INFORMATION minister Alhaji Lai Mohammed has hit back the US for criticising the human rights record of the Buhari administration saying that Washington is sowing the seeds of mistrust among Nigeria’s various religious groups with its recent comments.
Last week, the US included Nigeria on a watch list of countries it accused of stifling religious liberty in response to the government’s handling of the case of the Shiite Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) leader Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky. Sheikh El-Zakzaky is being held in detention despite having won court rulings granting him bail and members of his IMN organisation have frequently clashed with security forces.
In addition, the government of President Muhammadu Buhari has been accused of failing to clamp down on Muslim Fulani cattle herdsmen who attack Christian farming communities across Nigeria’s Middle Belt. An ethnic Fulani who owns cattle himself, President Buhari has been accused of having sympathy for the herdsmen and of failing to react when they burn down churches or go on killing sprees.
Unhappy with the designation of Nigeria as a country stifles religious freedoms, Alhaji Mohammed said the iniquitous tag stemmed from an orchestrated narrative that has long been discredited, stressing that the people of Nigeria enjoy unfettered freedom to practise their religions. He blamed failed politicians and disgruntled elements for latching on to religion as a trump card, especially in the run-up to the last general elections.
According to the minister, it was unfortunate that the US fell for the antics of the discontented and the unpatriotic few, who will not hesitate to hang Nigeria out to dry on the altar of their inordinate ambition and their sheer animosity towards the Buhari administration. He added that the decision by the US government to place Nigeria on its watch list does not make Nigeria a country of concern on religious freedom.
Alhaji Mohammed said: “The deliberate effort to give religious coloration to the farmers-herders clashes and the Boko Haram insurgency, in particular, has undoubtedly helped to mislead the US into concluding that the government is doing little or nothing to guarantee religious freedom in the country. However, as we have always said, the farmers-herders clashes have nothing to do with religion but everything to do with environmental and socio-economic realities.
“The religious tag given to the clashes has no basis in fact but it is very convenient for those who will very easily give the dog a bad name just to hang it. On its part, the Boko Haram terrorists are extreme fanatics who do not subscribe to the tenets of any religion, in spite of their pretence to Islamic adherence.”
He added: “On the El-Zakzaky issue, which was referred to in the report by the US government, it is purely a criminal matter which is being handled by a court of competent jurisdiction.”
Presidential spokesman Mallam Garba Shehu said that Nigeria and the US would deliberate on the matter early next year. He maintained that Nigeria has no policy that promotes one religion against the other, as the right to freedom is guaranteed by the constitution and the government has no problem observing that.
However, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria lauded the US report, saying the indictment could not have come at a better time. It accused the Nigerian government of wilfully refusing to arrest, prosecute and punish Fulani herdsmen responsible for the serial mass killings of farmers, Christian worshippers and villagers.
Emmanuel Onwubiko, the group’s national coordinator, said: “To say that religious sectarian violence increased in 2018, with Muslims and Christians attacked based on their religious and ethnic identity as indicated in the American report is to state the obvious. The Nigerian federal government failed to implement effective strategies to prevent or stop such violence or to hold perpetrators accountable as disclosed in the United States’ report.
“These are factually accurate and can’t be contradicted by anybody. We plead with the US government to impose sanctions on the federal government headed by the former military leader, Muhammadu Buhari.”