There you have it. Almost three years on from Leah Sharibu’s abduction by Boko Haram, we receive confirmation from Open Doors that more Christians are killed in Nigeria for their faith than in any country on the planet.
Leah is one of Nigeria’s ‘luckier’ victims, by virtue of the mere fact that she is still alive. Taken as a hostage by Boko Haram, Africa’s deadliest terrorist group which receives support from a re-charged Islamic State, she was just fourteen years old at the time. In May this year she will become an adult.
For girls her age around the world, this time in life means a discovery of self, a stable relationship or engagement perhaps, starting out in a vocation or maybe university, It could mean a part-time job with ample space to realise their interests, hobbies and deepen their friendships. Not so for the hundreds or thousands of innocent young women held captive across Nigeria by brutal terrorist gangs, with no signs of their whereabouts for their families to digest, and no sign of their lengthy ordeals coming to an end.
Three years is a long time in a young woman’s life. It is the time taken to complete an undergraduate degree, to get married and have her first two children, or to travel and develop extensive knowledge of the world. In Covid-19 terms, it is like serving 78 two-week quarantines, or nine four-month lockdowns, but in the hands of terrorists.
When Leah’s mother Rebecca visited London last February to plead for Boris Johnson’s help, I was honoured to meet her and learn about the bravery of her daughter. Despite all that may have happened to her, Rebecca, understandably sorrowful and emotional, nevertheless talked with calm resolve and a hope that her daughter would return. The same Christian faith her daughter had refused to give up, leading to her prolonged captivity, inspired Rebecca to keep fighting for her girl and all those held unjustly and sometimes killed in torturous conditions in the North East and Middle Belt of Nigeria.
Just as it happened in Syria and Iraq, foreign forces have been crucial to destabilising Nigeria and paving the conditions for a caliphate to emerge. Many of the Middle East’s Islamist groups found fertile ground for their warped projects in the vast and poorly defended wastelands of the Sahel, where they can operate in the shadows. Yet tragically, they have now begun to devastate rural and urban settlements, raiding schools, shooting and butchering Christians and Muslims alike who reject their ideology, murdering farmers and stealing their land, supported in this endeavour by militant indigenes – especially from the Fulani tribe. Twelve of Nigeria’s nineteen northern states are under full Sharia law, boosting their cause significantly and raising the imminent prospect of a regional caliphate of the kind that failed to survive in Syria.
Many academics and politicians have attributed this growing violence to causes other than Christian persecution. They have blamed climate change, desertification and poverty as reasons for the routine harassment and murder of innocent citizens. Yet we have to question the western ‘free world’, with it’s moral authority by asking, ‘how can we condone or excuse such violence, whatever its cause?’ How can some of the leaders of the ‘free world’ simply dismiss the ritual execution of farmers, pastors, and housewives just because those committing the crime are poor or looking for farmland? Does it not occur to our leaders that perhaps the very reason why the violence continues, is that we do not take it seriously?
To ignore the reality of attacked poor communities and of Christian persecution in Nigeria and around the world is profoundly unhelpful, because solutions to address the problems of climate change or poverty are useless in the face of religious radicalism. Additionally, countless cases of violence and destruction cannot be attributed to those causes. In cases such as this, political and military leaders are tempted to ignore the violence altogether, as it does not fall into an approved ‘category’ for understanding the scenes taking place. It is not so difficult to explain the cry, often heard in Nigeria’s terrorised northern villages, of ‘Allahu Akbar’.
Nigeria is now ninth on Open Doors’ World Watch List 2021, which measures Christian persecution around the globe. In recent years it has shot up, overtaking the infamous killing fields of Iraq (eleventh), Syria (twelfth), Saudi Arabia (fourteenth) and Egypt (sixteenth), where Christians are ritually slaughtered, and oppressive totalitarian regimes such as China (seventeenth), Turkey (twenty-fifth) and Qatar (twenty-ninth), where Christians are kept under strict surveillance, and even tortured by their own government.
There are key reasons why the UK Government must intervene in Nigeria’s failing state, to prevent a reworking of Syria which we saw earlier in the decade. It is Africa’s largest economy and has the potential to be the breadbasket of the future, offering vital raw materials and manpower to the continent and Europe. It is the highest-ranked Anglophone country on the list, and one of only two countries in the top twenty-five where Christians constitute roughly fifty percent of the country, and are not in an overall minority. If a caliphate can be established not only in the Middle East, but in West African nations with significant Christian populations, the implications for global security are severe. If a country like Nigeria with its western influences falls to the various shades of terrorists, we can expect an avalanche worse than Syria and Iraq to take place.
By extension, if a girl like Leah falls to the terrorists, we can expect an avalanche of hatred, injustice, and devastation to befall not only Nigeria but all those countries who turned a blind eye to it. If the UK fails to stand up for its values of religious freedom, peace and institutional justice on the world stage, no one will. As the head of PSJ UK, an NGO rallying the attempt to bring back our girl, I urge you to #SpeakUp on social media and in your circles, breaking the silent slaughter keeping thousands of vulnerable women and girls in chains.
The fight for Leah is a fight for our free and peaceful civilization, nothing less.
Ayo Adedoyin is Chief Executive of PSJ UK, a humanitarian organisation campaigning against the persecution of Christians and other vulnerable people & communities in Nigeria