This piece is co-authored by Leonard Leo
With the unfortunate – and yet much anticipated – death of Nigerian President Umaru Yar’ Adua, it is unclear how the people of Nigeria will come together under Goodluck Jonathan’s leadership and prepare for the 2011 elections. Following the end of military rule in 1999, an unwritten agreement has stipulated that the presidency rotate between the north and the south, ensuring equal representation of both regions and religious communities. Moreover, it ensured a peaceful transition for President Yar’ Adua when he came to power in 2007. Yet, President Yar’ Adua’s failing health left the country in a state of uncertainty throughout his presidency, which enabled other levels of government to function with limited accountability.
The latter point is of particular concern. While most cases of religious persecution involve clear violations by a state actor, there is another, and sometimes more sinister, threat to freedom of religion when governments fail to punish religiously motivated violence perpetrated by private citizens. This breakdown in justice— known as "impunity"— sows the seeds of terrorism.
The Nigerian government’s failure to respond or act swiftly in addressing rising violence in the north contributed to a climate of impunity that has exacerbated regional and ethnic differences. Coupled with the feeling of many in the north that they were never fully represented during their rotation for the presidency, President Jonathan must now face the greatest test to Nigerian democracy since the end of military rule – whether it can survive outside the rotation system of power and, whether north and south, Christian and Muslim, will be willing to address the breakdown in justice in the north.
The issue came to a head recently when Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan used the nuclear security summit in Washington to publicly deny that his country is facing a horrific wave of religiously motivated violence. He was responding to Christian-Muslim riots that took place in northern Nigeria in March, resulting in at least 500 deaths. According to President Jonathan, these incidents were the product of ethnic, tribal, or economic tensions.
But whitewashing the reality of religious persecution simply makes matters worse. Since 1999, there have been a dozen Muslim-Christian clashes in northern Nigeria resulting in over 13,000 dead, but not a single perpetrator has been brought to justice. Ethnic power struggles and economic disparities can fuel hate, but struggles for money, land, and power often cut along religious lines, and religious hatred is a convenient proxy for broader discontent that leads to violence.
Evidence of increasingly shrill tones and rising intolerance is continuing to bubble to the surface. One needs to look no further than July 2009, when the radical movement, "Boko Haram," instigated widespread rioting in northern Nigeria's Bauchi State, leaving as many as 900 dead and many more displaced Christians and Muslims, all under the banner of repelling "Western education" in Nigeria.
It is no accident that this sectarian violence has largely occurred in the predominantly Muslim part of northern Nigeria. Though Nigeria’s constitution declares that there is no state religion, twelve state governments have instituted Islamic Sharia law. Christians in the north have told us on visits to the country that they are treated like second class citizens.
Climates of impunity fester in other key strategic countries, affecting Coptic Christians in Egypt, Bahai's in Iran, Ahmadi Muslims in Indonesia, Catholics and Yazidis in Iraq, Hindus and Christians in Pakistan, Jews in Russia and Venezuela, and Muslims and Christians in India, to name just a few examples. In each case, the failure to crack down on religiously-motivated violence presents the threat of emboldening extremists and thereby fostering terrorism, both domestically and internationally. Where law enforcement and courts are not up to the challenge, individuals who kill people because of faith and destroy their places of worship will continue to stoke violence with impunity.
And the effects of Nigeria's struggle with extremism do not end at the Nigerian border. Last year's Christmas Day Bomber captured international attention when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a native of Nigeria, attempted to destroy a Northwest Airline flight on its approach to Detroit. No doubt every facet of his life inside and outside Nigeria will be meticulously scrutinized during his prosecution here.
It is difficult to know whether al-Qaeda or other affiliated groups are on the ground in Nigeria. The Nigerian government says they are not, though by the United States naming them as a "country of interest"— which requires that their citizens undergo additional screening at U.S. Airports— real questions have been raised.
As Nigeria faces new and continuous challenges, the bilateral agreement signed last month between the United States and Nigerian governments comes at a critical time. Indeed, our two nations enjoy very religiously active and diverse societies, which are also committed to democracy and human rights for all people. This new relationship should serve as an opportunity to work with the government of Nigeria as they address some of the conditions that present threats of terrorism to both of our democracies.
Leonard Leo is Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.