A row has broken out over the United States (U.S.) classification of Nigeria as a “Country of Particular Concern” over religious freedom.
The U.S. Department of State in a statement at the weekend placed Nigeria and six other countries on a watch-list over their approach to religious freedom.
The other countries are: Sudan, Russia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Comoros Island. The U.S. also designated some terrorist groups including Al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, ISIS and the Taliban as “Entities of Concern”.
The U.S. State Department said Nigeria trended negatively in 2018, adding that the Federal Government “failed to prevent or stop violence or hold perpetrators to account”.
It also condemned the detention of Ibraheem EL-Zakzaky along with his wife and hundreds of Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) members.
But the Federal Government dismissed the report as unfortunate and incorrect, “stemming from an orchestrated narrative that had long been discredited.”
The Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) and some activists supported the government’s position but the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) faulted the defence by the government.
Senator Sabi Abdullahi sponsor of the also said the Hate-Speech Bill, said if passed, it will end religious and ethnic tension in the country.
Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed said “the good people of Nigeria enjoy unfettered freedom to practice their religion, and blamed failed politicians and disgruntled elements – some of them supposedly-respected leaders – for latching on to religion as their trump card, especially in the run up to the last general election, to oust the Buhari administration.”
He said it is unfortunate that the U.S. fell for the antics of the “discontented and the unpatriotic few, who will not hesitate to hang Nigeria out to dry on the altar of their inordinate ambition and their sheer animosity towards the administration.”
The minister said the government is “acutely aware of how the political opposition, in particular, had spared no resources in deriving political capital from the various security challenges in the country.
‘’The deliberate effort to give religious coloration to the farmers-herders clashes and the Boko Haram insurgency, in particular, has undoubtedly helped to mislead the U.S. into concluding that the government is doing little or nothing to guarantee religious freedom in the country.
‘’But, as we have always said, the farmers-herders clashes have nothing to do with religion but everything to do with environmental and socio-economic realities. The religious tag given to the clashes has no basis in fact, but is very convenient for those who will very easily give the dog a bad name just to hang it. On its part, the Boko Haram terrorists are extreme fanatics who do not subscribe to the tenets of any religion, in spite of their pretence to Islamic adherence,’’ he said.
Mohammed said the government had succeeded in curbing the farmers-herders clashes through the implementation of proactive and multi-dimensional strategy, which is yielding remarkable results, just as it had largely defeated the Boko Haram insurgency.
The government described the El-Zakzaky issue, which was referred to in the report by the U.S. government, as purely a criminal matter, which is being handled by a court of competent jurisdiction.”
The minister said the government “rejects any attempt to sow the seed of mistrust among the various religious groups in the country.”
CAN said in a statement by Pastor Adebayo Oladeji, Special Assistant (Media & Communications) to the association’s President, Rev. Samson Ayokunle: “The reasons given by the U.S. are too glaring to be disputed.”
The association went on to “commend the U.S. for standing on the side of the oppressed and the truth” and urged the government to implement its policies based on the dictates of the constitution.
It said: “The bitter truth is Christians are yet to be given any sense of belonging since this government came on board. Our prayers include wisdom and the courage for President Muhammadu Buhari to give all citizens a sense of belonging, irrespective of their religious, tribal and political affiliations.
“The President should govern the country as the father of the nation.
“CAN welcomes the placing of the country on a special watch list by the U.S. despite the fact that we were not contacted before the decision was taken.
“We are not happy that our country is being listed among the nations where religious intolerance is one of their hallmarks but it gladdens our hearts.
“The U.S., like every other country, has an embassy here that monitors and reports back what the country is going through and the approach being adopted by the government to addressing the situation.
“Is it not true that ‘the Nigerian Federal Government failed to implement effective strategies to prevent or stop such violence or to hold perpetrators accountable,” as noted by the U.S. Government?
“The leadership of CAN has made this known to President Buhari in all our meetings with him to see the whole country as his constituency and to avoid nepotism as much as possible.
“The CJN, few days ago, called for amendment to the Constitution with a view to adding more Sharia contents. Since the Chief Justice has not denied the story and the government has failed to call him to order, it is crystal clear that the U.S. government has more facts than the government thinks.
“If the government is sensitive to our yearnings and aspirations, how come no Christian is heading any of the three arms of government in the present dispensation? This is unprecedented in the history of this country since Independence.
It also accused the Buhari-led government of appointing only people from one part of the country as members of the National Security Council.
The Director of Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) Prof Is-haq Lakin Akintola cautioned the United States against bullying other countries.
Prof Akintola queried whose authority the American government is acting by placing an independent nation on a watch-list.
“Who made the U.S. government the police of the world? The U.S. is simply bullying Nigeria and that has to stop. They should watch their foreign policies. A country that does not practice democracy at the United Nations level cannot claim moral right over other countries,” he said.
Akintola described American government’s action as “arrogant and we reject it totally. We know that average Americans are not on the same page with the White House policies. Humanity has long departed the White House”.
He wondered how the U.S. could be talking about religious persecution by closing her eyes to the killings of Muslims by Boko Haram in some parts of the north.
“What has U.S. got to say about the discrimination against Muslim girls and women because of hijab? Were the people in the White House not informed by their Ambassador in Nigeria stories of oppression of Muslim women in Hijab? They should drop their double-standard policies,” he said.
Akintola added: “Can you imagine the same U.S. government talking about human rights? What about the U.S. needless invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan? Till today, the American government is yet to show the world the weapons of mass destruction they accused Saddam Hussein of building for invading the country.
“In Spain, leaders of the Catalonia have been sent to jail. Why is the U.S. not taking any action? So, what offence has Nigeria committed to deserve such action?,” he added.
The Federal Government received the support of activist groups which accused the U.S. of hypocrisy and interference.
The Centre for Anti-Corruption and Open Leadership (CACOL), Centre for Health, Equity and Justice (CEHEJ) and the Nigeria 2015 Group (N2015G) said the U.S. had no moral right to police Nigeria.
CACOL’s Executive Director Debo Adeniran said although the President Buhari administration had its shortcomings, Nigerians were capable of resolving them through the ballot.
He said: “For America to continue to play the policeman of the world should not be acceptable to developing countries. The same Western countries that receive stolen, illicit transfers from Africa, are the ones that are still castigating those who have to run a country under difficult circumstances that the western countries have aided to destroy its economy, social and political systems.”
CEHEJ Director, Timothy Adewale said Nigeria was not doing badly on religious freedom “apart from the El-Zakzaky issue.”
“What remained before the Shiite issue was to strengthen and expand the frontiers of religious freedom on issues like hijab and corps members being able to wear skirts according to the dictates of their religion. We think that what went wrong was the way the Shiites issues were handled which has brought Nigeria’s religious freedom record into disrepute,” he stated.
N2015G’s Director of Strategy, Africa & North America Dr Timi Asuelime suggested that the U.S. list was borne out of envy and of no effect.
Asuelime said: “When we had cozy relations with USA, the European Union (EU) and their institutions – IMF and World Bank – we went into debt with nothing to show for it. But now that we are cozy with South East Asia & China with Highways, Airports, Railroads and an Agricultural Revolution to show, Capitalist West and recently impeached (President Donald) Trump government is not happy.
“The Impeached government of President Trump has no moral superiority in placing Nigeria on their Religious intolerance watch list which in any case has no effect on Nigeria.”