On August 4th, the United States is hosting a first-ever "Africa Summit." African heads of state are visiting Washington, DC to engage in discussions about US-Africa relations and common concerns. However, issues of human rights violations, especially in the realm of religious freedom, will not likely be on the agenda. On Cornerstone, we use the occasion of the Africa Summit to reflect on the dire state of religious freedom in sub-Saharan Africa.
By: Emmanuel Ogebe
Africa's rulers met in Washington for a historic US-Africa Summit during the first week of August. Although World Watch Monitor has consistently reported a geometric spike in Islamist terrorism in Africa (northern Nigeria alone accounted for more Christian deaths than the rest of the world combined in 2012) the United States missed a historic opportunity to engage on the centrality of religious liberty to national and global security.
Incidentally, the same week of the summit, President Obama ordered airstrikes in Iraq to help save persecuted minorities who were besieged on mountaintops by ISIS—the Islamist terror group that has overrun swathes of that country. Starving refugees on mountaintops, towns overrun and their Christian population exterminated, children decapitated, girls taken as slave brides—these are not just breaking news headlines from Iraq. They are the daily reality of life—and death—in northern Nigeria since jihadi terror group Boko Haram, like ISIS, ordered Christians to leave town or die.
In fairness, when MUJAO, a jihadist group, overran northern Mali last year and destroyed churches and even relics of Timbuctoo's rich history, French and African troops, with US logistical support, helped roll back that burgeoning insurgency. In one particularly poignant online video, MUJAO insurgents were trying two men embroiled in a battle for the affections of a woman. To resolve this romantic dispute, the terrorists applied their own version of Solomonic wisdom—they shot the woman to death with a burst of AK47s. Problem solved. MUJAO pushed Mali to WWM’s top ten most persecuted countries in 2012 from not ever being on the list before.
Similarly, in East Africa, after the horrific mall slaughter of Christians in Kenya (Alshabab terrorists painstakingly quizzed captives on Qur’anic verses to determine who was doomed to die and who freed), US troops ultimately captured one of the terror masterminds during a raid.
However, the Wall Street Journal reports that in spite of the high-profile #BringBackOurGirls (BBOG) campaign that even First Lady Michelle Obama tweeted, US aerial surveillance flights in search of the hundreds of abducted Nigerian school girls are being cut back barely two months after the US offered assistance.
What makes northern Nigeria's situation worse is not only that the US response has been inadequate, but that the administration has steadfastly downplayed the religious underpinnings of the insurgency and, in particular, has denied the persecution of Christians.
This is a pattern of mischaracterization that we saw in Mali and in Kenya too. Religious freedom or extremism was never recognized as the core issue. In a briefing in DC with some of the African officers responsible for fighting off MUJAO, one of the generals leaned over to me and asked what a VEO was. I explained to him Washington’s politically correct but “multiculturally misguided” new sobriquet meant “Violent Extremist Organization.”
Similarly, the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls only garnered attention as a “girls’ education” issue—not as a religious freedom issue—and even after the terrorists declared that the girls had been "converted to Islam," the media continues to distort the facts.
The Wall Street Journal infamously reported about protesters in the BBOG campaign that "Their rallies have become a referendum on whether Nigerian women—particularly poor, young, Muslim girls—are valued by a government of mostly wealthy, elderly, Christian men." About 90% of the abducted girls are Christians, but the media itself falsely implied that they were Muslim when even the administration has conceded this fact. Ironically, though, there is validity to the fact that Nigeria’s President Jonathan was slow to respond to these primarily Christian victims; most commentators conceded that Boko Haram’s egregious terrorism against Christians is largely to hit back at Jonathan, who is Christian.
Sadly, it is not only the US government and the media that has given religious minorities in Africa the short shrift. A bill in congress provides for a special envoy on religious persecution in the Middle East, but its mandate does not include Africa, so the legislators too have glossed over Africa. (The first African American ambassador for International Religious Freedom left office without bringing to the fore the horrific situation in Africa during her tenure.)
Within weeks of ISIS' atrocities in Iraq, major American Christian relief organizations were launching appeals and coordinating relief efforts. ISIS issued its ultimatum for Christians to leave Mosul in July 2014. Boko Haram issued its ultimatum for Christians to leave northern Nigeria in January 2012. Yet none of the major US relief organizations have heeded our calls to help with the humanitarian crisis that has since unfolded while swathes of northern Nigeria have been de-Christianized via religious genocide.
Why there is all around neglect of persecuted African Christians should be the subject of interesting research someday, but it is a sad day when a 16-year old Pakistani girl called Malala chooses to go to Nigeria for her birthday and denounces the same type of Islamist extremism that put a bullet in her head while Western Christendom watches. It is indeed a missed opportunity—all around.
If contemporary history has taught us anything, it is that the problem will be recognized when it is too late. Central African Republic sprang to the top ten persecuted countries in 2013 from not being on the list ever before. However, it was only after Christians began to retaliate brutal massacres by Muslim bands that Western media headlines blared about the religious nature of the conflict with Christians portrayed as the aggressors.
Christians in Nigeria who make up half of that country’s population have not yet retaliated. Yet they are portrayed as somehow being responsible for their own persecution by neglecting Muslims. Ironically, this was the same flawed thesis put forward to explain ISIS insurgency—that they were neglected by a non-inclusive Iraqi government. Violent Jihad is as Violent Jihad does. It cannot be rationalized through the actions of its victims. It can but be understood through its own lens, and therein lies the West’s continuing missed opportunity of understanding the fundamental correlation between ISIS in Iraq, MUJAO in Mali, Alshabab in Kenya, and Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Emmanuel Ogebe is an international human rights lawyer specializing on Africa.
This piece was originally authored on August 19, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs