USCIRF Sounds Alarm on Nigeria Crisis, Urges Obama to Take Action

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is out with an alert underscoring the critical situation of continual and often deadly violence toward citizens in Nigeria and urging President Obama to take initiative in his upcoming meeting with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.

The press release notes that hundreds of people have been killed in attacks by the jihadist group Boko Haram and in sectarian violence in the Middle Belt during the past two months, and emphasizes the intensification of Boko Haram attacks since the start of Ramadan.

“The July 20 meeting in Washington D.C. between President Barack Obama and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari offers both nations the opportunity to reinvigorate their commitment to, and develop initiatives that would, help curb both types of violence,” the statement says.

“We are extremely concerned by Boko Haram’s senseless killing of innocent people, the targeting of worshippers, and the destruction of houses of worship,” said USCIRF Chairman Robert P. George. “This increase in violence has left more than 300 dead since the beginning of July and is a stark reminder that Boko Haram is a destabilizing force in Nigeria and the region.”

Since 2009, USCIRF has recommended that Nigeria be designated a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for systemic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, but so far the US State Department has failed to heed this counsel despite the reams of evidence that back it up.

According to a USCIRF report, the Nigerian federal government “fails to implement effective strategies to prevent or stop terrorism or sectarian violence and does not bring to justice those responsible for such violence” and the government’s “almost exclusively military approach to Boko Haram contributes to ongoing terrorism in the country.”

On Friday, George urged the Obama administration to focus Monday’s discussions on improving civilian security from Boko Haram’s attacks and the long-standing herder-farmer sectarian violence.

Such discussion should “urge the Nigerian government to respect human rights during military and police responses and ensure justice for victims,” he said.

USCIRF, an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission that monitors the universal right to freedom of religion abroad, has been in the news frequently in recent months, often in connection with its 2015 annual report. The document drew angry reactions from governments implicated in some of the worst violations of religious freedom in the world today, including formal complaints from China and India.

The USCIRF’s independent status has given it the political freedom to maintain pressure on countries like Pakistan and Cuba, despite hesitation on the part of the U.S. government to draw attention to their religious rights violations.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome