The Federal Republic of Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and its leading oil producer, but the majority of Nigerians live below the poverty line and corruption is widespread. Independence from Britain in 1960 was followed by decades of coups, civil war and military dictatorship.

Nigeria is constitutionally secular, with freedom of religion. The population is divided between the mainly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south, with both sharing the volatile Middle Belt.

Christians in Nigeria

Christians living in the north experience discrimination and a hostile atmosphere as Sharia law is in place in twelve states and in parts of four others. Christians are supposed to be exempt, but are often forced to comply, and they fear its spread.

Since 2010, the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram (see below) has been carrying out an insurgency including mass shootings at markets and institutions, the bombing and torching of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of churches – many churches have to post security guards at the gates – and raids on villages by attackers armed with guns and machetes who kill inhabitants and torch their houses. Boko Haram has murdered thousands of Christians and kidnapped thousands more, forcing Christian girls to marry their captors. Christians complain that not enough is done to protect them and that the security forces are slow to respond during attacks.

In recent years, Nigeria’s Middle Belt has been experiencing widespread violence as Muslim Fulani herdsmen increasingly use military-grade weapons to drive largely Christian farmers off fertile grazing land. Thousands of Christians have been killed and their properties looted and burned, including hundreds of church buildings. The Middle Belt is a volatile zone of convergence between the majority Muslim north and the majority Christian south.

In 2015, the Global Terrorism Index described the Fulani as the fourth-deadliest terrorist group in the world, while the 2017 Global Terrorism Index stated that Fulani herdsmen had undertaken more attacks and were responsible for more deaths in Nigeria in 2016 than Boko Haram. The Christian Association of Nigeria estimated that Fulani militants were responsible for the deaths of over 6,000 people between January and June 2018.

International media often report the campaign of violence as a conflict between herdsmen and settled farmers and the phrase “Christian-Muslim clashes” is often used, implying that the violence is equally balanced rather than a militant attempt by one group to drive another group from the land.

More Christians have been martyred in northern and central Nigeria in recent years than anywhere else in the world, and some Muslims have been killed in retaliation.

Boko Haram

Boko Haram was founded in 2002 by Sheikh Mohammed Yusuf in Maiduguri, capital of the northeastern state of Borno, to fight against government corruption and economic disparities between the north and the richer south. Tensions with the government led, in July 2009, to the security forces staging an offensive that killed at least 700 people across several states in deadly attacks on buildings and settlements associated with Boko Haram. Mohammed Yusuf died in police custody in July 2009.

Boko Haram regrouped under Abubakar Shekau, with a more militant agenda, and declared jihad on the government, aiming to rid the north of Christianity and the federal system, create an Islamic state and impose its strict interpretation of Sharia law, which forbids Muslims from taking part in any activity associated with Western society, including voting in elections, wearing shirts and trousers and receiving a secular education.

Loosely translated from Hausa, Boko Haram means “western education is forbidden”. Its official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, Arabic for “people committed to the propagation of the Prophet’s teachings and jihad”. It targets not just Christians but also universities, the police, secular courts and liberal mosques. While Christians are killed for their faith, Muslims are killed for reasons that include cooperating with the Nigerian military, working for the government and refusing to pay extortion taxes.

In August 2014, Abubakar Shekau (pictured) declared a caliphate in towns and villages it had seized around Maiduguri, using improvised explosive devices, anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled launchers and machine guns. It also took areas of Adamawa and Yobe states. Many Christians were killed and their homes and churches destroyed, Christian clinics and schools were shut down and villagers could not get to their farms to sow crops. In many of these settlements, infrastructure has been destroyed. Thousands of survivors escaped to the mountains or forest, while thousands more fled to Cameroon.

In March 2015, Abubakar Shekau pledged allegiance to Islamic State and changed his group’s name to Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). However, IS regarded Shekau as too extreme – killing too many Muslims – and in August 2016, IS announced Musab al-Barnawi (son of Mohammed Yusuf) as the new governor of ISWAP. He said he would focus on “booby-trapping and blowing up every church that we are able to reach, and killing all those we find from the citizens of the cross”. Days later, Abubakar Shekau said he was still in charge. His faction re-claimed the name Boko Haram.

