Washington Stand

Rep. Chris Smith Challenges Biden to Redesignate Nigeria as a Violator of Religious Freedom

Adjunct Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom
Rep. Chris Smith testifies in the US House of Representatives on September 28, 2022. (Screenshot via C-SPAN)
Rep. Chris Smith testifies in the US House of Representatives on September 28, 2022. (Screenshot via C-SPAN)

For decades, Nigeria has been an epicenter of ferocious Christian persecution. Islamist radicals increasingly attack entire communities — torching churches and villages, kidnapping and sexually abusing women, killing pastors and their congregations. The perpetrators mostly include well-known terror groups like Boko Haram, ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province), and radicalized Fulani tribesmen. Much has been written about these attacks, yet the devastation has worsened dangerously in recent years.

Reports of escalating killings, kidnappings and displaced communities continue to appear in increasing numbers. The survivors are grief-stricken. Just days ago, I received a message from a Christian Nigerian with whom I’ve been in touch from time to time. He writes,

“I am living in the most terrorized area in Nigeria — the north-eastern part. For eight years now our area has been destroyed. My mother died in 2014 without me setting my eyes on her dead body. I don’t know those who buried her because Boko Haram captured our village. And until today I am living as an IDP [Internally Displaced Person]. It is serious. Please keep praying for us.

We are in a horrible situation. Our story is kept silent, and we are too much marginalized especially in Northern Nigeria. [In the coming election, the authorities] have come out with the issues supporting a Muslim ticket for president, but they just want to fulfill their agenda for Islamic propagation. Jesus is our only hope, Lela!”

In December 2020, then-Secretary of State of Mike Pompeo designated Nigeria a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), thus providing legal opportunities for specific measures against President Muhammadu Buhari and his government. Religious freedom advocates and some U.S. lawmakers applauded the designation with relief, gratitude, and hope. Yet, less than a year later, in November 2021, with no explanation whatsoever, the Biden administration abruptly removed Nigeria’s CPC designation. This delisting amounted to a license for ongoing violence and an outrageous betrayal of Nigeria's increasingly brutalized Christians.

Thankfully, after years of increasingly horrendous reports, a new Congressional Resolution (full text here) was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) on January 31, 2022. Perhaps it will help undo the damage done to Nigeria’s Christians by the Biden administration’s negligence. FRC applauds this important and potentially life-saving effort. Rep. Smith’s office provided the following press release:

Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), Co-Chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, today introduced a bipartisan resolution calling on the Biden Administration to add Nigeria to the State Department’s annual list of countries that violate religious freedom—known as Countries of Particular Concern (CPC)—and appoint a Special Envoy to Nigeria and the Lake Chad Region to monitor and combat atrocities in the region.

Smith’s resolution comes in response to Secretary Blinken’s decision to omit Nigeria as a CPC in its 2021 and 2022 International Religious Freedom Reports despite widespread religious persecution plaguing the country. Following is his statement:

“The Biden Administration’s totally unjustified decision to retreat from the noble and necessary fight to protect victims of religious persecution puts even more people in jeopardy,” said Smith, who authored the Frank R. Wolf International Religious Freedom Act and has chaired multiple congressional hearings on what is unfolding in Nigeria.

“Last year alone, 5,014 Christians were killed in Nigeria—accounting for nearly 90 percent of Christian deaths worldwide as well 90 percent of Christian kidnappings across the globe,” said Smith, citing a report by the religious freedom watchdog Open Doors International.

“You can’t give President Buhari a passing grade when he has utterly failed to protect religious freedom, including and especially that of Christians,” said Smith, who has led three human rights trips to Nigeria over the years to advocate for those persecuted for their faith.

“The failure to hold Buhari to account—and even reward him by withdrawing the CPC designation—will only embolden Fulani militants,” said Smith. “The Biden Administration must act immediately and redesignate Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern to mitigate this alarming and growing threat to religious liberty, especially given the upcoming presidential elections.”

Congressman Smith points out that Nigeria’s presidential elections are slated for February 25. And in a departure from customary practice, the country’s All Progressives Congress has nominated two Muslims to its presidential ticket — including vice presidential candidate Kashim Shettima. His past tenure as governor of Borno State was criticized for failing to adequately address jihadi violence perpetrated by Boko Haram. Without American backbone and committed international cooperation, Nigeria’s Christian population will eventually be driven out and decimated by Islamist violence. And Nigeria itself — Africa’s most populous and prosperous African country — will collapse. As the American Enterprise Institute’s Emily Estelle has written“The blind spot over Africa’s jihadi problem exists because policymakers are afraid to take on the intractable causes and difficult solutions to resolve insurgencies. For the countries in question, an enduring solution requires money and changes to their power structure that elites cannot or will not make. The international community is equally at fault. It’s time for those who profess to care about the continent to step up. There is a war going on.”

Read in the Washington Stand.