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USCIRF Warns of Potential Religiously-Motivated Violence Around Nigeria’s Upcoming Elections


February 2, 2015 | USCIRF

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Reports of pre-election violence, combined with rising societal and political tensions, increase the likelihood of religiously-motivated violence around Nigeria’s February 14 presidential elections, warns the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). 

“We welcome Secretary of State John Kerry’s timely trip to Nigeria in January.  His warning to presidential candidates Goodluck Jonathan and Mohammadu Buhari that the United States will withhold visas to persons who engage in, plan, and/or perpetrate electoral violence sends a strong message in support of peaceful elections,” said USCIRF Chair Dr. Katina Lantos Swett.  “Every effort needs to be undertaken to ensure peaceful elections and prevent the use of religion to stir up more violence.  The events leading up to and immediately following February 14 are crucial to Nigeria’s long-term stability and status as a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society.”

Concerns of electoral violence along Muslim-Christian lines are compounded by the horrific attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram.  This violent Islamist insurgency has now displaced one million people and controls large sections of the northeast of the country.  The terrorist organization’s escalating attacks and the Nigerian government’s inadequacy in responding to them create a difficult and volatile environment for the upcoming elections.  There are serious concerns that these factors will negatively impact the voting process and could lead to questions of electoral credibility, further putting Africa's most populous country at grave risk. 

USCIRF has warned for almost a year that the presidential elections again are becoming a flashpoint for religiously-motivated violence.  The April 2011 electoral violence in Nigeria’s north and Middle Belt states started as political, but quickly became religious in nature.  Three days of rioting left more than 800 dead (500 in Kaduna alone, with the vast majority being Muslims), 65,000 displaced, and 430 churches destroyed.  Earlier this month, USCIRF issued a Factsheet on Religion and Nigeria’s 2015 Presidential Elections, highlighting the potential for electoral and sectarian violence as the elections near.  With only weeks before the contest, reports are increasing of pre-election violence and threats directed at the candidates, parties, and their supporters.

“Unless Nigerian leaders take concrete steps to prevent electoral violence and calm their supporters, these elections could be more violent than those in 2011,” said USCIRF Chair Lantos Swett. “The potential for violence is increasing almost daily.”

USCIRF calls on Nigeria’s political parties to hold responsible their members who issue statements inciting violence along religious lines, and Nigeria’s police and judiciary to impartially hold accountable all perpetrators of electoral violence.

USCIRF has recommended the U.S. government designate Nigeria a “country of particular concern” since 2009.  The government of Nigeria continues to tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom affecting all Nigerians, both Christian and Muslim.  For many years, the government has failed to bring those responsible for sectarian violence to justice, prevent and contain acts of such violence, or prevent reprisal attacks.  As a result since 1999, more than 18,000 Nigerians have been killed in sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians.  Boko Haram, a militant group that espouses an extreme and violent interpretation of Islam, benefits from this culture of impunity and lawlessness as it exploits Muslim-Christian tensions and seeks to destabilize Nigeria.

To interview a USCIRF Commissioner, please contact USCIRF at media@uscirf.gov or 202-786-0613.