Why are Christians Persecuted in Nigeria and the West African Sahel?

In June 2022 the world’s attention was briefly focused on Nigeria, as gunmen – alleged to belong to Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) – attacked a church in Ondo State, killing dozens of Christians. The official death toll stands at 40, though by some estimates the true number of fatalities could be higher than 50.

The massacre led to an international outcry, with the United Nations condemning “in the strongest terms the heinous attack”.

Yet while this attack was certainly horrifying, and unusual in an area as far south as Ondo, it was no isolated incident. In Nigeria’s Middle Belt violence against Christians is sadly common. In the same month as the Ondo atrocity, at least 35 Christians were killed in several attacks across Kaduna State, while 37 were massacred in a single Sunday morning attack in Benue State. 

“In our country,” lamented a Kaduna church leader, “death has become a daily meal.” Grim predictions less than two years ago of “a Christian genocide” are proving distressingly prescient.  

Islamist extremists operate across borders in this increasingly fractious region. Christians have also faced violent repression from jihadists in the Western Sahel1 nations of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. West Africa is a key battleground in the stated aim of Islamic State (IS – also known as ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) of Islamising the entire African continent. 

Bishop Dr Samuel Ajayi Crowther

The growth of Christianity 

Christianity has been present in North Africa (concentrated in Egypt) and north-eastern Africa (centred on the Kingdom of Ethiopia) since the earliest centuries of the Christian era. Many early church leaders were African, including the great theologians Athanasius (from Alexandria in Egypt) and Augustine (of Hippo Regius in modern-day Algeria).  

It was not, however, until the fifteenth century that Christianity began to establish a major presence in West Africa after missionaries from Europe arrived in 1420.  

A key figure was Samuel Crowther, also known by his given name of Ajayi, who was born in what is now Oyo State, Nigeria, in around 1809. A Christian convert, he was called to serve on a mission with the British Church Missionary Society in what is now the Nigerian Middle Belt in 1841. He was subsequently ordained and began a fresh mission in what is now south-western Nigeria in 1843. Crowther translated the Bible and Book of Common Prayer into his mother tongue of Yoruba. In 1864 he was consecrated as Bishop of West Africa. 

Missionary activity eventually yielded much fruit in southern Nigeria, with many converts among those who had previously followed various traditional spiritual practices (now referred to as African traditional religions). 

In the mid-twentieth century, anti-colonial nationalists in Africa came to view evangelism and missionary activities conducted by Europeans as a form of colonial subjugation. Such accusations were not necessarily fair. The British colonial administration in Nigeria, for example, was often not supportive of missionary activities; missionaries were prevented from evangelising the North. 

European missionaries sought to guide the Nigerian Church in becoming self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating. By the time Nigeria gained independence in 1960 the Church was unmistakably Nigerian, and southern Nigeria almost completely Christian. 

Nevertheless, Islamist extremists, campaigners for the preservation of African traditional religions and anti-colonialists all argue that Christianity is a Western import, a hangover from the days of imperialism and subjugation. Christians can therefore find themselves the objects of distrust and suspicion for their supposed links to the West. 


Islam in West Africa 

Throughout the period of Christian missionary work and until today, northern Nigeria has remained steadfastly Islamic. The same is true of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, all of which were part of the French Empire from the late-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. An estimated 30% of the population of Burkina Faso is Christian, and only 2% of the population of Mali; in Niger and northern Nigeria the figure may be less than 1%. 

Islam has had a presence in the region since the eighth century, linked to trade between the Muslim-majority Maghreb (Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya) and sub-Saharan West Africa. In the early thirteenth century, the Mali Empire (including modern-day Senegal, Guinea, and parts of Mauritania as well as Mali) recognised Islam as its state religion. Muslim practices were often combined with traditional African ones. 

The nineteenth century marked a shift away from this syncretistic combination. This move was exemplified by the jihad fought by Usman dan Fodio, an Islamic scholar from the Muslim-majority Fulani ethnic group, lasting from 1804 to 1808. Dan Fodio overthrew the tribal rulers of the Hausa ethnic group and replaced them with Fulani emirs who ruled over an Islamic state, the Sokoto Caliphate. This caliphate covered most of modern-day northern Nigeria, as well as large sections of what is now Niger and Cameroon.  

Lord Lugard, appointed High Commissioner of British Northern Nigeria in 1900, opted to rule through the existing Islamic structures of governance – the Sokoto emirs – as a means of avoiding conflict, even while southern Nigeria remained under direct British rule. The Islamic character of northern Nigeria was thereby preserved. 

