Nigeria refutes Christian 'genocide' claims; charity says gov't 'spinning propaganda'

Christians faithfuls hold signs as they march on the streets of Abuja during a prayer and penance for peace and security in Nigeria in Abuja on March 1, 2020. The Catholic Bishops of Nigeria gathered faithfuls as well as other Christians and other people to pray for security and to denounce the barbaric killings of Christians by the Boko Haram insurgents and the incessant cases of kidnapping for ransom in Nigeria.
Christians faithfuls hold signs as they march on the streets of Abuja during a prayer and penance for peace and security in Nigeria in Abuja on March 1, 2020. The Catholic Bishops of Nigeria gathered faithfuls as well as other Christians and other people to pray for security and to denounce the barbaric killings of Christians by the Boko Haram insurgents and the incessant cases of kidnapping for ransom in Nigeria. | AFP via Getty Images/KOLA SULAIMON

Advocacy groups are refuting a statement released Sunday by the Nigerian presidency contending that international rights groups who say there is ongoing “genocide” against Christians in Nigeria received funding from a separatist organization. 

Garba Shehu, a spokesperson for Nigeria President Muhammadu Buhari, accused the Indigenous People of Biafra of spending $85,000 per month to fund an international smear campaign through nongovernmental organizations and media outlets in the United States and Europe.  

“This statement from Buhari’s officials is to distract from their own incompetence or collusion with the perpetrators of genocide on the Christian communities in the North and Middlebelt parts of Nigeria,” said Ann Buwalda, president of Jubilee Campaign USA, which advocates for ethnic and religious minorities. 

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The Nigerian government has been facing increased international pressure to protect its citizens as thousands have reportedly been killed in recent years by Islamic extremist groups like Boko Haram in the northeast or ethnic herdsmen radicals who have launched several attacks on sleeping farming communities in the Middle Belt.

Shehu claimed that organizations and lawmakers in both the U.S. and Europe are being duped by the IPOB into thinking that the government is implicit in the killing of Christians. He argued that IPOB is trying to drive a wedge between Nigeria and Western allies. 

A “very deep and wide investigation by an agency of the Nigerian government” working with international partners has found that there are “two interconnected campaigns” being run by IPOB, Shehu said.

“Both are using the cover of Christianity — and calling for a U.S. Special Envoy to be appointed to stop the ‘genocide’ of Christians in Nigeria.”  

IPOB was founded in 2012 and seeks to restore the independent state of Biafra in eastern Nigeria. It is recognized as a terrorist organization in Nigeria. 

“For reasons of convenience, [the group’s leadership] claims to have an interest in the welfare of Christians — but this is a ruse: the case for independence, the leader believes, is strengthened by ‘proving’ the government of Nigeria is ‘autocratic,’ engaged in a ‘silent slaughter’ of their own citizens along religion and ethnic lines — and that therefore the only viable option for the unique religious and ethnic minority is a sovereign Biafra separate from Nigeria.”

Shehu called the international media campaign “divisive” and said that “available evidence” suggests that the campaign has been funded with $85,000 in monthly spending since last October “with no records of the source of this largesse.”

“The campaign consists of producing articles in the names of the alleged Christian NGOs’ leaders (of campaign groups created at the time this PR contract with a US lobbying firm was signed) and letters to and from members of Congress to the White House,” he said.

“Unfortunately, some Members of Congress have clearly been persuaded there is indeed a ‘Christian persecution’ underway in Nigeria — and do so quoting the campaign — and they are known to be taking up the case directly with the White House to appoint the special envoy.”

Shehu complained that one American charity secured a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and made presentations to members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. 

Last December, the U.S. State Department added Nigeria for the first time to its “special watch list” of countries that engage in or tolerate  “severe violations of religious freedom.”

Shehu added that there is also a European angle to the campaign that is “more opaque than its US sister campaign” because there is “less legal requirement for public filings.” 

“[W]hat is known of this at the moment is that their Budget is sufficient to hire four PR firms in the UK, Belgium, France and the US (the latter additional to the above),” he noted, while pointing out that there was a debate held on “Christian genocide” in the U.K. House of Commons. 

Shehu accused IPOB of “misusing the issue of the welfare of Christians purely to further their own political ends” and of the international community to “ignore this campaign.”

However, activists in the U.S. pushed back against the Buhari government's statement and assured that they have no connection with IPOB. 

Among several international organizations raising awareness of Christian persecution in Nigeria is Jubilee Campaign USA, which submitted data and research to the International Criminal Court last year arguing that the standard for genocide has been reached when it comes to violence against Christians in Nigeria. 

The Jubilee Campaign report focused mostly on the violence occurring in the Middle Belt of Nigeria and northern states, where thousands of Christians have been displaced by attacks from predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen and Islamic groups like Boko Haram. Buhari himself is an ethnic Fulani. 

