A member of the U.S. Congress said on Wednesday (11 May) that he will help introduce legislation calling on the president to establish a special envoy to Nigeria and the wider Lake Chad region, in an attempt to sharpen the American response to deadly Islamist insurgencies that have killed thousands of Christians.
“We’ll put together a draft bill on a special envoy and begin the process,” said U.S. Rep. Christopher Smith, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations. “It may help provide a focus that may be lacking.”
The request for a special envoy was made by former U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, whose legislative career was largely concerned with religious freedom before he retired in 2014. Wolf was in Nigeria in February, a month during which ethnic Fulani militants, largely Muslim, waged a week of attacks in central Nigeria that culminated in a massacre at Agatu village in Benue state, leaving hundreds of Christians, some of them pregnant women, dead.
“We heard about the pain, suffering, and agony that the people in northern and central Nigeria have faced, and continue to face,” Wolf testified to the subcommittee. “Many believe the world is not concerned with their problems and I agree. As a result, it is clear that the crisis plaguing Nigeria is multi-faceted, but one that must be addressed by the Nigerian government, our government, and the international community.”
Wolf, now a Senior Fellow of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, said a special envoy to the Lake Chad region would provide “one-stop” US assistance to Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Benin and Niger — areas where Boko Haram has been active.
“The issue of Boko Haram and the Fulani herdsmen are not localised to Nigeria, but transcend the bordering countries. A special envoy could help coordinate necessary assistance throughout the region,” he said.
[A video of the hearing, and links to submitted written testimony, can be found here.]
Christopher Fomunyoh, regional director for Central and West Africa at the Washington, D.C.-based National Democratic Institute, testified to the “fundamentalist religious ideology” of the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency, which has waged seven years of deadly violence, primarily in Nigeria’s northeast. He characterised the violence between the nomadic Fulani herdsmen of the north and more settled and Christian farmers of the central states, however, as “intercommunal conflicts between agrarian and pastoralist communities” that are “attributable in large part to challenges in governance and extremely poor delivery of public services.”
That’s not the way the situation was characterised by Emmanuel Ogebe, special counsel for the Justice for Jos project.
“The US is still reluctant to see the insurgency as religious and as part of a global jihad,” Ogebe said in submitted written testimony. “The poverty argument remains a prominent driver in the US narrative on northern Nigeria.”
During his recent tours of Nigeria, Ogebe said an anti-Christian dimension to the violence was plain to see, even more so in the aftermath of Fulani attacks than in areas where Boko Haram has been active.
“Where Boko Haram would sort through victims to separate Muslims from Christians, women from men and children from adults, most often killing the latter and sparing the former, the nomads hack and burn babies, slash the belies of pregnant women and generally leave a less methodical and more gruesome aftermath. Boko Haram seizes and occupies towns to administer them. The Fulani destroy communities and their cattle graze on the farms of those displaced or killed,” Ogebe testified.
Also testifying was a young woman identified as “Sa’a,” who escaped into the forest on the April 2014 night she and 275 other girls were kidnapped from their school in Chibok in eastern Nigeria. The mass kidnapping sparked global outrage under the social-media banner of “Bring Back Our Girls”. Except for those, such as Sa’a, who escaped, none of the girls has been found.
Under the cover of her fictitious name and a pair of dark sunglasses, she told the committee she is now enrolled at a U.S. college with the assistance of the Nigeria-based Education Must Continue Initiative.
“Thanks to God, I am safely here in the US and doing well with my studies, but I worry about my family in Nigeria,” she testified. “People ask me if it will be safe for me to return to Nigeria. I ask, is it safe for anyone in northern Nigeria?”