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Condemning Nigeria

Religion | A new report accuses the Nigerian government of serious religious freedom violations

WASHINGTON-The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its annual report Friday advising the State Department of nations with "ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom," adding Nigeria to the notorious list titled "countries of particular concern," which also includes Iran and North Korea.

The report argued that the Nigerian government's response to sectarian strife has been "inadequate and ineffectual . . . resulting in thousands of deaths."

In November of last year several hundred Muslims and Christians died in clashes in the country following an election. About half of Nigerians are Muslim, and 40 percent are Christians.

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Similar clashes in February killed about a dozen. More have died in past years. Reports of the imposition of Islamic law, Sharia, on the local level, also posed a concern to the commission. Two commissioners visited Nigeria in March and April to assess the situation-the country had already been on the commission's "watch" list, a level down from being one of its countries of particular concern (CPC).

"We have listed Nigeria for seven years in the report; there's nothing new about our interest," said Felice Gaer, who chairs the commission.

The new pronouncement on Nigeria by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) elicited objections from two of its nine commissioners. One, Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a President Bush appointee (see interview from the May 9, 2009, WORLD), argued that hanging the blame for religious strife in Nigeria on the government is a bit overzealous, since the government is dealing with poverty, high unemployment, ethnic hostilities, and religious tensions.

"Under these difficult circumstances, it's doing the best it can," said Cromartie. The other objecting commissioner did not publish his name.

But the commission's report argued, "Nigeria could, if it wished, muster the resources and capacity necessary to address communal, sectarian, and religious violence and intolerance. It is among the most economically prosperous countries in all of Africa."

While the country is rich in oil, the majority of its citizens live in poverty. The wealth from oil only benefits a small percentage of the population.

"It has the economic capacity if it so chooses to address these instances," said Leonard Leo, one of the commissioners that traveled to Nigeria. "This is a country that in our view has the capacity to do better."

Leo believes that the government, working with aid from the United States and the European Union, can make necessary reforms.

USCIRF made another controversial condemnation in December, adding Iraq to its CPC list. Four commissioners objected to that decision, on grounds that insurgents were fomenting religious strife, not the government (see "Condemning an ally?"). The State Department did not follow USCIRF's recommendation to add Iraq to its list of CPCs, an unsurprising decision since the agency has so many resources invested in the success of the current government of Iraq.

This summer the commission plans to travel to India, another country under scrutiny, and intends deliver a separate report that country's status this summer.

The State Department hasn't followed many of the commission's recommendations-the commission's CPC list has 13 countries, the agency's has eight.

"No State Department wants to add countries to a violators list," explained Gaer, adding that the labels can interfere with private diplomacy. "It shakes up the diplomatic establishment."

CPCs often face economic sanctions, like cutbacks in American aid. Eight countries are currently on that list, published in January: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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