Some Christians in Nigeria wore black this week to call attention to continued violence in the north where terrorist attacks and intercommunal conflicts have intensified over the past decade, displacing millions and killing thousands from all religious and ethnic backgrounds.
But the recent kidnapping and execution of Christian pastor Lawan Andimi and a spate of reported attacks on churches in the last two years in the northern part of the predominantly Muslim country have some Christians feeling they are being targeted for their religious beliefs.
In January, Andimi, who converted from Islam to Christianity when he was a child, spent the holidays with his daughter and son-in-law in Michika where he worked as a pastor and local leader of the Christian Association of Nigeria.
“We had been there until New Year’s Day. We had been having discussions of life and even discussed his retirement,” said his son-in-law, Daniel Dauda Nyadar.
Andimi’s daughter and her husband planned to stay in Michika for a few more days, but the pastor insisted they leave right after the New Year’s church service — almost as if he had a premonition of what was to come, Nyadar said. The very next day — Jan. 2 — Boko Haram assailants raided Michika and kidnapped Andimi.
“We were worried [about] what had happened. We were thinking maybe he was killed,” Nyadar said. Three days later, a proof-of-life video was released to the media from Boko Haram.
“We thought in the beginning that when that video was released [that] probably they were looking for ransom, they were looking for money. That was all we thought,” said Bishop Stephen Mamza, who chairs the Christian Association of Nigeria for Adamawa State, where Michika is located.
“We had a conversation with them, we discussed, we bargained with them for over a week, nearly 10 days,” Mamza said, noting that Boko Haram often holds people for ransom to collect money. “In the beginning, they said they wanted 2 million euros.”
But in the middle of negotiations, the kidnappers stopped picking up their phones. Andimi was executed on Jan. 20.
“His death brought so much agony for us. But we found it joyful because we know that he died strongly in his faith.”
“His death brought so much agony for us. But we found it joyful because we know that he died strongly in his faith,” Nyadar said, adding that Andimi called for them to keep their trust in God even as he was held in captivity by Boko Haram.
Mamza and many of his colleagues see Andimi’s murder as the latest example of violence against Christians in northern Nigeria.
It’s one of the reasons Mamza applauded a recent US decision to add Nigeria to the Special Watch List for countries violating religious freedom. It was the first time Nigeria, a close counterterrorism ally, had received the designation, which is only one step away from being eligible for US sanctions.
“When we look at Nigeria, we look at the government’s tolerance of this social violence and discrimination based on religious identity as problematic,” said Tony Perkins, who chairs the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent group that monitors religious freedom and issues recommendations to the State Department.
USCIRF’s most recent annual report didn’t single out Christians specifically, but rather, cited religious sectarian violence and religious-based violence more broadly. “They fail to prosecute crimes and provide justice for the various religious communities. So, that is a failure to protect religious freedom,” Perkins said. The report also cited the Nigerian government’s crackdown on the Shia group, the Islamic Movement of Nigeria.
According to Perkins, who in the past has been criticized for his comments on Islam and LGBTQ issues, the SWL listing signals just how serious the Trump administration is taking religious freedom violations: “This administration on religious freedom internationally, they want to try to do the right thing.”
But critics argue that in Nigeria, a country nearly evenly split between Muslims and Christians, the insecurity caused by terrorist groups and intercommunal violence isn’t based on religion.
“Yet, sadly, there is a tiny, if vocal minority of religious leaders — both Muslim and Christian — who appear more than prepared to take their bait and blame the opposite religious side.”
That point was echoed by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who in an Op-Ed following the death of Pastor Landimi, rejected claims that Christians are being targeted by the violence, and called on Nigerians to be united. “Yet, sadly, there is a tiny, if vocal minority of religious leaders — both Muslim and Christian — who appear more than prepared to take their bait and blame the opposite religious side,” Buhari said, also arguing that the majority of terrorist victims have been Muslim.
Since taking office in 2017, President Buhari has battled accusations of religious bias from Christian leaders who say they face broader forms of descrimination in the north.
For Sani Suleiman, who works on peace and conflict for Mercy Corps, the question of who is most victimized is beside the point. “These are complex issues that have contributed to creating tensions among the communities, creating suspicion and also destroying good relationships that have existed between the communities for long,” he said.
Suleiman is from Plateau State, an area in north-central Nigeria that has seen periodic episodes of intercommunal violence between predominantly Christian farmers and Muslim herders as well as attacks from Boko Haram.
Suleiman argues that a lot of the violence and fighting has less to do with religion, and more to do with competition over land resources in a growing country.
“This is largely due to very long years of failure of successive governments, not just the present government but successive governments to really come up with sound policies and measures that address issues,” he said.