Exclusive – Local Priest: Biden’s Ties to Nigeria Should Not Come ‘at the Expense of Christian Lives’

A child at a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in central Nigeria.
Courtesy of the Catholic Diocese of Makurdi Foundation for Justice, Development, & Peace

Strengthening the American relationship with Nigeria, a longtime ally increasingly close to communist China, “shouldn’t be at the expense of Christian lives,” a priest serving the heart of Christian Nigeria told Breitbart News in an interview last week.

Father Remigius Ihyula said that his native Benue state — from which he discussed his country in conversation with Breitbart News — has suffered tremendously from years of jihadist attacks by foreign members of the majority Muslim Fulani ethnic group, who enter the country through the porous borders with nations such as Niger and Chad and have made their way south to the Middle Belt. The Middle Belt geographically represents the region between the mostly Christian south and mostly Muslim north of the country and is home to some of Nigeria’s most fertile land.

Benue, Father Ihyula explained, is home to an overwhelmingly Christian majority made up of members of small indigenous tribes. Its villages have suffered “atrocities that have risen to the level of genocide,” he said, with little to no resistance from a government endeavoring to mask the genocide as a “climate change” conflict.

Father Remigius Ihyula of Benue state, Nigeria, consoles an internally displaced person (IDP) at an IDP camp in the country. (Courtesy Aid to the Church in Need)

The White House under President Joe Biden has been receptive to blaming “climate change” for the killings. In September, the Biden administration sent its climate envoy, John Kerry, to Abuja, promising then-President Muhammadu Buhari access to a $12 billion fund meant to address the alleged climate crisis.

Biden has also prioritized warming relations with Abuja, generally at the expense of condemning the Nigerian government for its role in the extermination campaigns against Christians in the country. In its first year in office, the Biden administration removed Nigeria from the State Department’s list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) for religious freedom list.

Shortly after the removal from the CPC list, Biden sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Nigeria to offer infrastructure and other funding as well as access to joint projects. Blinken made clear that growing Chinese investments in Nigeria were a concern to Washington.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, in Abuja, Nigeria on November 18, 2021. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain]

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken meets with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, in Abuja, Nigeria, on November 18, 2021. (State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain)

“We hope to drive a race to the top with global infrastructure projects to close the gap while creating local jobs, protecting workers and the environment, reducing corruption, and all of that without saddling countries with debts that can be unmanageable,” Blinken said during his time in Nigeria, later warning Abuja that China “treated [African states] as junior partners – or worse – rather than equal ones.”

The lack of support for persecuted Christians in Nigeria arose last week in a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on global religious freedom, prompted by meetings Father Ihyula and Bishop Wilfred Anagbe of the Diocese of Makurdi held with lawmakers through cooperation with Aid to the Church in Need, a pontifical charity organization.

“Time and time again, violators of religious freedom are given a pass in the State Department’s Country of Particular Concern designations, even when the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom makes recommendations with compelling evidence,” Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) said at the hearing.

“The destabilization of Nigeria by violent Islamist militants continues its downward spiral,” Dr. Eric Patterson, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, told the congressmen. “In Nigeria’s Middle Belt, sectarian violence has resulted in abductions, forced conversions, and thousands of deaths, the majority of which are ethno-religious attacks targeting Christian communities and churches.”

Yet last year, the State Department’s International Religious Freedom report described Nigeria as home to unspecified “insecurity” but claimed it was “difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely, or even principally, based on religious identity.” The report also claimed “both Christians and Muslims were perpetrators and victims,” contradicting on-the-ground reports from religious aid groups and witness testimony from locals such as Father Ihyula, who regularly works with the victims of Fulani jihadist violence as a relief coordinator under the archdiocese of the capital of Benue state, Makurdi.

“I am educated enough to know that America needs allies in the world — so by that, I mean that sometimes the relationship, the political relations, is determined necessarily by something,” Father Ihyula told Breitbart News, “but our appeal would be that it shouldn’t be at the expense of Christian lives and the blood of innocent people that America can be friends with Nigeria.”

“This is where the United States government needs to be aware. It’s not in my position to command the United States government, but as a local priest and a priest that takes care of people who are killed every day, it’s an appeal I’m making,” he continued, “it shouldn’t be at the expense of these innocent people.”

