Analysis: An Assessment Of Claims On ‘Christian Genocide’ In Nigeria

A Non-Governmental Organisation in Nigeria, the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (Intersociety), has regularly released figures since 2018, which it says are evidence of an ongoing genocide against Christians by jihadists and jihadist herdsmen in the country. But an analysis of statistics from reliable sources shows that these claims are inaccurate.

Over 1,200 Christians killed in 2020?

In July, the Family Research Council, a “fundamentalist Protestant” activist group based in the United States, published a report titled, “The Crisis of Christian Persecution in Nigeria”,  authored by Lela Gilbert, Senior Fellow for International Religious Freedom at the council.

“A July 15, 2020 headline reports that 1,202 Nigerian Christians were killed in the first six months of 2020,” Gilbert wrote. 

“This is in addition to 11,000 Christians who have been killed since June 2015. Such violence has reached a point at which expert observers and analysts are warning of a progressive genocide—a “slow-motion war” specifically targeting Christians across Africa’s largest and most economically powerful nation.”

She added that reports about the assaults rarely made it to mainstream media outlets and  instead “generally found in publications sponsored by Christian organisations in their newsletters and websites”.

The report was shared on August 4 by a Twitter account that appears to belong to Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). The tweet has since been retweeted nearly 6,000 times and liked by over 4,100 users.

Gilbert has made two claims here; that over 1,200 Christians were killed between January and June this year due to extremism and political violence, and 11,000 were killed between 2015 and 2019.

Verifying Gilbert’s claims

The source of Gilbert’s first claim is a July report by The Christian Post (CP), an interdenominational news website based in the U.S., which in turn referenced a report released in July by the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law, an advocacy group based in Anambra State, Southwest Nigeria. The report was written by Emeka Umeagbalasi, a graduate of Criminology and Security Studies from the National Open University of Nigeria and described by CP as a Christian criminologist.

Umeagbalasi said “no fewer than 1,202 defenceless Christians” were hacked to death in the first six months of 2020: including 812 by “Jihadist Fulani herdsmen” and 390 killed by Boko Haram, the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP), and other groups.

“Between 1st Jan and 14th May 2020 when we did our last update, not less than 200 Christians were hacked to death by Boko Haram/ISWAP; and out of over 260 killed by the same Jihadist sect from 15th May to 30th June 2020, not less than 100 were strongly believed to be Christians,” he said.

He added that “while 100% of victims of Jihadist Herdsmen killings are Christians, it is symmetrically 60%/40% or 50%/50% for Christians and Muslims killed in recent times by Jihadist Boko Haram/ISWAP”.

“This is unlike in 2009 to 2017 when it was 80% Christian victims and 20% Muslim victims. In other words, Jihadist Herdsmen target and kill Christians only or burn or destroy their properties including dwelling houses, farmlands and worship and learning centres,” he said.

He further claimed that all the areas attacked by “jihadist herdsmen” are Christian communities and there was no evidence showing that Muslims or their properties had been victims. “Ansaru Jihadists, on their part, strictly kill Christians including abducted foreigners while asymmetric Muslim deaths in their hands are seen as accidental occurring under exceptional situations,” he said.

The group, Intersociety, said from July 2009 to 2020, 32,000 Christian lives had been lost: 15,000 deaths caused by herdsmen and 16,800 by Boko Haram and ISWAP.

While the report did not provide references for its statistics, it occasionally cited a few news websites and said it obtained certain figures from groups such as the Southern Kaduna People’s Union, Adara Development Association, Tiv Youth Forum, Tiv Cultural and Social Association, “as well as other dependable sources”.

“Attached below is a separate file containing ‘Statistical Sources’ of this research report,” Umeagbalasi wrote at the end of the report. But HumAngle could not find this document. A search through the group’s website yielded no result or additional information about the claims.

Comparing with other sources

Incidents of politically motivated violence in Nigeria, including acts of terrorism and banditry, are prominently catalogued by the Nigeria Security Tracker (NST), a project of the Council of Foreign Relations, and the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED). 

NST is a project of the Council of Foreign Relations that collects data from multiple sources, especially press reports. ACLED, on the other hand, is an independent, non-profit based in the United States and acclaimed as the “most widely used real-time data and analysis source on political violence and protest around the world”. It sources data from state authorities, news reports, humanitarian organisations, and research publications.

Both data sets are detailed and provide sources for each entry, but generally do not indicate the religion of the aggressors and victims. There is, therefore, no evidence to corroborate the claim that a certain percentage of the casualties are either Muslim or Christian.

