Genocide in Nigeria

By Linda Burkle, PhD

“Nigeria is the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian,” stated international human rights lawyer Emmanuel Ogebe, and “It is high time this is recognized.” [1] Humanitarian organizations have taken note and are sounding the alarm. According to Open Doors World Watch List, killings of Nigerian Christians comprise 9 out of 10 of all martyrdoms worldwide.  This number is increasing each year at an alarming rate, moving Nigeria up from ranked 12th worst persecuting country in 2019 to 9th worst in 2021, according to the Open Doors World Watch List. [2]

Nina Shea, Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, states “More Christians have been targeted and slaughtered by extremists in Nigeria than in the entire Middle East in recent years. These vulnerable Christian communities, who are being attacked on two fronts by Islamic terrorists and jihadis, need help. In all likelihood, such violence killed more Nigerians in 2020 than the COVID-19 virus, since the total death count from the pandemic in Nigeria is 1,373 to date, well below the annual average for Christian fatalities. In this sense, you could make the argument that anti-Christian persecution is Nigeria’s real pandemic.” [3]

On January 30, 2020, Christian Solidarity International (CSI) issued a genocide warning for Nigeria. “The conditions for genocide exist in Nigeria, with Christians, non-violent Muslims, and adherents of tribal religions being particularly vulnerable,” CSI’s John Eibner announced. “The increasingly violent attacks and the failure of the Nigerian government to prevent them and punish the perpetrators are alarming. CSI therefore calls on the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to take swift action to uphold this commitment to genocide prevention in Nigeria.” To date, these requests for action have largely gone unheeded by the UN as violence continues to plague NIgeria. [4]

By September 2020, a nonpartisan watchdog group, Genocide Watch, declared a “genocide emergency” in Nigeria, at an “extinction” level.  They reported that within an eleven-month period, 5113 people were killed.  Since 2015, they found that some 11,500 Christians have been killed in Nigeria averaging 2,300 a year, or about one new Christian martyr every four hours. In addition, some 4 to 5 million Christians are believed to be internally displaced.[5] International Committee on Nigeria (ICON), a research group that reports on terrorism in Nigeria, counts that number as much higher.  Between 2015 and 2020, ICON attributes 35,000 murders to Boko Haram, an Islamic terrorist group that has operated in northeast Nigeria for the past twelve years. Its splinter group, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) has spread into northwest regions.  Further, in central regions, Fulani jihadis killed some 17,000 victims between 2010 and 2020, primarily Christian farmers. Because many people are killed or disappear while fleeing villages being attacked, it is impossible to calculate with certainty the exact number of victims. Kidnapping for ransom is becoming more prevalent as well. [6]

Since 1999, Nigeria has been a democracy dominated by Christians at the federal level.  The population is 53.5 % Muslim and 45.9 % Christian, with the reminder identifying as other religions. The ongoing violence has created a steady decline in the number of Christians in many regions of the country. Muslims tend to populate the northern and central regions while Christians dominate the southern regions, and much of the conflict has erupted in the middle regions, where Christians and Muslims coexist.  The 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. Such a bifurcated legal structure has exacerbated conflict between Islamic terrorists, the Nigerian military, and local vigilante groups. It has also fostered 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 often is attributed to intersecting factors, such as religion, ethnicity, tribal identities, and disputes between Christian farmers and Fulani herdsmen.

The Nigerian federal government has been conducting military operations against Boko Haram and ISWAP and claims they have defeated these terrorist groups. However, these groups continue to perpetrate attacks against civilians and the military.  In addition, members of the military and the civilian joint task force, a local vigilante group supporting official forces, have been accused of human rights violations against civilians displaced by conflict.  [7]

“The ongoing execution of Christians by terrorists in Nigeria (a country where more Christians have been killed for their faith than any other) is a shame to the entire world,” Johnnie Moore, a commissioner with the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) stated. “No one, whatever faith, should fear for their lives. Nigeria must do more [to] stop this.” [8] As a result of USCIRF recommendations, the US State Department has reclassified Nigeria, upgrading its designation from the “special watch list” to a “country of particular concern”, while the Boko Haram and ISWAP have been designated as “entities of particular concern”.  The USIRF 2021 report urges the US government to predicate financial and technical assistance on structural and observable actions Nigeria is taking to address religious persecution and execute justice. However, the State Department issued a waiver on any related sanctions as required in the “important national interest of the United States”, pursuant to Section 407 of IRFA.  Sadly, it is doubtful that diplomatic actions alone will be effective in significantly reducing or eradicating religious persecution in Nigeria. [9]

Last year President Trump himself raised the issue with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari. “We’ve had very serious problems with Christians who have been murdered, killed in Nigeria,” Trump said, with Buhari seated next to him. “We’re going to be… working on that problem very, very hard because we can’t allow that to happen.”  It should be noted with Buhari is a member of the Fulani tribe.  To date, the government has done little to eradicate the ever-increasing slaughter and bring the perpetrators to justice. [10]

It is yet to be determined how strongly the current US administration will advocate for religious freedom. Meanwhile, the slaughter in Nigeria continues.


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. Dr. Burkle has worked with persecuted peoples in a number of countries, and 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.


  1. https://www.christianitytoday.com/new/2020/december/nigeria-persecution-sudan-uzbekistan-religious-freedom-cpc.html
  2. https://www.opendoorsusa.org/christian-persecution/world-watch-list/
  3. https://angelusnews.com/voices/why-nigeria-is-the-most-dangerous-place-in-the-world-to-be-a-christian/
  4. https://csi-usa.org/csi-issues-genocide-warning-for-christians-in-nigeria/
  5. https://www.genocidewatch.com/nigeria
  6. https://providencemag.com/2020/04/world-ignoring-christian-genocide-nigeria/
  7. http://www.uscirf.gov/nigeria
  8. https://www.christianitytoday.com/new/2020/december/nigeria-persecution-sudan-uzbekistan religious-freedom-cpc.html
  9. https://www.uscirf.gov/nigeria.
  10. https://angelusnews.com/voices/why-nigeria-is-the-most-dangerous-place-in-the-world-to-be-a-christian/

Image: Jossy Ola / Associated Press; People attend a funeral for those killed by suspected Boko Haram militants in Zaabarmar, Nigeria, on November 29, 2020

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