To those who considered that the state of religious freedom in Nigeria had improved, Father Ihyula asked, “Have the Chibok girls who were kidnapped, have they been returned to their parents? They have not.”

Nigeria is home to multiple such conflicts, most prominently the ongoing sieges in northeast Borno state by Boko Haram and its reincarnation, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP). The abductions, mass rapes, and murders by Boko Haram became a cause of international alarm in 2014 when the jihadists kidnapped hundreds of girls from a school in the village of Chibok, Borno. A decade later, nearly 100 of those girls remain missing even with the White House, under then-President Barack Obama, launching a Twitter awareness campaign for them.

“Last year, a young Christian girl was stoned to death. What has happened to those who stoned her to death?” Father Ihyula asked. “Nothing. Nothing has happened to those who stoned her to death.”

The father referenced the case of Deborah Yakubu, a Hausa Christian college student who was beaten and stoned to death last year after complaining that fellow students were clogging a Whatsapp chat group meant for schoolwork with Islamic propaganda. Buhari, who was president at the time, condemned Yakubu posthumously for her “transgression” in his statements following her murder.

“Any person who thinks that Nigeria is all good in terms of religion needs to think again. The reality is very far from that,” Father Ihyula remarked.

The Biden administration did not act in response to Buhari’s handling of the Deborah Yakubu situation, and the victims of jihad in Benue have yet to receive a White House Twitter campaign even as sieges continue.

“People, women, and children are killed on a daily basis. They are butchered, they have been driven from their homes, some have been living in camps for about ten years. They cannot go back to their homes,” Father Ihyula told Breitbart News. “They are living in degrading human conditions; they can’t go back to their homes, and no one has been arrested or prosecuted for bringing this kind of hardship.”

The Fulani jihadists — often described in secular terms as “bandits” or “gunmen” in Nigerian media — “go through people’s farmland, destroy villages, kill people, cause a lot of destruction, [and] nobody does anything about it.”

The result has been the mass displacement of up to two million people in Benue alone, a large number of whom languish in displaced persons camps where they live “worse than animals,” Father Ihyula said.

“People have been reduced to even worse than animals; this is the reality, and that is why we do also believe that it’s like a punishment for a people who have refused to belong,” he told Breitbart News. “People are displaced multiple times; they lack food, their children are malnourished, they die because of disease, there are no healthcare facilities, schools have been closed for some years now.”

A mother consoles a crying infant in a broken-down building at the Agagbe camp for internally displaced people in Benue, Nigeria. (Courtesy of the Catholic Diocese of Makurdi Foundation for Justice, Development, & Peace)

Father Ihyula also said that trafficking of both women and children occurs at the camps. “There are cases of … trafficking and women and children resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms, going into prostitution and things like that just to cope because they can’t fend for themselves; they rely on donors and charity.”

“It’s a deliberate thing … those who cannot die by the guns and the machete of the herdsmen should die by starvation and deliberate siege and deprivation,” he lamented.

Benue, Father Ihyula stated, receives little aid.

“Organizations like Aid to the Church in Need [have] been helping us,” he noted, but “even the World Food Programme does not come to this part because apparently Benue state was not factored into the Nigerian humanitarian plan for the year 2023.”

“They are going to the northeast; all of them go to the northeast because [Buhari] told them to go to the northeast,” Father Ihyula narrated. “They didn’t want people to come and discover the genocide and atrocities against humanity that were taking place in Benue state.”

The goal of the jihadist attacks in Benue, he asserted, is to “systematically drive out Christian populations” and replace them with Muslims. The occupying and burning down of villages, forcing its residents into camps, makes government services like a census impossible.

“People who were occupying these villages that the Fulanis are now occupying, the Fulanis were supposed to be counted as were indigenous to this place they are occupying. Meanwhile, they are not from here. They are from Chad, from Senegal, from Mali, from wherever,” Father Ihyula explained. “From the north of Nigeria, very far from — like coming from Alaska to occupy territories in New York, something like that. And the indigenous people that have been driven from these places are in refugee camps, in IDP camps, and would not have been counted.”

Father Ihyula urged Americans to raise the issue of the massacres in Benue.

“We need help in that the American people should talk about this,” he told Breitbart News. “The more people get to know, the more the outside world gets to know about this; it’s better for us because now its, ‘Oh the world is talking about this, so let us talk, or tomorrow someone will bring us before the International Criminal Court.'”

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