No Place to Hide: Christianity in Northern Nigeria
By Linda Burkle, Ph.D
I first encountered persecution almost three decades ago. I, along with a medical team, was flying into Port Harcourt, Nigeria to provide healthcare in remote jungle regions. Our plane made a stop at Kano, a city in northern Nigeria. Several passengers deboarded the plane there and one passenger boarded. The man, dressed in a business suit, was visibly shaken and clutching his Bible. Through our Nigerian hosts we learned that the man, a pastor, had been harassed and almost prevented from boarding. He was crying and kept repeating “they were trying to take my Bible.”
In the years that have passed since that incident, the persecution of Nigerian Christians has only increased and become more violent, even if largely underreported and unknown to most of the world. The horrific kidnapping of 276 Chibok schoolgirls in April, 2014 by the militant Islamic group Boko Haram helped to raise awareness, and many eyes around the world turned to Nigeria. The international community and Nigerians alike accused the government of not acting quickly and effectively to rescue the girls. Despite numerous attempts, it has been unsuccessful in freeing them all and bringing the perpetrators to justice. Most of the girls were Christian, and 112 remain missing today.
In its most 2019 Annual Report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) rated Nigeria as a Tier 1 Country of Particular Concern. In the report, USCIRF notes that the “Nigerian government at the national and state levels continued to tolerate violence and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief, and suppressed the freedom to manifest religion or belief.” The report continues, highlighting that “the Nigerian federal government failed to implement effective strategies to prevent or stop such violence or to hold perpetrators accountable. Boko Haram and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-West Africa (ISIS-WA) continued to perpetrate attacks against civilians and the military throughout the year, despite the government’s claims of progress in defeating them. In addition, members of the military and the civilian joint task force, a local vigilante group supporting official forces, were accused of human rights violations against civilians displaced by conflict.” Additionally, USCIRF designated Boko Haram an “entity of particular concern.”
Since 1999, Nigeria has been a democracy dominated by Christians at the federal level. The Nigerian Constitution includes provisions protecting religious freedom and prohibiting religious discrimination, while also allowing for adoption of both criminal and civil Sharia law in twelve northern states with Muslim majorities. This bifurcated legal structure has exacerbated conflict between Islamic terrorists, Nigerian military, and local vigilante groups. It has also exacerbated disputes over land and water rights and political access. In addition, traditional and religious leaders weld significant influence in political and policy matters. Violent conflict is often attributed to intersecting factors such as religion, ethnicity, tribal identities, and disputes between farmers and herdsmen.
Open Doors, an international organization dedicated to addressing persecution, ranks Nigeria 12th on its World Watch List of countries persecuting Christians although it is also rated as the second most violent country for Christians, immediately following Pakistan in that list. “Nigeria leads the world in Christian martyrdoms, with 1,350 confirmed, and in Christian abductions, with 224 confirmed, during the list’s reporting period from November 2018 to October 2019.”
Unlike most countries where persecution is prevalent, Christians in Nigeria are not a minority but constitute about half of the country’s population. The Christians population is now estimated to be over 80 million. However, sustained attacks against Christians may have impacted this number.
The church in Nigeria “has one of the most dynamic evangelical and missionary movements in Africa and indeed the world, with about 7,200 missionaries and a missional presence in about 196 countries.” However, “the future of the church in Nigeria is at stake because of persecution. Although Nigeria is officially not at war, what the church is witnessing is tantamount to a declaration of war against Christians.”
Persecution is systemic, largely regionalized, and takes many forms. Whether this looks like denying Christians permits and acceptance to school or whether it means burning property and murdering those of faith, many Nigerian Christians live under constant pressure because of their faith. Christians living in the Muslim-dominated northern and Middle Belt regions are the frequent targets of militant groups like Boko Haram and radical Fulani herdsmen. Some sleep in the bush at night in fear that their homes will be attacked.
“Especially in rural areas, Christians are being killed and dispossessed of their ancestral farmlands. Their homes are being burnt and many have been internally displaced or taken refuge in neighboring countries such as Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. Others are in captivity and slavery.” By 2018, Boko Haram had killed more than 37,000 people and displaced nearly 2.6 million.  In January of 2020 alone, such attacks resulted in 100 deaths; among the victims was a seminarian, one of four who had been abducted on January 8th. In mid-January Pastor Lawan Andimi, regional chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), was beheaded.
In response to the killings, an estimated five million Nigerian Christians participated in a CAN-sponsored fast for three days at the end of January. They protested as well, participating in prayer walks and calling on President Buhari to resign amid widespread disapproval of his ability to stop the violence. President Buhari defended his government’s efforts, praising the military forces and assistance from British and American troops. He did concede that the battle was still not yet won, but discounted accusations that he misled the public and the international community on the true nature of the violence. The protesters held signs proclaiming:
“The Gospel of Christ will reign in Nigeria.”
“Shed no blood. It cries to God.”
“Mr. President stop these killings, please.”
May it be so.
Dr. Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019 where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle Co-Chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Her dissertation focused on religious persecution; specifically regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska. She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.
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.