “Country of Particular Concern” for “Boko Haram’s terrorist attacks against Christians and Muslims, recurring sectarian violence, and escalating interfaith tensions.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has also spoken out aggressively against the jihadist violence. Adding its voice to the Nigerian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Bishops’ statement urges those who enjoy the freedom to worship not to forget the tens of thousands of Christians in Nigeria who have been killed or targeted simply for their faith. The Bishops further reiterate the USCIRF’s call for the State Department to label Nigeria a “Country of Particular Concern.”
The horrific killings of Christians in their homes and places of worship in Nigeria should be cause for concern for all those who, like myself, care deeply about religious freedom. According to Ann Buwalda, executive director of international human rights organization the Jubilee Campaign, in 2013 alone, 1,200 Christians were killed for their faith in northern Nigeria — more than in the rest of the world combined.
This week, Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Affairs Tibor Nagy is visiting Nigeria. It is my hope that he will raise America’s growing concern for the plight of Nigerian Christians with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and send a clear message that barring changes, the State Department will seriously consider classifying Nigeria as a “Country of Particular Concern” or recommend suspending the sale of the Tucano fighter jets President Trump approved during Buhari’s visit to Washington in February.
Exacerbating the crisis is the displacement of more than 1.6 million Nigerian refugees. Until now, Nigerian refugees have mostly sought refuge within the country, with only about 200,000 individuals fleeing to nearby Niger, Chad,and Cameroon to escape the violence at home. There is, however, no reason to expect this will remain the case. Around the world, refugees from poverty-stricken and war-torn countries continue to make the difficult journey from their homes to the West, in search of security and the promise of better fortunes.
The ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate the limits of U.S. foreign policy in remaking the world in the image of liberal democracy. Still, accepting this reality shouldn’t preclude the Trump administration from acknowledging the very real possibility that left unchecked, terrorist violence in Nigeria could create the next global migrant crisis. At the very least, the administration should urge the Nigerian government to ensure Nigerian security forces receive the proper training and resources to effectively combat sectarian violence in the country.
Even setting aside such geopolitical considerations, the simple human tragedy of persecuted Christians on such a scale ought to be enough for the administration to press for action where it, so far, has been insufficient. We must hope that Nagy’s visit will be a turning point for a stronger U.S. stance.
The rescue of the vast majority of the kidnapped schoolgirls and the release of more than 1,000 Boko Haram prisoners in May offers a reason for optimism. Still, Christians in Nigeria, particularly in the north, live in constant fear of violence from at the hands of their fellow countrymen. Their plight shouldn’t be forgotten, and the U.S. should not allow others in Nigeria to look the other way.
Tamara Winter was originally born in Lagos, Nigeria, but now lives in Arlington, Va. She serves as the Operations Lead at the Center for Innovative Governance Research.
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