Diary

Dark clouds hang above Nigeria’s Christians – and nobody cares

Following the Paris terror attacks, liberal media’s penchant to sweep under the rug the tragedies of Christians falling victim to jihadists and Muslim fundamentalism and rush to the defense of Islam as a “religion of peace” has been pushed into overdrive. Even more worrying though is the conservative media’s silence in exposing the real tragedies that have befallen Christians around the world. Make no mistake, the scale of anti-Christian violence is gut wrenching. Every year, 100,000 Christians are killed because of their beliefs, that is to say one every five minutes. Their stories need to be heard.

Probably the best example of a tragedy waiting to happen can be found in Africa’s largest country, Nigeria, where the Christian population is faced with the prospect of genocide. Few have bothered to look beyond the wild media craze that accompanied Boko Haram’s abduction of 276 Christian schoolgirls last spring.

But let’s start with one simple fact: in 2014 alone 2,484 Christians were martyred in Nigeria at the hands of Boko Haram, the highest death toll in the world. According to Open Doors 2015 World Watch List of the worse persecutors of Christians, Nigeria comes in tenth place. The situation has been worsening year on year. In 2011, hundreds of Christians were killed and 430 churches destroyed. In 2012, 900 Christians were slaughtered and an unknown number of churches destroyed. In 2013, 612 Christians were massacred and approximately 300 churches destroyed. Muslim fundamentalist group Boko Haram killed an average of 10 people a day last year, with most of the victims being Christians whose only crime was their faith

Nigeria, a mix of several hundred ethnicities, has one unifying thread: religion. The country has one of the largest Christian populations in the world – roughly half of its 180 million souls identify either as Catholics or Protestants, while the other half are Sunni Muslim. The two communities are fairly segregated across the country: the North is predominantly Muslim while the South is predominately Christian, with a separating middle belt acting as a buffer. These divisions have been repeatedly exploited by politicians for electoral capital, deepening the divide and the tensions between the two communities.

Even if Nigeria has a long history of religious clashes – it would be a mistake to assume that Boko Haram is a unique phenomenon – the country’s Christians have never been in a more precarious situation. Why? Because on March 28 a disenfranchised and frustrated Nigerian electorate could unwittingly hand the presidency to a Muslim fundamentalist. Indeed, the poll is essentially a two horse race, between incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and four-time challenger General Muhammadu Buhari. Jonathan is widely perceived as having been too soft on corruption and Boko Haram, drawing the ire of many Nigerians who have jumped on Buhari’s wagon.

But who is Muhammadu Buhari?

Buhari is one of Nigeria’s most enduring politicians. A Muslim and Sharia advocate from the north, his fingerprints can be found across the country’s history. A former general, he has participated in several bloody military coups, steadily rising through the ranks of the army. His apotheosis came in 1983, when he ousted the civilian government of Shehu Shagari and proclaimed himself head of state. While in office, he pursued an aggressive policy against Christians from the South, diverting funds and resources to the North at the expense of the South, imprisoning Christian politicians and activists on fickle corruption charges, all the while protecting his fellow kinsmen.

Buhari’s 20-month rule was strewn with human rights abuses that finally led to his overthrow in 1985. But the general didn’t leave the stage for long and quickly made his way back to Nigeria’s political scene. He made headlines a few years ago when he proudly declared that he wishes to impose Sharia law throughout Nigeria, saying “I will continue to show openly and inside me the total commitment to the Sharia movement that is sweeping all over Nigeria,” His comments were deeply inflammatory, as they occurred after the February 2000 bloodbath when 3000 people died in Muslim – Christian clashes after the Kaduna state introduced Sharia in areas of criminal law.

But the most dangerous episode happened in 2011, when Buhari encouraged his supporters to reject the outcome of the presidential elections and “defend their votes”. During the three-day civil war that followed, Muslims targeted Christians, churches and schools, killing 800, displacing 65,000 and destroying hundreds of places of worship. The general never apologized for the riots and refused to assume any responsibility for his actions in galvanizing public opinion. A criminal complaint for genocide in Buhari’s name has been filed with the International Criminal Court this year.

Nevertheless, Buhari’s ascetic lifestyle and his devotion to the cause of Islam has made him very popular with the Muslim population of the country. Since 70% of Nigerians are under 30 years old, few actually remember his brutal rule and have been drawn to his side thanks to the general’s strong stance against corruption and promises to end the Boko Haram insurgency. However, beyond persuasive electoral gimmicks, there are no reasons to believe that the General is anything but bad news for the Christian population.

Pundits take great pleasure in pointing out that Muslim terrorism mostly targets Muslims, but that assumption is overly simplistic. Few dare to utter the words “Christian martyrs”, fewer still dare phrase terrorism as a religious conflict, opting for fuzzier cultural explanations. Nigeria provides a salient example of a simmering religious conflict, phrased in a very clear anti-Christian manner. And so the question remains: why is the media silent in the face of violent massacres of the Christian population?