The International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law said that at least 1,202 Christians were killed between January and June 2020 by jihadists and Fulani herdsmen. The group also said between July 2009 and June 2020, 32,000 Christians lost their lives to the activities of these groups. But the figures are inconsistent with data from reliable sources.

According to ACLED, which has gathered data dating back to 1997, between July 2009 and July 2020, 61,782 lives have been lost in total to various forms of violence, including attacks, armed clashes, battles, explosions, riots, and so on across the country. 

Of this number, the civilian casualties number 33,058. And out of this figure, only 21,282 deaths were recorded to have been caused by jihadists, including the Boko Haram group, ISWAP, and Ansaru, as well as other groups described as Fulani ethnic militia (including herdsmen), Hausa ethnic militia, Muslim militia, Islamist militia, and other similar terms.

Using this disaggregation, between January and June 2020, only 661 civilian deaths were recorded by ACLED to have been caused by these groups. This, in other words, means the total number of deaths caused by jihadists and herdsmen in the periods are significantly below the number of Christian deaths as claimed by the Anambra-based advocacy group.

Verifying with data from the Security Tracker

A similar trend is established by the security tracker, which covered events from May 2011 till date. It states that there have been a total of 72,092 deaths recorded in the period. As of June 2020, however, there were 25,360 civilian deathsㅡincluding from violent incidents that occurred outside Northern Nigeria. 

The NST also provides data on the locations of attacks, ranging from government offices to schools, banks, mosques, and churches. The data shows that between 2011 and 2020, there have been 168 attacks of churches in the country and 118 attacks of mosques. However, while the number of casualties recorded in attacks against churches is 2,009, that of mosques is slightly more at 2,242.

The figures don’t add up

When we reached out to Umeagbalasi for the “statistical sources” of the group’s claims, he emailed a 24-page document (available here) titled Intersociety’s Statistical Data File Backing Our Reports On Massacre Of Christians In Nigeria and last updated on August 5. 

It lists at least 107 violent attacks that took place between June 14 2019 and July 31 2020, citing sources that range from the Church of the Brethren (EYN) to the National Security Tracker, eyewitness accounts, one academic paper, and the Adara Development Association. 

It also cited news websites such as Vanguard, The Sun, Ecocity News, Channels Television, This Day, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Global Sentinel, Daily Post, Christian Persecution, International, among others. Six of the items were, however, not attributed to any source.

A study of the document revealed that it is not structured to prevent the repetition of death tolls; also the religion of victims of attacks are not always confirmed, as some reports contradict official statements about violent incidents, and others are not in reference to particular attacks but a set of past events.

HumAngle’s breakdown (available here) further shows that, if all the casualties were summed up based on the report, there would have been 1,036 fatalities and 130 victims of abduction between June 2019 and July 2020.

If the period is limited to the first six months of 2020, the people killed by terrorists and herdsmen numbered 786 while those abducted were 33. This falls short of what was claimed in its report where it said at least “1,202 defenceless Christians” were killed between January and June. 

‘Our reports are forensic’ ㅡ Intersociety

In an interview with HumAngle on Thursday, however, Intersociety insisted it did not exaggerate its reports.  

“That is why we have been doing it monthly or bimonthly, and we have our people on the ground, especially from the troubled areas. Our reports have been forensic,” the group’s Board Chairman, Umeagbalasi, said.

He explained that the group’s  investigations sometimes contradicted claims from the police about the nature of violent attacks and number of people killed. It concluded that certain attacks were targeted at Christians by non-Christians and that it  raised questions the police were unable to answer and using circumstantial evidence.

“Our organisation is a widely quoted organisation anywhere in the world with respect to the killing of Christians in Nigeria. As the head of the organisation who has been in the field of activism for over 25 years, I am also a trained criminologist and graduate of security studies. It gives me an edge on how to investigate,” Umeagbalasi said.

“We don’t just say things; we follow things systematically…  You know what it means for an organisation to earn international credibility. You must have been monitored over time and all that,” he said.

He added that Intersociety was the only organisation in the country with a “very wide and extensive network with respect to those killings”, and no government agency has challenged its work.  

Misquoting the GTI

According to Umeagbalasi, in a separate piece published by Genocide Watch in April, the 2019 Global Terrorism Index (GTI) stated that “2,040 Christians were killed by radicalised Fulani militants in Nigeria in 2018 alone”. 

A look through the document, however, shows that no such quote is contained in it. The word “Christian” appears only once, on page 92, in the sentence: “Tensions between the Fulani, majority  of whom are Muslim, and farmers, of whom the majority in Nigeria for example are Christian, is largely driven by economic causes and low levels of Positive Peace.”

