By guest contributor Kyle Abts
Each year, Nigeria celebrates independence from Great Britain on October 1st. This year, Nigeria turns fifty-nine years old. The majority of these years were spent under military dictatorship but, in the past twenty years, Nigeria has experienced democratic rule. This is a great development that keeps Nigerians encouraged, but there are many other issues that raise concerns.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation as well as Africa’s leader in the entertainment industry and in oil production. Yet, even for all its advances and developments, it leads the continent in violations of religious freedom as well. Numerous government and non-government organizations report that Nigeria leads in religious persecution and religious violence – notably because of its inability to contain terrorist groups like Boko Haram/ISIS-WA and Fulani militants.
Where is Leah Sharibu?
Another indication of religious persecution is the failure by the government to secure the release of Leah Sharibu, a young girl who remains a captive of the terrorist group Boko Haram. She was one of 110 girls taken captive from a government school on February 19, 2018. She is the last girl from that group remaining in captivity, a fact that US President Donald Trump reminded the world of when he met with Nigeria’s President Buhari in April 2018 at the Oval Office.
Many in Nigeria and in the international community want to know where she is and what is being done to release her. The government was able to negotiate the release of other kidnapped girls from Dapchi, but what is being done to release Leah?
Leah has remained a captive of Boko Haram because she did not convert to Islam. Mrs. Rebecca Sharibu, Leah’s mother, struggles to share that when she was told the girls were returning, a few girls ran to her car weeping. She states, “They cried as they were telling me how Leah refused to recite the Shahada [Muslim profession of faith], but they tried to help her memorize it. She kept saying ‘No.’”
Why is the Nigerian government afraid to defend one of its own citizens? Is it because she was a minority Christian who refused to recite the Shahada? Mrs. Sharibu continues to plead for her daughter’s release despite the inactivity of the government.
Mrs. Sharibu simply requests, “Please safely return my daughter to us.” She has not been informed about any progress on the case from local, state, or federal authorities. The Sharibu family are all Christian and live in the predominantly Muslim Yobe State where there was a history of volatility and intolerance, even before Boko Haram.
The inability and corruption of the Nigerian government can be thoroughly debated, but what really matters is discovering where Leah Sharibu is now and what is being done to find her.
Independence Day Does Not Equal Freedom
The concept of religious intolerance includes the exploits of those who deny the right of a member of another religious faith to practice and express their beliefs freely. The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999) is intended to guide citizens in their rights and to guide public servants at all levels of government. There are two chapters within this constitution that promote the rights of citizens, including the freedom of religion.
Certainly, a darkness shrouds Dapchi regarding the disappearance of these girls from their school and the return of all but one girl. How were these Boko Haram terrorists able to gain access to these girls to steal them away, and then return them with such impunity?
The Nigerian government has failed in its duty to protect and aid those of its citizens who are facing a clear violation of their rights. Constitutionally, this violation is made clear in Chapter IV, Section 34, Item (b) which declares, “no person shall he held in slavery or servitude.” Further in the same chapter, Section 38, Item (1) says that “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief.”
We return to the immediate concern: Where is Leah Sharibu right now? What is being done to find her? Why has the Nigerian government not done more?
In June 2019, United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) officially declared Leah Sharibu a prisoner of conscience. Why did the US Government take so long when the facts did not change? Religious persecution escalated in Nigeria while the US Government waited to designate Leah as a prisoner of conscience. Did the Nigerian government cause the delay with empty promises? Perhaps they feared that too much exposure would harm negotiations. Will this designation exert additional pressure on the Nigerian government to locate and release Leah Sharibu?
Mrs. Sharibu wants her daughter released with or without the help of the Nigerian government. She wonders whether Boko Haram will return to attack her village. Is she safe? Is her family safe? She remains optimistic that Leah can be returned, but has to fight the anguish about her daughter and her disappointment with the Nigerian government with constant prayer.
The abduction of the Dapchi girls—and, similarly, the Chibok girls—is fading from the minds of the world, but Leah’s parents continue to pray and hope for her release. President Buhari claims that no ransom was paid, but there was “backchannel” cooperation with motley groups. Buhari states that, “We also reached out to our contacts at home and abroad. We embarked on backchannel shuttles with a clear view to bring [this tragedy] to an end.”
The Nigerian government needs to negotiate the release of Leah Sharibu like it did for the other 109 girls kidnapped. Will the government help secure her release, or will they at least share with the family what they are doing?
Where is Leah Sharibu? Leah’s parents need to know, the people of Nigeria need to know, the world needs to know.
Leah is the only girl who did not return and the returnees only mentioned one reason: her faith. As a Nigerian citizen, she remains a hostage because she exerted her freedom to believe in Jesus Christ and not convert to Islam. The Nigerian government needs to prove that they are protecting and empowering its citizens by fulfilling its Constitution.
Kyle Abts has worked for twenty years in relief and development and community development with various agencies: Food for the Hungry, Christian Reformed World Relief Committee, Sports Friends and SIM.
Serving in Nigeria, he led various projects that included Widows & Orphan care, Income Generating Projects, Literacy and Health. He also coordinated projects for Internally Displaced Peoples. For the past 12 years, Kyle has been serving with Sports Friends, which utilizes sports to develop communities in Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, Senegal and Burkina Faso by partnering with indigenous institutions and local individuals. He’s served as a Consular Warden for the US Embassy in Nigeria, as well on various committees in Nigeria (both government and NGO), but also as a board member and panel delegate for micro-finance, relief and development projects. Over 20 years of experience in the international non-profit and non-governmental organization sector implementing programs through identifying and developing methods of serving target populations.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates
 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999)
Chapter II – Fundamental Objectives and directive Principles of State Policy
Section 15. (2) Accordingly, national integration shall be actively encouraged, whilst discrimination on the grounds of place of origin, sex, religion, status, ethnic or linguistic association or ties shall be prohibited.
Chapter IV – Fundamental Rights
Section 34. (b) no person shall he held in slavery or servitude; and
Section 38. (1) Every person shall be entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom (either alone or in community with others, and in public or in private) to manifest and propagate his religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
Section 42. [citizens freedom, prevention of threats and allowed conduct, which includes religion]
 The State House, “President Buhari’s Address at the Occasion of Receiving the Release of Dapchi School Girls”, March 23rd, 2018 http://statehouse.gov.ng/news/president-buharis-address-at-the-occasion-of-receiving-the-release-of-dapchi-school-girls/