Jubilee Campaign's Buwalda told The Christian Post that although the Biafra movement has also raised genocide concerns relating to their community in southeast Nigeria with the ICC, the movement is in no way associated with her organization.

“Jubilee Campaign USA has not had any contact with Biafra related persons, nor have we ever taken up the issue,” she said. “All of the Jubilee Campaign reports submitted to the ICC regarding the genocide issue has related to the Middle Belt and northern states.”

“No one we have advocated for has ever mentioned separatism,” she added. “All the people we have advocated on behalf of have been pleading for help from the government of Nigeria — their government — and asked us to go to the ICC on account of the utter failure of the federal government of Nigeria to provide protection from the gross and systematic persecution the Christian community in those states who have suffered ..." 

Buwalda said that no one the Jubilee Campaign is aware of who has been advocating on the Nigeria issue “has ever received a dime of funds from Biafra-related persons.” 

Dede Laugesen, executive director of the U.S.-based advocacy group Save the Persecuted Christians, told CP that her organization has partnered with Mission Africa International, Jubilee Campaign, the Leah Foundation, the Nazarene Fund and other groups to press for a U.S. special envoy to Nigeria to address ongoing violence. 

“President Buhari is spinning propaganda to suggest any of us are working with the IPOB,” Laugesen stated. “We support a strong, united, peaceful Nigeria — something the IPOB opposes.”

“We have not, and would not, coordinate with or take money from the secessionists of IPOB. We look forward to the day when all Nigerians live united in peace and security. Religious freedom and rule of law must be strengthened and defended at all levels of the Nigerian government.”

Laugesen stressed that “corruption and radical Islamic agendas must be rooted out.”

“Buhari has failed at both while the blood bath of Christians continues unabated and Islamic terrorist groups rampage, rape and murder with impunity,” she stated. “The overwhelming evidence is clear. It’s time — past time — for the international community to intercede.”

According to Open Doors USA, the Biafra separatist movement based in Southeast Nigeria has also faced persecution. However, according to USCIRF's 2020 annual report, media reports indicated that members of IPOB “attacked five Christians, including a priest, for holding a mass in defiance of IPOB orders to stay at home.”

Emeka Umeagbalasi, a Christian criminologist based in the southeastern Anambra state, an Igbo-dominated area that seceded as part of an independent Biafra in 1967, told CP that the “presidency is obviously panicking and trivializing the ongoing genocide against Christians in Nigeria.”

Umeagbalasi heads a civil society organization called the International Society for Civil Liberties & Rule of Law (Intersociety), which regularly produces statistical reports on how many Christians have been killed in different acts of violence across Nigeria.

Intersociety has estimated that over 11,500 Christians were killed between June 2015 and March 2020 in Nigeria. 

In a statement Tuesday, Intersociety explained that it has received support in the form of free professional resource donations, expert advice, technical assistance and “individual cash donations or cash sums” that are “periodically and voluntarily donated by some concerned citizens” who are “usually less politically exposed persons.” 

Other sources of income for Intersociety include periodic cash sums allocated by Umeagbalasi himself. 

Intersociety stressed that the organization has never received sponsorship from a foreign body or international grant sponsorships and stated that its advocacy campaigns regarding the killing of Christians in Southern Kaduna, Plateau and Benue were done free of charge "without group sponsorship."

“On the issue concerning the Presidency’s allegation of international and ‘IPOB’ sponsorship of ‘Christian NGOs,’ we are not surprised,” Intersociety said. “It is a tragedy in Nigeria that those in the position of leadership are never interested in rendering leadership services, but to rapaciously enrich themselves through state coffers.”

“... [This] explain[s] why they see the legitimate activities and services rendered by independent bodies including rights and democracy NGOs as ‘sponsored.’ Because every aspect of their public office dealings is heavily monetized or quantified in monetary terms, they see any other societal service as ‘sponsored.'"

Intersociety noted that Nigeria has in the past engaged in a war of words with international rights groups. There have been accusations that Amnesty International is sponsored by politicians who seek to damage Nigeria's reputation or that the organization is being taken advantage of by Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province.

IPOB leader Nnamdi Kanu issued a statement on Facebook Sunday stating that “every dime the indomitable IPOB family worldwide contribute towards our liberation goes towards the dismantling of Nigeria and restoration of Biafra, I mean every dime.”

“Once again, Nigerian Government has inadvertently confirmed that we spend big on our diplomatic offensive,” Kanu wrote in the post. 

USCIRF Commissioner Johnnie Moore, who visited Nigeria to meet with victims earlier this year in his personal capacity, told CP that Nigeria "would be totally immune to this criticism if it simply did more to protect its most vulnerable citizens."

"I believe Nigeria is absolutely capable of protecting its citizens if it chooses to do so, but so far its efforts have been inadequate," Moore said. "After all, no one — including, the government itself — denies that innocent people are dying throughout the country unnecessarily, and sometimes, daily.”

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