In July, officials in northern Nigeria invited prominent local preacher Sheikh Abduljabar Nasiru Kabara to defend his alternative interpretation of Islam alongside state-backed Muslim clerics. After the debate, authorities arrested Kabara and charged him with blasphemy and incitement. Under the state’s Shari’a code, Kabara could face the death penalty simply for voicing an interpretation of Islam that differs from that of the state.
Kabara is not the only Nigerian whose right to freedom of religion and belief is under threat. Across the country, Nigerians of diverse faiths or no faith face violence, harassment, and prosecution based on their beliefs. Fortunately, the United States government has robust diplomatic tools to respond to violations in countries like Nigeria. The question is, will policymakers use them?
Later this year, the U.S. Department of State will release its annual list of countries of particular concern, or CPCs. Mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA), this process requires the State Department to annually identify countries who are either engaging in or tolerating religious freedom violations. Nigeria is responsible for both.
Nigerian authorities arrest, detain, and prosecute individuals on blasphemy-related charges, which constitutes a severe violation of the internationally recognized right to freedom of religion or belief. For example, authorities charged humanist leader Mubarak Bala in July with causing a public disturbance by posting blasphemous content online, after detaining him for 14 months without charge. Yahaya Sharif Aminu, a 22 year-old singer, was accused in 2020 of blasphemy and reportedly remains detained for having insulted the prophet Mohammad in a private social media message.
The Nigerian government also tolerates frequent violent attacks on religious congregations and leaders by nonstate actors. Since the beginning of 2021, there have been numerous attacks on and abductions of religious leaders, including pastors and imams, as well as members of their families. Leah Sharibu, a Christian student abducted from her school by Islamic State fighters in 2018 remains in captivity because she refuses to convert to Islam.
Boko Haram made threats leading up to the most recent Christmas holiday and attacked three Christian communities in northern Nigeria on Christmas Eve. Ramadan celebrations were marred by several armed attacks against worshippers. Criminal gangs have targeted at least two religious schools, abducting hundreds of children for ransom. Despite the prevalence of this violence and its impact on religious communities in Nigeria, authorities routinely fail to investigate and prosecute perpetrators.
In December 2020, the U.S. State Department designated Nigeria as a country of particular concern for the first time since USCIRF first made the recommendation in 2009. While this represented a commendable policy development, the State Department also immediately applied a waiver that significantly limits any impact the designation might have on U.S. policy in Nigeria, let alone on conditions for religious communities on the ground.
According to Nigerian authorities, the country does not have the capacity to do anything more than it is currently doing to hold perpetrators accountable for religious violence. This argument is selective at best based on Nigeria’s robust response this year to growing violence by Biafran separatists in the country’s southeast. If Nigeria’s government can launch a speedy, wholistic campaign against political dissidents in the southeast in a matter of months, why has it not mobilized the same resources to address sectarian violence and religious freedom violations in hotspots around the country?
Redesignating Nigeria a CPC would ensure that religious freedom remains a top U.S. policy priority among other competing interests. The U.S. government designates CPCs based on rigorous and unbiased analysis. A change in CPC status should only follow deliberate, measurable progress by the government that yields a positive change in religious freedom conditions on the ground. In Nigeria’s case, these changes have not yet happened. Instead, in 2021 alone, there have been more detentions, more blasphemy charges, more attacks on religious congregations, and continued restrictions on religious minorities.
Promoting religious freedom is a priority for the U.S. government — as Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenPentagon, State Department square off on Afghanistan accountability US should call out Nigeria’s horrendous religious freedom record Biden struggles to rein in Saudi Arabia amid human rights concerns MORE said: “Our promise to the world is that the Biden-Harris administration will protect and defend religious freedom around the world. We will maintain America’s longstanding leadership on this issue.”
Government authorities in Nigeria continue to engage in and tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of international religious freedom. The Biden administration must maintain leadership on religious freedom, as Secretary Blinken promised, and hold Nigeria accountable for these violations by redesignating the country as a CPC.
Frederick A. Davie and Tony Perkins are Commissioners of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.