When President Muhammadu Buhari was elected in March 2015 he pledged to end Boko Haram violence, and he had some success: from Spring 2015, the Nigerian army – supported by troops from Niger, Chad and Cameroon – pushed Boko Haram out of many towns and villages, retaking most of the territory it held in the northeast. The army  destroyed several militant camps in the Sambisa Forest and freed many kidnap victims. The number of attacks reduced, although the terrorists increasingly carried out attacks in adjoining regions of Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

More recently, however, ISWAP has been resurgent. Its militants carried out a series of attacks on military and civilian targets in 2018, killing more than 2,600 people in sixty attacks. The group gained weapons and ammunition through the attacks on military bases, and its renewed strength may also be a result of new, increasingly extremist leaders taking power. In Spring 2019, rumours surfaced that the militants had deposed figure-head al-Barnawi, following their killing of power-holder Mamman Nur a few months previously. 

Since Boko Haram’s armed insurgency began in 2009, it has killed at least 20,000 people (Christians and Muslims) and has forced 2.5 million Nigerians to flee their homes.

The kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls

Among the 4,000 Nigerian women and girls kidnapped by Boko Haram since the start of its insurgency, the most high-profile are the schoolgirls abducted in April 2014 from the Government Girls’ Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State. Most were from Christian families. Of the 276 girls kidnapped, 57 escaped and the remaining 219 were taken to the vast Sambisa Forest (a 60,000 square km former game reserve). Boko Haram’s leader offered to release the girls in return for jailed militants, a swap the government rejected.

In May 2016, the vigilante Civilian Joint Task Force found one of the missing girls, Amina Ali, with a baby in the Sambisa Forest. She was apparently searching for firewood and escaped when the Nigerian army bombed the Forest and the terrorists scattered. She said six girls had died and the others were married to Boko Haram commanders and were still in the Forest, heavily guarded. She reported that some had suffered broken legs or had been deafened by explorions. Amina’s Boko Haram husband left the Forest with her, having allegedly surrendered.

In September 2016, Nigeria’s Information Minister said that negotiations for a prisoner swap almost led to the rescue of the girls in 2015, but three times the negotiations collapsed.

On 13 October 2016, Boko Haram released 21 of the Chibok schoolgirls. Another girl was found in the Sambisa Forest on 5 November, and on 5 January 2017 the Nigerian army said soldiers found one more girl, with a 6-month-old baby, while they were interrogating Boko Haram suspects detained in the Sambisa Forest.

On 6 May 2017, Boko Haram released 82 more of the kidnapped girls in exchange for five Boko Haram commanders. Negotiations involved the Swiss government and the Red Cross. On 4 January 2018, the Nigerian Army announced that its troops had found another Chibok girl in the Sambisa Forest. This leaves 112 girls still missing, but at least six have died according to Amina Ali and to Boko Haram commanders, who claim some girls were killed by Nigerian Army bombs.

In October 2018, a Nigerian woman named Jumai from a town near Chibok, who was taken hostage with her six children by Boko Haram in 2014 and was held with six of the Chibok schoolgirls, escaped and brought news of them to their parents. She said that 38 of the Chibok girls were kept in one camp and 25 others in a different location. The escaped woman told Reuters that in the camps Boko Haram militants do not allow free movement for their “wives”, but that one of the girls, Dorcas Yakubu, who had declared in a Boko Haram propaganda video that she was unwilling to return home, had some freedom.

The Chairman of Chibok Girls Parents Association, Yakubu Nkenke, told Nigerian online magazine Daily Trust in October 2018 that some other women who had escaped from Boko Haram captivity said the girls are now being kept in two villages in northern Cameroon. “Seven of the abducted Chibok girls are living in Garin Magaji, while 50 others are held in Garin Mallam, where they live with their husbands and children,” he said.

Church in Chains in Action

Church in Chains has met the Nigerian Ambassador to Ireland to raise concerns about the lack of government action to protect Christians and has sent aid via several partner organisations to support victims of attacks on Christian villages. Since 2016, Church in Chains has sent aid via Stefanos Foundation to provide displaced Christian families with food and essential items such as clothes, blankets, toiletries, mosquito nets, plates and Bibles.

(Christian Association of Nigeria/Christian Solidarity Worldwide/International Christian Concern/Morning Star News/Nigeria Social Violence Project/Open Doors International/Release International/Voice of the Martyrs Canada/Washington Post/World Watch List/World Watch Monitor)