Nigeria goes to the polls on February 25 to elect a new president, amid warnings that the country could be heading for break up and disintegration that would lead to humanitarian crisis.
Rising violence and insecurity are the number one challenge facing the new president of Africa’s most populous nation.
Violence against Nigeria’s Christian community in the north and central regions has grown to such a pitch that insecurity is now the number one challenge facing the country, warn partners of Release International, which supports persecuted Christians around the world.
They fear that unless the country’s new president takes decisive action to prevent the escalating violence, many Nigerians could be forced to flee, prompting a wave of refugees that would impact not only the region but the world.
The Anglican Archbishop of Jos, the Most Reverend Benjamin Kwashi, a partner of Release International warns: ‘Christians are going to leave this country. They’re going to leave in droves. Christians are going to run to anywhere in the world, but Nigeria. They will not wait for the persecution that will happen.’
Successive reports state more Christians are killed each year for their faith in Nigeria than in the rest of the world put together. And the violence, instigated by Islamist terror groups, Fulani militants and kidnap gangs is growing.
Says Archbishop Kwashi: ‘I’ve done far more funerals in the last 20 years than naming ceremonies or weddings put together. I’m a grieving pastor. So, this is my message to whoever is going to lead this country after the coming election. The first and foremost priority, before God and humanity, is to try and secure the lives of poor people being killed by terrorists.
‘The test of any leadership is how it cares for and supports its poor. Any leadership that cannot care for the poor, is not worthy of that position, not by God, nor by man.’
While terror groups are fighting to establish a caliphate in the North, there is a growing movement for secession in the South, where ethnic groups consider themselves disenfranchised and underrepresented in government.
Hassan John is a partner of Release International and Director of Research for the Church of Nigeria. He warns: ‘The break-up of Nigeria is just a matter of time. The northern political elite are already geared towards an Islamic state. And the mission of terror groups such as Boko Haram, Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Fulani militants is a continuation of an ancient jihad to decimate Christianity.
‘The predominantly Christian regions in central Nigeria resisted the radical Islamic Jihad in the 18th century. But history is now repeating itself – except the weapons are modern. And these groups are recruiting youths online to fight for Islam.
‘Thousands of Christians have been killed. Men women and children are being massacred in their beds at night. I don’t know anywhere in the world where this number of people are being killed, but for the world it is just business as usual. And people are not being held to account.
‘The number one priority for this new government must be the issue of insecurity.
‘They must recognise the ideology that’s driving these killings, that have been sustained for more than ten years. I don’t see how the nation of Nigeria cannot break apart eventually, if this insecurity continues to be ignored.’
Nigeria is a relatively new democracy, returning to civilian rule in 1999. More than 93 million Nigerians have registered to vote in the general election on February 25 to determine who will run Africa’s most populous nation. The election has been described as pivotal to the nation – and the fortunes of the region.
Nigerians will choose a successor to 80-year-old President Muhammadu Buhari, an ethnic Fulani who has been criticised for turning a blind eye to the rising violence by Fulani militants. Polling will also take place for the country’s National Assembly.
The elections are set against the sharp escalation of violence, as well as rising poverty and unemployment. More than a third of Nigerians are out of work.
Nigeria is considered the cornerstone of West Africa. Commentators have warned that if Nigeria collapses, it could bring down every regional neighbour along with it and precipitate a refugee crisis that will impact Europe and North America.
Says Paul Robinson, the CEO of Release International: ‘Nigeria has become a key country of concern for Release International. Our partners have been telling the world for years that it cannot ignore the unfolding crisis and escalating violence in the nation.
‘And yet the world continually turns a blind eye to the religious dimension behind these attacks. We are seeing a 21st century jihad rolling out across not only Nigeria but the Sahel region of Africa, bringing bloodshed and instability. But still the international community is in denial.
‘Release international will be launching a campaign to focus the world’s attention on Nigeria. Meanwhile, we support our partners who are working to help victims of violence in a range of ways, including providing vital trauma counselling to those who have been attacked and forced to flee their homes.
‘We call on the church to pray and we call on Nigeria and the international community to wake up to the reality of this unfolding jihad – and to act.’
Release International is active in some 30 countries. It works through partners to prayerfully, pastorally, and practically support the families of Christian martyrs. It supports prisoners of faith and their families; Christians suffering oppression and violence, and those forced to flee.