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What do the Nigerian elections mean for Christians facing violence in the north of the country?

As Nigeria’s presidential elections are looming, Nigerian Christians expect their new leader to keep them safe from violent persecution.

Muhammadu Buhari, 76, who is seeking re-election, is expected to lose in the Christian-dominated areas of Nigeria due to dissatisfaction with the government’s failure to eradicate Boko Haram’s insurgency and the violence against Christians by Fulani Herdsmen.

Buhari said in 2001 when he was Nigeria’s military ruler that “they would not stop the agitation for the total implementation of the Sharia (Islamic law) in the country”. During his electoral campaign in 2015, he delivered a speech with a different message and claimed he was not a religious fanatic and that “one critical freedom that every government must strive to protect is the liberty for citizens to exercise their respective faiths, Christians and Muslims or others”.  

Open Doors Senior Policy Advisor Dr Matthew Rees explains: ”The reassurance that he had no Islamic agenda, earned Buhari the support of some of Nigerian Christian leaders, while some others were more cautious about what his victory would mean for Christians. When he took the office as president, he vowed to bring to an end the insurrection of Boko Haram that started in 2009. Over the four years of Buhari’s presidency, the Nigerian army has been relatively successful in driving the Islamic group away from some territories it had occupied. However, despite the claims that Boko Haram has been defeated, it continues to subject Christians to deadly attacks. These attacks have been stepped up in the run-up to the elections.”

Nigerian pastor, Rev. Gideon Para-Mallam, from the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, told anti-persecution charity Open Doors: “Many Christians are very disappointed with Buhari’s administration when it comes to security for all and especially Christians in the Middle Belt, North East and North West. He tries to deny it but his appointments especially in the security apparatus are virtually filled with Muslims. I personally do not like religious politics or injecting the element of religion into our politics but Buhari has made this worse.”

Christians have also accused Buhari’s government of inaction in addressing the violence against Christians by predominantly Muslim Fulani cattle herders whose attacks on the indigenous Christian communities of the Middle Belt region have claimed lives of thousands of people. Hundreds of churches and properties have also been destroyed.

The growing desertification has pushed Fulani herdsmen towards the farmlands of the Middle Belt and the fight over land has proved to have a religious context too. Apart from encroaching on the croplands of Christians, Fulani herdsmen armed with sophisticated weapons attack villages and cities, murder entire families, and even burn people alive. In June 2018, around 230 people were killed over just one weekend in Nigeria’s Plateau state. The government often under-reports the number of victims. 

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) said in August 2018 that the country under President Buhari’s leadership is more divided than ever in Nigeria’s history. CAN criticised Buhari’s government for allowing the perpetrators to act with impunity and claimed that no significant measures were taken against the herdsmen “because they are Mr. President’s kith and kin”, referring to Buhari’s Fulani background.

During this year’s electoral campaign, CAN set a panel to interact with some of the presidential candidates and raise the concerns of Christians in Nigeria. Rev. Para-Mallam served in the committee and told the candidates that above all else, Christians desire security: “Christians want to see Leah Sharibu, Alice Ngaddah and the Chibok girls along with several in captivity: Muslims and Christians alike, set free. We want to see a fair and equitable distribution of the wealth of this nation to all Nigerians, good governance devoid of corruption”, he said.

According to Open Doors, over 2000 Christians were killed because of their faith in Nigeria in 2017 and over 3700 in 2018. However, persecution of Christians in Nigeria is more than violence. In the 12 northern Nigeria states that have adopted Sharia, Christians continue to be denied their constitutionally protected rights. They do not receive the opportunities and protections given to Muslims and face difficulties in accessing education and the jobs market in many sectors.

In the elections of 2015, while Muslims voted in large numbers, Open Doors received reports that many Christians avoided going to the polling stations because they were fearful of violence. Some 100,000 Christians were deprived of their right to vote because they were displaced after escaping from Boko Haram attacks. According to the United Nations migration statistics, some 1.8 million Nigerians are in refugee camps – and the majority of these will be unable to return to the area they escaped from in order to vote.

According to Rev. Para-Mallam, Police and the Army have promised to do everything possible to ensure the security of all citizens in the 16 February elections. One church leader, Ibrahim Bakwe, told Open Doors: “Every time elections approach, there is so much fear of the unknown among Christians, because they have been targeted so often.” 

Nigeria is number 12 on the Open Doors World Watch List ranking the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

There are 91 million Christians living in Nigeria that make up around 46 per cent of the total population of 196 million. There are a similar number of Muslims in the country – over 90 million.

The majority of Christians live in the south of the country, and their religious freedom is respected. But in the north of Nigeria and the Middle Belt, where Christians are in the minority, they face high levels of persecution by various Islamic groups.

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