“They charged the man in a court that doesn’t have authority to give him cash bail… So now he’s in the Kaduna prison, which is a very awful place to be.”
One week ago, Epoch Times reporter Luka Binniyat was arrested in Nigeria, after extensively reporting on atrocities against Nigerian Christians. His most recent story was titled “In Nigeria, Police Decry Massacres as ‘Wicked’ but Make No Arrests.”
He has since been charged with “cyberstalking under the cybercrime law,” a statute that experts say is used to squelch freedom of expression.
Today, we sit down with The Epoch Times’ Africa desk editor, Douglas Burton, to understand Binniyat’s current situation and what’s happening on the ground in Nigeria.
“If you step back and look at the big picture… there is a war against Christians,” says Burton.
Jan Jekielek: Doug Burton, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Douglas Burton: Same here, Jan.
Mr. Jekielek: Doug, we have a pretty difficult situation right now. One of the Epoch Times reporters in Nigeria has been jailed, Luka Binniyat. I want to make sure I’m saying his name right.
Mr. Burton: Correct.
Mr. Jekielek: Why don’t you give us a rundown of what’s going on. We’ll drill into all sorts of details momentarily.
Mr. Burton: Right, Jan. Well, Luka Binniyat is one of five reporters in Central Nigeria that I’ve been mentoring for a few months. I started working as a reporter for Epoch Times in February of this year, and I told my editor that I work with a group of reporters on the ground who give me eyewitness testimony and connect me to witnesses.
So he was very helpful, the most helpful editor I’ve ever worked with [inaudible, 00:01:43] Steven Gregory. So he said, “Sure, go ahead.” Since then, I have been helping these reporters, some of whom are citizen journalists, but Luka Binniyat is a professional journalist. He’s been a regular reporter for well known newspapers for more than 25 years.
I started working with Luka, I think around May or June of this year. Luka’s about 52 years old. He’s got family, adult children, and he’s from Southeast Kaduna where it’s just a battleground, It’s a killing zone where there’s ongoing conflicts between his tribe, a really big one called the Atyap people, and the so-called herdsman who are principally the Fulani tribesmen.
Luka has been doing cutting edge reporting, factual reporting of what’s been going on in the massacres in Kaduna. That’s how I was attracted to him. He’s gotten himself into jail because he’s been telling the truth, but also too much truth.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s start here, okay? What exactly is this group of reporters that you’re working with as our Africa Desk Editor now. What exactly are they reporting on?
Mr. Burton: They’re reporting on massacres of unarmed people in the middle belt of Nigeria, but principally two states—Kaduna, which is the third largest state, and also the neighboring state of Plateau. Since 2015, there has been an escalation of massacres in these two states, but there have been attacks by radicalized Muslims in about 12 states in Nigeria.
Mr. Jekielek: So, let’s understand the bigger picture of this particular, we’ll call it a conflict. You’re saying massacres are occurring. What exactly is going on? What does the evidence tell us?
Mr. Burton: Yes, it seems to be a complex situation because Nigeria is a big country. I mean, it’s got more than 218 million people. It is the largest and richest country in Africa, and it’s the dominant country in West Africa. So many people have heard that there’s a war there, or there’s an insurgency called Boko Haram, which means Western learning is forbidden.
Boko Haram tried to affiliate itself with the Islamic state early on, I think in 2014, 2015. Since then, Boko Haram has been absorbed into an ascendant Islamic group called the Islamic State of West Africa. And that conflict has been pretty well covered.
The government has been fighting a war and has made a lot of progress in pushing the Islamic State of West Africa into a corner in Northeast Nigeria, but much less well covered is a kind of other insurgency which involves nomadic peoples or semi-nomadic peoples associated with the Fulani ethnicity.
Since 2010, but increasingly since 2015, there have been attacks on rural villages and sometimes 30, 40, 50 or 100 people will be murdered in these attacks, which involve razing the village. They are nighttime attacks by armed militia, or we may say mercenaries.
That is what my group has covered the most, these marauding attacks, which are apparently attempts to cleanse the area of farmers and to take over the land for grazing for the cattle herds that these nomadic people have.
Mr. Jekielek: Exactly. One of the stories, or one of the explanations as to why this is happening is precisely what you described—that it’s a matter of picking up land. But you’re saying there’s this religious dimension.
Mr. Burton: Well, there is a religious dimension, but there’s also an economic dimension. Now, if you go to the website of the U.S Mission in Abuja, if you go to the websites of the experts like the International Crisis Group, or if you go to Human Rights Watch, you’ll find detailed reports which tell about the conflict between peoples—herding peoples and farming peoples.
Their view is that the root cause of this conflict is global warming. They will tell you that the herding peoples are in a fight over scarce resources with the residential farmers. Of course, that’s partly true. There is global warming all over the Sahel in Africa. However, there’s also a sectarian dimension.
It’s not justified over resources. There’s the fact that the people who are generally doing the attacks are radicalized jihadist and the Fulani ethnicity of which President Muhammadu Buhari is the leading member.
It happens to be very proud of its devout Islamism, and there is a subsect. We have to make it clear. There is a minority of people in this ethnicity who believe that their way to preserve their faith and to claim the land of Nigeria is through warfare and through terrorism. That’s not true of the whole ethnicity, but that is what’s happening. There are thousands of bandit gangs in the middle belt of Nigeria. There are all kinds of crime going on.
There are kidnappings everywhere, but many of the bandit gangs, which are also apparently doing the razing of villages, happen to be dominated by Fulani people. So it’s hard for an outsider to grasp what’s really going on here. Nigeria has been known to have all kinds of violence, tribal warfare.