A young believer in Mali receives a French-language children’s Bible funded by Barnabas Aid. Mali – along with Burkina Faso, Niger and northern Nigeria – has retained an Islamic culture for many centuries  

Tension and persecution 

This Islamic character is the main source of anti-Christian persecution in Nigeria. Many violent attacks on Christians take place in the Middle Belt, where Christians and Muslims are roughly equal in number. These tensions can be traced back to the British plan to grant Nigeria independence as a single entity, realising Lugard’s vision of a “forced union of marriage” between North and South.   

The Muslim North was at first opposed to Nigerian independence, fearing the establishment of a Christian nation. In turn northern Christians were concerned about attempts by Muslim leaders to assert the Islamic character of the North in response. These concerns seemed to be realised when Ahmadu Bello, Premier of Northern Nigeria (1954-66), styled himself Apostle of Islam and declared his aim to be the conversion of non-Muslims.  

Muslim fears of Christian dominance were not realised – politics came to be dominated by northern Islam, illustrated by Nigeria taking up full membership of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (then known as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference) in 1986. Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are also members. 

In 1999 the governor of Zamfara State, Ahmad Sani Yerima, announced the implementation of sharia (Islamic law). By the end of 2000, 11 other states in the North had also adopted sharia. In some states sharia punishments include flogging or amputation – or even the death penalty, for example in cases of blasphemy. In theory sharia is only supposed to apply to the Muslim population, but the Christian minority often feel compelled to comply.  

These issues remain divisive in Nigerian politics. Presidential candidates are expected to choose a vice-presidential running mate from the other religious community; however, All Progressive Congress candidate for the 2023 presidential election Bola Tinubu, a Muslim, announced earlier this year Kashim Shettima, another Muslim, as his running mate. The so-called Muslim-Muslim ticket has sent a shockwave through Nigerian politics, and was denounced by the Christian Association of Nigeria as “a declaration of war”. 


Islamist extremism 

In May 2022 a Christian student in Sokoto State, Deborah Samuel, was stoned to death by a mob of Muslim extremists after being accused of making “derogatory comments” about Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, in a WhatsApp message. The attackers then set her body on fire. When two arrests were made in connection with the murder, Muslims rioted, attacking church buildings. 

Community violence against Christians in northern and Middle Belt states is a result of Islam’s cultural sway. In these regions schools and universities are dominated by Islam, employment opportunities for non-Muslims are limited, and hate preachers on street corners and in market places denounce Christians as infidels who threaten Islam. Christian girls are abducted and forced to convert to Islam. The authorities do little. 

“There are no rights for Christians in the North,” says a Barnabas contact in Nigeria. Some Christians adopt Muslim names in order to try to survive in an Islamic society. Others feel they have no choice but to leave.  


Jihadi terrorism 

Islamism has deep roots in West Africa. In the 1970s the Muslim World League – funded by Saudi Arabia – poured money into northern Nigeria, distributing Islamist literature, setting up Islamic schools and offering scholarships for religious universities in Saudi Arabia itself. This campaign led in 1978 to the founding of the Izala Society (the Society of Removal of Innovation and Re-establishment of the Sunnah).

The Izala movement was committed to Wahhabism – a Saudi ideology that seeks a “purer” form of Islam. It remains virtually impossible to achieve rank or office in northern Nigeria without links to Izala. A key figure in the rise of Izala was Abubakar Mahmud Gumi, who argued (in line with sharia) that Muslims should never accept the rule of a non-Muslim – an argument that helped to persuade the northern states to adopt sharia after a Christian, Olusegun Obasanjo, became president in 1999. 

Another key figure in Izala was Ahmed Idris Nasreddin, a highly successful Eritrean-born businessman based in Jos, Plateau State, who with the help of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood channelled funds from Nigeria to various Islamist causes, including to Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda before and after 9/11.  























Aid funded by Barnabas is distributed to the victims of Islamist violence in Nigeria’s Plateau State  

The Izala movement provided the ideological and financial basis for the rise of Boko Haram,3 the Islamist militant group that originated in Maiduguri, north-east Nigeria. Boko Haram gained international attention after the abduction of more than 270 schoolgirls from Chibok, Borno State, in 2014.  

Boko Haram pledged allegiance to IS in 2015, but split the following year with one section forming ISWAP and a separate Boko Haram movement remaining independent of IS. After the death of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in June 2021, however, reports indicated that some Boko Haram fighters were giving their loyalty (bay’a) to IS.

