The Federal Government yesterday rejected the United States’ (U.S.) designation of Nigeria as a country that perpetrates severe violations of religious freedom. It also accused the U.S. of attempting to sow the seed of mistrust among the various religious groups in Nigeria.
The U.S. government had last week included Nigeria on a watch list of countries it accused of stifling religious liberty.
But in a statement issued in Abuja, Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed said the iniquitous tag stemmed from an orchestrated narrative that has long been discredited, stressing that the people of Nigeria enjoy unfettered freedom to practise their religions.
He blamed failed politicians and disgruntled elements for latching on to religion as a trump card, especially in the run-up to the last general elections.
The minister said it was unfortunate that the U.S. 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 Buhari-led administration.”
He said: “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 U.S. 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 it is very convenient for those who will very easily give the dog a bad name just to hang it.
“On its part, the Boko Haram terrorists are extreme fanatics who do not subscribe to the tenets of any religion, in spite of their pretence to Islamic adherence.”
He added: “On the El-Zakzaky issue, which was referred to in the report by the U.S. government, it is purely a criminal matter, which is being handled by a court of competent jurisdiction.”
Also, the presidency said the decision by the U.S. government to place Nigeria on its watch list does not make Nigeria a country of concern on religious freedom.
Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity Garba Shehu told the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that Nigeria and the U.S. would deliberate on the matter early next year.
According to him, “The watch list carries no immediate implication, except for the need for both countries to discuss areas of concern over the next year. We are looking forward to such discussions with our partners, the U.S.’’
He maintained that Nigeria has “no policy that promotes one religion against the other. The right to freedom is guaranteed by the constitution and we have no problem observing that.’’
But rights group, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) lauded the U.S. report, saying the indictment could not have come at a better time.
It accused the Nigerian government of willfully refusing to arrest, prosecute and punish Fulani herdsmen allegedly responsible for the serial mass killings of farmers, Christian worshippers, and villagers.
“To say that religious sectarian violence increased in 2018, with Muslims and Christians attacked based on their religious and ethnic identity as indicated in the American report is to state the obvious,” the group said in a statement by its national coordinator, Emmanuel Onwubiko, in Abuja yesterday.
It noted: “The Nigerian Federal Government failed to implement effective strategies to prevent or stop such violence or to hold perpetrators accountable as disclosed in the United States’ report. These are factually accurate and can’t be contradicted by anybody. We plead with the U.S. government to impose sanctions on the Federal Government headed by the former military leader, Muhammadu Buhari.”
Another rights group, Centre for Social Justice, Equity and Transparency (CESJET) however took a different stance in an open letter to President Donald Trump.
It insisted that Nigeria encourages peaceful co-existence among all religious groups, and asked how the U.S. reached its conclusion. It further urged the U.S. to retract its statement and issue an apology to the Nigerian government.