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Nigeria is ranked number six in the world on the 2024 World Watch List, a ranking of countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution, compiled by Open Doors, an NGO which supports Christians worldwide. According to their data, 82% of the 4,998 Christians killed for faith-related reasons globally in 2023 occurred in Nigeria. Fiona Bruce MP led a debate on religious persecution and the World Watch List 2024 in Westminster Hall on 25 January 2024. Jim Shannon MP requested this debate [PDF] focus on Nigeria because of the “continuing catalogue of violence.”

Data on killings and persecution

Several organisations collate and compile information on persecution of Christians in Nigeria, some as part of wider analysis of Christian persecution globally.

The Observatory of Religious Freedom in Africa (ORFA), based in the Netherlands, collates data on killings and abductions of civilians. In July 2023 ORFA made a submission about Nigeria for its Universal Periodic Review during the 45th session of the Human Rights Council. This submission provides data and analysis for the period October 2019 to September 2022. 

In September 2023 the ORFA published a report comparing numbers from April to June 2023 (Q2 2023) with the same time period the previous year (Q2 2022). Their data shows a 2% decrease in killings during Q2 2023 compared to the previous year. There was a larger reduction in the number of abductions year on year, down by 41% in Q2 2023 compared to the same time period in 2023.

ORFA also notes that there was a “significant 54% decrease” in the number of attacks targeting communities (villages, neighbourhoods for example) with fatalities in Q2 2023 compared to Q2 2022. However, there was a 4% increase in other attacks (during worship, on the road or farms).

According to ORFA, between April and June 2023 there were:

  1. 1,637 recorded deaths of Christians
  2. 642 Christians abducted
  3. 119 attacks on communities with fatalities
  4. 511 other attacks

In its 2022 submission to the Human Rights Council, ORFA states “violence is escalating, spreading, and the actors are diversifying.” It also says that Christians are “disproportionately affected to the extent that we can suggest there may be deliberate targeting”.

Christmas 2023 attacks

Jim Shannon MP, who is leading the debate, cited the Christmas killings of Christians in Nigeria in his submission to the Backbench Business Committee.

On Christmas Eve, several villages in Plateau State were attacked with the reported deaths of at least 160 people. Those responsible are believed to be Fulani militants (see next section). Open Doors says it is estimated eight churches were burned down and 15,000 internally displaced as a result of the attacks.

Geographic spread

There are more than 100 million Christians in Nigeria, out of a population of 216 million, according to a detailed country profile of Nigeria [PDF] compiled by Open Doors. Although Nigeria is often thought to be divided into a predominantly Christian south and a predominantly Muslim north, Open Doors cautions many Christians live in the north, particularly the north-central region. Open Doors says persecution and discrimination are strongest in the three northern geo-political zones.

What is driving violent attacks?

Nigeria has multiple security challenges affecting security across the country. The long-running Boko Haram Islamist insurgency continues to destabilise the north-east and displaces thousands of people. Violence between herders and farming communities has spread from the central belt southwards, and there are other long-running disputes in the Niger Delta and the south-east.

Jim Shannon MP, who is leading the debate on Tuesday 6 February, wrote in a foreword to a report on Nigeria that a “significant driver of religious-based persecution in Nigeria is Islamist extremism.”

Open Doors says that violence by Islamist extremist groups such as Fulani militants, Boko Haram and ISWAP (Islamic State in West African Province) increased during the presidency of Muhammadu Buhari “putting Nigeria at the epicentre of targeted violence against the church.”

In central Nigeria, Open Doors identifies the Fulani Ethnic Militia, an armed group with ethnic ties to pastoralist Fulani people, as responsible for many attacks on predominantly Christian villages “abducting, raping and killing people, destroying buildings and harvests or occupying farmlands.”

In December 2023, the news agency Reuters said that violence in the central region is the “worst since 2018.” It notes that violence is often characterised as ethno-religious – chiefly Muslim Fulani herdsmen clashing with mainly Christian farmers. However, Reuters also cautions that conflict may be more about the availability of resources rather than ethnic or religious differences, with climate change among a range of factors creating competition for land, pushing farmers and herders into conflict:

Nomadic cattle herders are from northern Nigeria, which is getting drier and becoming more prone to drought and floods. That is forcing them to trek further south, where farmers are increasing production as the population rapidly expands.

In analysis published in 2022, the NGO Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) said attacks on the Christian community had risen since 2020 “amid a wider increase in violence targeting civilians around the country.”

Further analysis of the drivers of conflict is available in a report from the All Party Group for International Freedom of Religion and Belief, chaired by Jim Shannon MP and Fiona Bruce MP, entitled Nigeria: Unfolding genocide? Three years on [PDF]. Open Doors World Watch List 2023 report [PDF] provides an overview of the situation in Nigeria. More detailed analysis of the drivers of persecution is also available in World Watch List Nigeria country profile report [PDF] published in April 2023.

UK Government response

The British High Commissioner raised the Christmas Eve attacks in Plateau with the Nigerian National Security Advisor. Andrew Mitchell, the Minister for International Development and Africa, said the High Commissioner works closely “with the respective authorities to raise and address these issues through multiple forums.” The then Foreign Secretary discussed insecurity with President Tinubu and the National Security Advisor Nuhu Ribadu in August 2023. Supporting Nigeria to address conflict is a focus of the UK-Nigeria Security and Defence Partnership.

Fiona Bruce was appointed the UK Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion and Belief by the UK Government in 2020. Fiona Bruce has introduced a Private Members Bill to establish an Office of the Special Envoy. The Government indicated it will support this measure at Second Reading of the Bill on 26 January 2024.

The Foreign Affairs Committee examined UK relations with Nigeria in the context of the 2021 Integrated Review in a report published in April 2022. While religious persecution was not a focus of the report, the Committee heard concerns about the treatment of religious minorities by the Government.

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