Why is Nigeria No Longer a 'Country of Particular Concern'? | Opinion

The recent horrifying death of Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu, a Nigerian college student, focused international attention on Nigeria's Christians and their persistent abuse by radical Islamists. Thanks to social media, reports and videos of Deborah's vicious beating and burning in Sokoto were widely circulated for several days.

Although the story was eventually eclipsed by other news, few observers will quickly forget Deborah's horrifying killing—especially her family. In fact, according to one account, her father witnessed her ruthless murder.

After receiving an urgent phone call from his terrified daughter, Garba Emmanuel rushed to her school. Deborah had hurriedly explained that some Islamist students were outraged by a WhatsApp voice message she had posted the night before, defending her Christian faith. Garba arrived just in time to see a mob of hundreds of angry Muslim students yanking his daughter away from a terrified handful of defenders.

Deborah's father later described the horrifying scene he witnessed, while utterly powerless to intervene: "As they were struggling with the security men, one of the mob hit her on the head with a huge iron rod, and she fell to the ground. That was how they began to stone her, hit her with rods and sticks, and she died. She was killed in the presence of all the security agents. After they killed her, the mob was jubilant ... students and people from the villages were all shouting Allah Akbar, Allahu Akbar." Deborah's killers then burned her body to ashes.

Many questions arise: Did the police and State Security officers intervene? Did they attempt to stop the attack? Assorted local reports are contradictory and disturbing. And, of some 180 attackers, only two men have since been arrested.

The sultan of Sokoto, Muhammadu Sa'adu Abubakar III—an authoritative Nigerian Muslim leader—condemned the attack. "The Sultunate Council has learnt with dismay the unfortunate happenings at the Shehu Shagari College of Education (SSCOE) Sokoto that led to the loss of life of a female student of the institution," the statement read. "The Sultunate Council condemned the incident in totality and has urged the security agencies to bring the perpetrators of the unjustifiable incident to justice."

Even the sultan was rebuked for his comments. A mob gathered outside his house, chanting "Allahu Akbar," lighting fires and demanding the release of the two suspects. Police eventually used teargas to scatter the protestors.

For well over a decade, Nigerians have suffered countless incidents of violence against local Christians imposed by Boko-Haram, Fulani radicals and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). Their need for protection has been largely ignored by both state and federal government authorities, while international religious freedom activists have futilely appealed for an end to the terrorism.

A woman prays
A woman prays at the Holy Cross Cathedral in Lagos. PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images

In December 2020, then-Secretary of State of Mike Pompeo designated Nigeria a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), thus providing legal opportunities for specific measures against President Muhammadu Buhari and his government. Religious freedom advocates and some U.S. law makers applauded the designation with relief, gratitude and hope.

However, less than a year later, in November 2021, with no explanation whatsoever, the Biden administration abruptly removed Nigeria's CPC designation. The delisting amounted to a license for ongoing violence and an outrageous betrayal of Nigeria's increasingly brutalized Christian community. In the months since, its removal has opened the way for multiplied death squads, murder, mutilation, torched villages and churches and devastated surviving refugees.

In the wake of the State Department's decision, Open Doors International, a watchdog group monitoring global Christian persecution, reported in March that "in Nigeria, a Christian is killed for their faith every two hours; that's nearly 13 Christians a day and 372 Christians a month. ... Research for the 2022 World Watch List reveals that in 2021, more Christians were murdered for their faith in Nigeria than in any other country. Last year, Nigeria accounted for nearly 80% of Christian deaths worldwide, with more than 4,650 believers killed."

The shocking killing of Deborah Emmanuel Yakubu once again raises questions about Secretary of State Antony Blinken's unexplained removal of Nigeria from the list of CPCs. Considering the widespread and wanton religious brutality in Nigeria, and President Buhari's refusal to address it, people are again demanding immediate action on the part of the U.S. State Department.

Reacting to Deborah's death, John Eibner, president of Christian Solidarity International, wrote to Blinken about America's removal of Nigeria from the CPC designation, stating that it "conveys a message to perpetrators and victims alike, that crimes driven and legitimized by religious ideology, in particular the various strands of Muslim supremacism, remain of no particular concern to the State Department."

Nigeria is Africa's most populous and financially significant nation. And the U.S. is its key trade and defense partner, with substantial influence over its leadership. In the wake of this latest tragedy and ongoing violence, re-designating Nigeria as a CPC should be an immediate U.S. policy objective. Until then, one troubling question will remain unanswered: Why is Nigeria no longer a Country of Particular Concern?

Lela Gilbert is senior fellow for religious freedom at Family Research Council and fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter @lelagilbert.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.