The report noted population increases, resource scarcity, and desertification as the causes of the conflict between the two groups, not religious differences, which had existed long before the interactions became strained.

Also, the Global Terrorism Index report did not say 2,040 Christians were killed in 2018 by Fulani militants as claimed but gave this figure as the total number of deaths as a result of terrorism that year. This included killings caused by Fulani extremists, Boko Haram fighters, as well as other armed groups. Also, data captured by the GTI report did not specifically address non-Christian killings. 

Asked about this discrepancy, Umeagbalasi simply said his organisation “has taken ownership” of the statistics.

Are herdsmen killing only Christians?

According to Umeagbalasi, everyone killed and abducted by Fulani herdsmen were Christians. “100 percent of their victims are Christians, Christian learning centres, and Christian worship centres,” he told HumAngle, emphasising a much-repeated claim in his reports.

“They took a stance that no (killing of) Muslims, it is Christians entirely. Those we have come across as victims of Fulani herdsmen killing were all Christians. No single Muslim.”

Dr Kabir Adamu, a security consultant and Managing Director of Beacon Consulting, however, said this was not true as far as figures available to him showed.

“The targeting is not done based on an ideological, ethnic, or even social behaviours… The victims are targeted because of where they reside and as a result of whatever anger is driving the attackers, but not because of their religious affiliation,” he said.

He explained that in a place like Zamfara, most of the victims (99 percent) were  (Hausa and, sometimes, Fulani) Muslimsㅡ”for the simple reason that majority of the residents in the two states a Muslim and it makes sense that the victims would be Muslims”.

“However, if you move farther out into Kaduna and Niger States, as an example, where there is a 50:50 variation in the population of Muslims and Christians, then you would say perhaps the victims too would cut across that proportion,” he added.

He  said he did not think any organisation had  gathered enough data to analyse victims of terrorism and banditry on the basis of faith.

“It would not be scientific to come to that kind of conclusion. To come to that kind of conclusion, it means you have identified, documented all the victims and, through your analysis, you are able to know their religion, and I doubt anyone has been able to do that,” Adamu concluded.

Speaking to Punch Newspaper last year, Hassan Dantawaye, who led a group of herdsmen-bandits in Zamfara before renouncing violence, had said they were pushed into crime due to an increasing trend of unaddressed cattle rustling which rendered many of them unemployed.

‘The conflict is not that straight-forward’

Christian news websites such as Catholic Culture, Christian Persecution, Christian Post, and so on often present violent events in Nigeria’s northern region as being driven by religious motives, but analysts say it is not that simple. 

John Campbell, a Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, observed that linking tragedies in Nigeria to a “perceived global trend of violence against Christians” mischaracterised the nature of the conflicts and overlooked important nuances.

“Christians are certainly murdered in Nigeria, and in some cases, they are murdered because they are Christian. But, despite Boko Haram’s murderous hostility to Christians, most of its victims have always been Muslim, not least because the insurgency takes place in a predominantly Muslim part of the country,” he said. 

“For what it is worth, data from the NST shows a decline in Boko Haram attacks on churches and an increase in attacks on mosques over time. Indeed, the smaller number of Christian deaths at the hands of Boko Haram likely reflects the fact that most of them have fled.”

He concluded that “violence may fall along ethnic and religious lines, but it is not necessarily driven by those distinctions”.

An influential Catholic bishop, Matthew Kukah, agreed in August that Christians are not the only targets of extremists in the country. “[T]hese killings are not to be narrowed down to Christians because they have been far worse in the predominantly Muslim north in such states as Katsina, Sokoto and Zamfara,” he explained.

Bulama Bukarti, an analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, has also confirmed that Muslims living in the north were unmistakably more at the receiving end of Boko Haram’s activities. “Make no mistake, Boko Haram has by far killed more Muslims than Christians and every Nigerian in the northeast requires protection,” he said in April, adding that in areas where ISWAP is more active, Christians were “at higher risk and deserve more security”. 

Based on publicly available evidence and expert analyses, therefore, some of the sweeping claims made by the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law are inaccurate. While it is clear that Nigerians of various backgrounds have been victimised to varying degrees by raging insecurity, it will be impossible using existing records to say precisely how many members of each group have paid the supreme price.

The researcher produced this fact-check per the Dubawa 2020 Fellowship partnership with HumAngle to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country.

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'Kunle Adebajo

Head of Investigations at HumAngle. ‘Kunle covers conflict alongside its many intricacies and fallouts. He also writes about disinformation, the environment, and human rights. He's won a couple of journalism awards, including the 2021 Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Journalism, the 2022 African Fact-checking Award, and the 2023 Michael Elliott Award for Excellence in African Storytelling.

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