The Federal Government has rejected the United States designation of Nigeria as a country that engages in or tolerates severe violations of religious freedom, saying the “iniquitous tag stems from an orchestrated narrative that has long been discredited”.
In a statement issued in Abuja on Sunday, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, said the good people of Nigeria enjoy unfettered freedom to practise 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 elections, to oust the Buhari Administration.
The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo in a statement on Friday listed Nigeria as one in the Special Watch List (SWL) of countries that have severe violations of of religious freedom.
This followed the Release of the 2018 report of the US Commission for International Religious Freedom, which recommended Nigeria’s designation as a “country of particular concern”.
The report said that the Federal and State Governments in Nigeria have continued to “suppress the freedom to manifest religion or belief and tolerate discrimination on the basis of religion or belief”.
The US report pointed at the Boko Haram as a strong factor in the violations of Religious freedom as well as the sporadic religion-instigated violence in northern parts of Nigeria.
The Boko Haram insurgency has in the last 10 years led to the death of about 30,000 people, the displacement of about 2.8 million and massive destruction of infrastructure particularly in the north east of Nigeria.
The US also mentioned the widespread violence allegedly perpetrated by the Fulani herdsmen especially in central Nigeria, which has led to the killing of thousands of indigenous farmers in a move suspected to be an attempt by the mostly Muslim Fulani herdsmen to supplant mostly indigenous Christian people to grab their land for grazing.
Another strong factor that necessitated the listing of Nigeria is the alleged killing and repression of the members of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria otherwise known as Shiites and the continued detention of their leader, Ibrahim Zakzaky.
The sect has come under a heavy crackdown by the Nigerian security agencies under the current government since 2015 when about 400 of the Shiites were killed by soldiers who had accused them of plotting to assassinate the Chief of Army Staff, Tukur Buratai,a Lt General. The Shiites have allegedly continued suffer more killings even as they protest the continued detention of their leader, Ibrahim Zakzaky.
But the Minister of Information and Culture, added in his statement that it is unfortunate that the US 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 Nigerian 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 US 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,” he said.
On the question of the Boko Haram terrorists, the Minister noted that the Boko Haram are extreme fanatics who do not subscribe to the tenets of any religion, in spite of their pretence to Islamic adherence.
Lai Mohammed said the good news is that the government has succeeded in curbing the farmers-herders clashes through the implementation of proactive and multi-dimensional strategy, which is yielding remarkable results, just as it has largely defeated the Boko Haram insurgency.
On the El-Zakzaky issue, which was referred to in the report by the US government, he described it is purely a criminal matter, which is being handled by a court of competent jurisdiction.
The Minister said while the government welcomes constructive criticism from any quarter, it rejects any attempt to sow the seed of mistrust among the various religious groups in the country.
Under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the US has listed other countries in the category of those violating religious freedoms. Some other countries in the list include; China, Burma, Eritrea and North Korea.
Others are; Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
The US, which will launch an International alliance of countries for religious freedom in the New Year, also renewed the the placement of countries like Russia and Uzbekistan in the list.