President Donald Trump promised Nigerian counterpart Muhammadu Buhari during a joint press conference in Washington Monday that the White House would “be working” on protecting Christians in his country.
The remarks follow weeks of mounting criticism and protests against Buhari and his administration at home for what many allege is insufficient action to protect Nigerian Christians from the Islamic State affiliate Boko Haram and militant Muslim Fulani herdsmen, responsible for hundreds of deaths so far in 2018 alone, and an estimated 60,000 people since 2001.
Buhari recently ordered a mass recruitment of new police forces and has promised greater involvement in combatting terrorism. He also requested more aid from the United States during his visit to the White House Monday.
“We’ve had very serious problems with Christians who have been murdered, killed in Nigeria,” President Trump told reporters during their joint press conference. “We’re going to be working on that problem, and working on that problem very, very hard, because we can’t allow that to happen.”
Buhari, expressing gratitude “for the physical presence of the United States military (inaudible) that are going to our institutions in Nigeria, and train them and go to the front,” described Muslim violence in Nigeria’s northeast as “a very long, historical thing.” He also claimed that the Islamic State has “virtually gone” from Nigeria, though addressing a growing Boko Haram problem. Boko Haram is an Islamic State affiliate, having pledged allegiance to “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Buhari became the first African leader to visit the White House during the Trump administration following a week of uproar in Nigeria against his government. A variety of Catholic and Protestant groups have demanded Abuja act more aggressively against widespread terrorist attacks by both Boko Haram and the Fulani herdsmen, who attack and kill Christian farmers possessing land they could use for their cattle. The Fulani herdsmen most recently killed two priests and 19 Christians on April 24 in southern Benue state, a dangerous area for Christians far from the Boko Haram hotbeds of Borno and Adamawa.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria called for Buhari to resign last week, writing in a statement, “Today, we Christians feel violated and betrayed in a nation that we have all continued to sacrifice and pray for. We collectively feel abandoned and betrayed.”
“If the President cannot keep our country safe, then he automatically loses the trust of the citizens. He should no longer continue to preside over the killing fields and mass graveyard that our country has become,” the statement concludes.
On Sunday, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), which includes numerous Protestant groups, organized nationwide protests against Buhari.
“It is a national day of prayer and protest, Christians don’t protest; if we have to, that means the issues have reached the peak,” the Kogi State chairman of CAN, Bishop John Ibenu, told reporters. “We spend time to pray for the nation and Kogi State and also for the future.”
In the Christian enclaves of the country, protesters organized holding signs reading, “CAN Says No to Religious Killings,” “Human beings are more valuable than cattle,” and “No more excuses for mass murder,” among other signs.
In Borno and neighboring Yobe state, Boko Haram has meanwhile developed a growing presence. Reports published Tuesday indicate that Boko Haram terrorists “are currently running quasi-administrative policies that include imposition of taxes on civilians in the territories they control.” Boko Haram, operating under the name “Islamic State of West Africa,” has reportedly begun taxing civilians in a 100-mile spread of territory they freely control, according to Reuters.
“If you are a herder, driver or trader, they won’t touch you – just follow their rules and regulations governing the territory,” an unidentified herder in the area told Reuters.
The Nigerian military dismissed the reports as nothing new, while not specifically denying the taxation claims.
“Boko Haram has been making life difficult for people wherever they pass through, but that does not mean they are holding territories,” Ministry of Defense spokesman John Agim told Nigeria’s Premium Times.
On Tuesday, Buhari announced he had ordered his government to recruit 6,000 new police officers nationwide to address both growing Islamic insurgency problems.