The First IRF Priority for the Biden Administration

Benjamin Harbaugh – Last month, I wrote an article detailing my thoughts on what the incoming Biden Administration might mean for international religious freedom (IRF). In short, I believe that President-elect Biden has the opportunity to strengthen and advance IRF as a bipartisan issue. With that in mind, what should the top priority be for Biden’s IRF appointees? I propose that the new IRF picks should focus their initial efforts on Nigeria—an alarming example of increasing religious violence.

Nigeria was designated for the first time as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) by the State Department earlier this month.[1] As such, it joins the unenviable ranks of countries such as China, North Korea, Iran and others.[2] A country is designated as a CPC for “engaging in or tolerating ‘systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.’”[3] This was a big win for IRF advocates working on Nigeria as groups—such as the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)—have called for Nigeria to be listed as a CPC as early as 2009.[4]

At first glance, Nigeria might seem like an odd addition to a list comprised of persecutors as notorious as the ones listed above. After all, Nigeria does not run comprehensive prison camps for religious minorities, nor does it deny freedom for entire religious groups based solely on their faith. Additionally, Nigeria is the first secular democracy to be placed on the CPC list.[5]

So, why is Nigeria now a Country of Particular Concern? A report from the Hudson Institute—a D.C.-based think tank—details why the West African nation belongs on the CPC list. “Since the dawn of the twenty-first century, and with horrifying acceleration in recent years, verified reports of murders, rapes, mutilations, and kidnapping of Christians in Nigeria have persistently increased,” says the report. “Such violence has reached a point at which expert observers and analysts are warning of a progressive genocide—a ‘slow-motion war’ specifically targeting Christians across Africa’s largest and most economically powerful nation.”[6] Indeed, President Trump publicly noted the growing persecution of Christians in a meeting with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in 2018.[7] Unfortunately, nothing changed.

In recognition of the accelerating violence and lack of action from Abuja, the State Department placed Nigeria on the Special Watch List (SWL)—the tier below CPC—in 2019.[8] However, the situation continued to deteriorate. A Nigerian civil society group estimated that at least 1,202 Christians were killed in the first 6 months of 2020 alone—an escalation of violence compared even to recent years.[9]

On the other hand, the Nigerian government claims that it does not engage in religious persecution and that this is the work of uncontrollable extremist groups. Indeed, after their placement on the SWL last year the Nigerian government described the US’s decision as part of an “orchestrated narrative that has long been discredited” and blamed the political opposition for taking advantage of “various security challenges.”[10] However, the truth lies in the Nigerian government’s lack of action and dismissive attitude towards violence against Christians.[11] In effect, Abuja has given its tacit approval to religious extremists by failing to address the escalating violence for years.

With this in mind, the religious freedom context in Nigeria seems bleak. However, Biden’s new appointees will come into power with new tools and resources to address the Nigerian IRF problem.

First of all, the CPC designation carries real weight. Congress is notified of the designation and a variety of measures—including economic sanctions—are considered until the severe violations have ceased.[12] Second, the CPC designation “names and shames” the receiving country which could impact the Nigerian government economically and diplomatically. Lastly, two countries were removed from the SWL this year: Sudan and Uzbekistan. While Sudan’s example is still valuable, it is somewhat different due to their reforms occurring after the ousting of dictator Bashar al-Assad. Instead, Biden’s appointees could leverage experiences from Uzbekistan to create a road map for Nigeria. Uzbekistan showed that slow and steady improvement would be recognized by the U.S. The Uzbek government began reforming years ago by removing thousands of individuals from a religious extremist blacklist and inviting the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief to visit the country.[13] Uzbekistan’s progress and the expectation of additional reform led to their eventual removal from both the CPC and SWL lists.[14] Uzbekistan’s example could guide Biden’s IRF appointees as they work to reverse the spread of violence and persecution in Nigeria.

In conclusion, Biden’s IRF appointees should place Nigeria as their first priority as the country is not a lost cause. With the right plan and immense effort, Nigeria could follow in the footsteps of Uzbekistan and Sudan and end systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.


Benjamin Harbaugh is the Vice President for Global Engagement with the International Religious Freedom Secretariat. He recently served as an intern in both the Office of the Vice President of the United States of America and the Office of International Religious Freedom at the Department of State. He is also pursuing a graduate degree at The American University in Washington D.C. where he currently studies U.S. foreign policy and security. He is passionate about supporting vulnerable communities around the globe and has worked alongside the persecuted Church in countries such as Cuba, Russia, Vietnam, and more. Engaged in the relationship between foreign policy and religious freedom, Ben believes in the importance of U.S. involvement for religious minorities around the world. When he isn’t studying, Ben enjoys long-distance running and traveling with his wife.


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.


[1] https://www.state.gov/united-states-takes-action-against-violators-of-religious-freedom-2/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://thehill.com/policy/international/529121-nigeria-joins-state-dept-list-of-violators-of-religious-freedom

[5] https://www.uscirf.gov/news-room/releases-statements/uscirf-welcomes-state-departments-designation-nigeria-among-worlds

[6] https://www.hudson.org/research/16550-nigeria-is-officially-declared-a-country-of-particular-concern-and-not-a-minute-too-soon

[7] Ibid.

[8] https://www.state.gov/united-states-takes-action-against-violators-of-religious-freedom/

[9] https://www.christianpost.com/news/1202-nigerian-christians-killed-in-first-6-months-of-2020-ngo-report.html

[10] https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/369381-religious-freedom-nigeria-replies-u-s-blames-political-opposition.html

[11] https://www.hudson.org/research/16550-nigeria-is-officially-declared-a-country-of-particular-concern-and-not-a-minute-too-soon

[12] https://2009-2017.state.gov/j/drl/irf/c13003.htm

[13] https://thediplomat.com/2020/07/uzbekistan-must-stay-on-the-path-of-religious-freedom-reform/

[14] Ibid.

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