Terrorist groups are also active in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Jama’a Nusrat al Islam wa al Muslimeen4 (JNIM) and Islamic State of the Greater Sahara (ISGS). All three have roots in the Algerian Salafist Group for Call and Combat, and have benefited from the illegal traffic of weapons and explosives looted from Libya since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. 

Borders between countries in this region are porous, and little respected by the jihadists. Boko Haram, for example, has issued threats and launched violent attacks against Christians in Niger, Cameroon and Chad from its stronghold in north-eastern Nigeria. 

Islamist groups hold a great deal of authority in the western Sahel owing to the weakness of national governments. AQIM, for example, has in the recent past controlled areas of northern Mali, including in 2012-13 the city of Timbuktu. Mali is at increased risk of Islamist insurgency since the withdrawal of French soldiers in August 2022. 


Fulani extremism 

Many raids and violent attacks against Christians in the Nigerian Middle Belt are conducted by Fulani extremists. The Fulani are a Muslim-majority tribal group, the majority of whom live in West Africa – there are an estimated 13 million Fulani in Nigeria, plus another four million across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The Sokoto Caliphate was ruled by the Fulani. 

While not all Fulani Muslims are extremist, there are many Fulani Islamist gangs operating in northern and Middle Belt Nigeria. These are often herdsmen, who seek land for their cattle, and launch attacks against Christian farming communities in rural areas of states such as Kaduna and Plateau. The dynamics of this herder-farmer conflict have led to some observers – including political figures in Nigeria and in the West – to dismiss the situation as simply a dispute over land.   

This, however, fails to take into account that attacks are launched against Christian communities, seldom if ever Muslim ones. It overlooks that the extremists often strike church services and meetings – Christian villagers in the Kajuru Local Government Area of Kaduna State, for example, moved their Sunday service to 7am for safety reasons, only to find that gunmen began their armed assault a few minutes after 7am. The farmer-herder narrative also ignores the ideological and logistical links that Fulani extremists have with IS and Boko Haram, as well as Islamist movements further afield. 

In March 2022 a report – co-authored by Baroness Cox, a Barnabas Aid patron – concluded that “the growth of Islamist extremism across the Sahel” is behind the increase in Fulani extremism.  

A Christian in Burkina Faso gives thanks for Barnabas-funded aid that was distributed to 152 extra-vulnerable believers threatened by Islamist violence

An encouragement and an example 

In a recent edition of its official publication al-Naba, IS called for Muslims from around the world to migrate to African countries as part of a campaign to Islamise the continent. In a poster campaign IS boasted of killing 190 Christians and burning down 13 church buildings across the continent in June and July 2022, as part of what they termed their “Harvest of African Christians”. 

Violence against Christians in Nigeria has increased rapidly – since 2015 an estimated 10,000 believers have been killed by Islamists. Islamist violence is also increasing in the Sahel, with 2022 set to be the deadliest year on record in both Burkina Faso and Mali. The withdrawal of French troops from Mali and the Muslim-Muslim ticket in Nigeria threaten to further destabilise this vast region, creating a vacuum for Islamism to flourish and thrive.  

Christianity is by far the strongest in southern Nigeria, but here churches can fall under the influence of the so-called prosperity gospel, a message of material health and wealth that leaves believers ill-prepared for suffering and focused on seeking individual status and success. Furthermore, the prosperity gospel seems to confirm in the minds of critics the link between Christianity and the accumulative, individualistic West. 

Yet the churches of Nigeria and the western Sahel are filled with believers who have much to teach the West about remaining faithful through suffering, responding wisely to adverse circumstances, and praising God even in the midst of enemies. Furthermore, there are always accounts of churches growing and more people turning to the Lord. May the witness of our West African brothers and sisters continue to be an encouragement and an example.

1 The word Sahel is derived from the Arabic Sahil, meaning coast or shore. It refers to the southern border area of the Sahara desert, where North Africa meets sub-Saharan Africa 
2 The Sunnah are the words and actions of the Islamic prophet Muhammad  which are seen by Muslims as a way of life on which they should model their own lives
3 The phrase “Boko Haram” means literally “books are forbidden”, and is understood to mean “Western education is forbidden”. The group’s official name is Jama'atu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Da'awati wal-Jihad (Group of the Sunni People for the Calling and Jihad)
4 Support Group for Islam and Muslims

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