In his first trip to Africa, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed a $2.1 billion assistance agreement with Nigeria to support health care, education, agriculture, and good governance. But a small-town Baptist preacher told him in a Nov. 19 private meeting that what persecuted Nigerian Christians want most is free speech.
“Recently they have put one journalist, Luka Binniyat, behind bars for reporting a true story to an American audience,” the Rev. Joseph Hayab, chairman of the Kaduna state chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria, told Blinken in a small group meeting.
“Our government is full of lies, and to make sure the world does not get the truth of what is happening in Nigeria, they are against free speech. Binniyat is in prison only because the government wants to silence him,” Hayab told The Epoch Times, when recalling his meeting with Blinken.
Hayab and four other representatives of Nigeran civil society met with Blinken for a “heart to heart” exchange of views at the Embassy.
Binniyat, a contributor to The Epoch Times, was arrested on Nov. 4 and later charged with “cyberstalking” in connection with a story that a high official claimed was a threat to him. Cyberstalking is a charge that experts say has been used by the Nigerian government to silence journalists. Binniyat is being held in the main Kaduna prison.
Hayab said the State Department’s recent delisting of Nigeria as a “country of particular concern” (CPC)—a country judged to be guilty of particularly severe violations of religious freedom—is frustrating to him.
“How can they say the situation is improving when on Oct. 31, a whole Baptist congregation of 66 people [was] abducted, and just last night, the bandits put out a video saying they are doing it because they are against Christians?” Hayab said. “What he [Blinken] did baffles us, because Christians in Nigeria and others suffering persecution feel like they cannot rely on the U.S. government to help them.
“That is like telling a sick man in the hospital to go home to die.”
Hayab also told Blinken that using the term “farmer–herder conflict” to describe the killings in Nigeria is false.
“When bandits or terrorists come to a village at night and open fire on innocent people, how do you describe them as herders?” he said. “Those who use the farmer–herder conflict story are simply using it as a distraction from the real causes.
“Secretary Blinken thanked us for being frank and said that is why he invited me to give a point of view different from the official perspective.”
Religious freedom advocates in Washington strongly objected to the State Department’s more favorable rating of Nigeria, which was announced in mid-November.
“We call on the U.S. government to rectify this inexplicable decision, and instead continue America’s long tradition of standing up for those who are persecuted worldwide,” Sean Nelson, legal counsel for Global Religious Freedom at the Alliance Defending Freedom International, wrote in an email to The Epoch Times. “No explanations have been given that could justify this decision. If anything, the situation in Nigeria has grown worse over the last year.
“Thousands of Christians, as well as Muslims who oppose the goals of terrorist and militia groups, are targeted, killed, and kidnapped, and the government is simply unwilling to stop these atrocities. Blasphemy cases are regularly brought against religious minorities, including humanists, in the North. Removing CPC status for Nigeria will only embolden the increasingly authoritarian government there.”
Human Rights specialist Ann Buwalda, executive director of the Jubilee Campaign, also weighed in.
“The removal of Nigeria from the State Department’s list of violators of religious freedom is a significant setback in efforts to hold perpetrators accountable,” Buwalda told The Epoch Times in an email. “The USA has chosen to reward Nigeria’s abject failure to keep its citizens safe and pursue justice for the survivors and victims of jihadist violence and hate crimes. This is, when Christians in the Northeast of Nigeria are murdered every single day.”
Baroness Caroline Cox of the UK’s House of Lords also spoke out against the move by the U.S. State Department.
“We urge the State Department to reverse its decision to remove Nigeria from its list of ‘Violators of Religious Freedom,'” Cox said. “We receive daily reports of terrorist violence, massacres, forced displacement, forced conversions, forced marriage, and abductions for ransom. Experts say that religious affiliation is often used to recruit and inspire violent acts. In many cases, attacks are predicated by a hatred of people who refuse to renounce their religious beliefs.”
Blinken, who has served in and out of government as a foreign policy specialist since 1993, told African leaders in Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal that the State Department would relate to African nations as “equal partners” under the Biden administration. He said on Nov. 19 that his visit to Nigeria and other countries was focused on “partnerships” in stemming the pandemic, pushing back against global warming, expanding access for renewable energy projects, revitalizing democracy, and achieving peace and security.
“Too often, international infrastructure deals are opaque, coercive; they burden countries with unmanageable debt; they’re environmentally destructive; they don’t always benefit the people who actually live there,” Blinken said, while announcing the aid package to Nigeria. “We will do things differently.”
According to several media reports, Blinken never mentioned China, Nigeria’s chief trade partner. But the message he conveyed was that the United States could do a better job than China of building Nigeria’s economy and improving the quality of life in the African nation.