The scene is medieval in its horror: a woman stoned, beaten and set on fire by a mob shouting 'Allahu Akbar'. But this didn't happen hundreds of years ago: it took place a week ago in Nigeria.
The victim was a Christian student named Deborah Samuel, from Sokoto in the north west of the country. Samuel's 'crime', for which she paid with her life, was to have allegedly posted a ‘blasphemous’ comment on a WhatsApp group against the prophet Mohammed.
Even in a nation riddled by decades of ethnic and religious conflict where thousands of Christians have been killed, the incident has sparked uproar. But this outrage has mostly been confined to Nigeria itself; much of the Western world turns a blind eye to the horrors unfolding in Africa.
In the last year, more Christians have been killed for their faith in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world combined. In 2021, at least 6,000 Christians died for their religion; eight in ten were Nigerians, often at the hands of jihadists.
Like or loathe Donald Trump, under his administration, the United States at least took a keen interest in the plight of Christians in Nigeria. The country, along with China and Iran, was added to the U.S. State Department’s list of ‘countries of particular concern’ regarding religious freedom. This formed a plank of the U.S. government’s aim to tackle religious persecution across the globe. But remarkably, under the watch of Joe Biden, Nigeria has since been taken off the list. Biden is under pressure to reverse this decision due to the surge in anti-Christian violence. But whether he does or not, it's remarkable how little attention he – and indeed other Western leaders – are giving this issue.
Earlier this month, Isis released a video showing 20 Christians being executed in the north east Borno state. Across Nigeria as a whole, approximately 90,000 people have been killed by insurgents (or government forces) since 2009, with around 40,000 of these killed in the Boko Haram insurgency. Between January and March this year, more than 560 Christians were killed for ‘faith-related reasons’ and at least 531 abducted, according to Open Doors.
This horror looks set to worsen. A spike in attacks is anticipated over the coming months during farming season, which is historically associated with land grabs, and the destruction of harvests. For people reliant upon these crops, famine inevitably follows. It’s an endless cycle of violence, murder and mayhem.
The perpetrators of these crimes aren’t just the seasoned jihadists of Boko Haram. An Isis off-shoot, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (Iswap) and the lesser-known, but equally brutal Islamic Fulani militia (or ‘herdsman’) in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, are also to blame. In that troubled region alone – which marks the divide between the principally Muslim north and the mainly Christian south – an estimated 15,000 killings have occurred since 2009; countless others have suffered life-changing injuries. This organised, systematic, and coordinated butchery, which is wrongly assumed by some to be merely a ‘farmer-herder’ conflict, has resulted in the mass displacement of thousands of Christians.
Fulani militia specifically target Church leaders, Christian villages, and symbols of Christianity. Luka Binniyat, from the Southern Kaduna Peoples Union, is clear about the purpose:
‘We are faced with a war of conquest and occupation. This is an expansion of Islam by force. They are changing the demography of the region.’
Yakubu, a father of four from Miango, Plateau state, was one of those who fell victim to the mob:
‘Fulani militia hit my son in the head with a machete. My son raised his hand to block the attack, and they hacked his hand. My two daughters started screaming, and they attacked them with machetes too.’
This frenzied attack left the boy’s right eye hanging out of his skull; 14 people were murdered that day. In one village in Southern Kaduna earlier this year, a 98-year-old women was thrown into her burning home, mocked prior to her slaughter with the fiendish utterance: ‘You look cold, grandma. come this way.’ Moderate Muslims have also been killed by jihadists. Inevitably, too, some Christian and secular vigilantes are now hitting back against Muslims. There is a real danger of Nigeria descending into religious civil war.
If the United States has turned its back on Nigeria, how has the UK reacted to the upsurge in violence? Worryingly, the government’s policy on supporting internally displaced people in the Middle Belt remains patchy. Much of the aid handed to Nigeria goes to the country's north east and north west. Not enough is going to help those in the Middle Belt, who face the daily risk of religious violence.
The trending #BringBackOurGirls put the spotlight on Nigeria back in 2014, but that hashtag made little difference to Christians living in fear of their lives. Tory MP Edward Leigh’s intervention in the Commons last year on the state of apathy over Nigeria remains sadly relevant: 'Can we not proclaim the fact that black lives matter everywhere, not just in the West?', he asked.
While the focus of the Western world rightly remains on the suffering of Ukrainians, we can ill-afford to forget the nightmarish plight of Nigeria’s persecuted Christians.