There’s been banditry in the South of Nigeria for more than 20 years. There’s a separatist movement in the Southeast of Nigeria that seeks to claim territory for a new country called Biafra. Those folks are survivors of the Biafra genocide that goes back between 1967 and 1970.
Nigeria is kind of hard to understand. It’s got hundreds of ethnicities, many different languages. But if you step back and look at the big picture, then certain things become clear—even to an outsider like myself, who’s just looking at the facts and talking to the victims.
That is, there is a war against Christians. Although there are communal clashes, there are tribal conflicts, they go on in many places. But the preponderance of the attacks in the middle belt are done by these bandit gangs or these terrorists who are seeking to drive out the resident farmers.
Mr. Jekielek: You’re saying that the resident farmers are predominantly Christian.
Mr. Burton: Yes, in most cases. In the middle belt, for example—especially in Southern Kaduna, which is a majority Christian area or in the state of Northern Plateau, Plateau is a majority Christian state, although just barely. It’s mixed. Kaduna is a Muslim state, and there’s a very large majority of Muslim people in the northern part of the state.
Luka is from the south, which is mixed—both Muslims and Christians—but the majority of the Christians are living in the south area. What we’re seeing is a rivalry, a competition and a kind of civil war between ethnicities. Well, not ethnicities necessarily, but it’s between religions—it’s radicalized Muslims and Christian people. The complexity is that not all the Muslims are intolerant, not all the Muslim people are turning into terrorists.
There are many Fulani people who are actually Christians. We’ve done stories about them in The Epoch Times. Many Fulani people have come to the aid and saved the lives of Christians. So they’re amazing people, they’re great people. Many heads of government in West Africa are from the Fulani ethnicity.
But when you look at the testimonies of the victims in many states, and we’ve done stories over a wide area from the north central part of Nigeria to the—so far, eastern part—you see a similarity prevail, a similarity of testimonies.
People say these people came at night, or they came after midnight. When they came into our village, they were armed, they were wearing dark clothes, they were wearing masks, and they were shouting, “Allahu Akbar”, which means God is great.
Mr. Jekielek: From what I understand, the government position on this is that there is sectarian or religious violence, but it kind of goes in both directions. Sometimes the Muslim extremists will attack Christians, and then the Christian extremists will attack the Muslims back.
Mr. Burton: Yes, that’s true. That’s part of the complexity of it. It is a fact that there has been sectarian fighting in the north central states. For example, there were terrible sectarian riots in Jos. It’s a metropolis in the capital of Plateau State. There were terrible riots, and I think about 2,000 people were killed in riots. Jos in 2001 pretty much coincided with the same time that the United States was attacked on 9-11.
There were riots and internecine fighting in Kaduna state in 2010 and 2011, which was an election year. The fighting between Muslims and Christians was probably related to the presidential campaigns of the two parties—one of which was led by a Christian man, Goodluck Jonathan, who won the presidency in 2011. His opponents were Muslims. So yes, there is that aspect of it.
There have been massacres of Muslims that they’ve been well recorded by Human Rights Watch, but here’s the thing. If you look at the big picture, the preponderance of attacks have not been Christians against Muslims. In general, the residential farmers, the Christians, they’re unarmed. Why?
Because Nigeria has had a very vigorous and strictly controlled gun control law. They prevent people from acquiring weapons. In fact, the police will arrest any person with a gun of any kind, unless they have a license as a hunter. They even arrest people who have self defense weapons like machetes in their houses. But on the other hand, the people who are doing these attacks, the Fulani herdsmen, carry AK-47 rifles and they are never disarmed.
All of the bandit gangs are carrying these automatic weapons. They have rocket propelled grenade launchers. They have heavy weapons, and the government never arrests them. I mean, some interdiction of the bandits, they have bombed them in the Northwestern states. There have been recent bombing raids against the bandit gangs and Niger state, which is the far Northwest.
So far as I know, they haven’t done any bombing raids in Kaduna where there are the most massacres, and none that I know of in Plateau. The government’s approach to these bandit gangs is very odd. It’s very mysterious, because clearly that’s the worst terrorism in the country, and the government doesn’t have an explanation as to why it’s not enforcing the law.
Mr. Jekielek: How many massacres are we talking about here? How many people? I mean, I don’t want to just turn it into numbers, but I just want to understand the scale of this.
Mr. Burton: There is media consensus, very broad consensus, including the Council of Foreign Relations and their murder tracking report, their terrorism tracking report that since 2010, at least 60,000 people have been killed by the insurgency or the terrorism done by these bandit groups.
But if you talk to other sources, like one of our sources is an Anglican priest. His name is Hassan John in Jos. He keeps another set of records. He says that most of these attacks on villages in rural areas are not even reported. The casualties reported by the government—like police and Nigeria and the army—they’re underreported. The numbers are far lower than they should be. Reverend John says the real number of people who’ve been killed is close to 500,000.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s hard to fathom.
Mr. Burton: It really is. But I think recently there was a UN agency, the International Office for Migration reported that as many as … It was an incredible number. Hundreds of thousands of children have been killed in Nigeria since 2010, especially in the Northeast section. So many of the deaths are related to these attacks, and we’re talking about the total number—the total picture of both the ISIS insurgency, and by the way, there are other insurgencies.
There’s an Al Qaeda group in the Northwest. It’s not just the Islamic State West Africa. Combine that with the attacks by the kidnapped gangs and the groups that are paid to raise villages. If you combine them together, it’s a very large number. Iit’s a huge cost economically to the banditry, and especially the kidnapping industry in Nigeria is really hard to grasp because billions of dollars are going into ransoms to these bandit gangs.
The bandit gangs are rarely captured, they’re rarely stopped. There are reports that the police know where these bandit gangs are, and by the way, there’s thousands of them. We know this from the reports of the Muslim mediators, like Sheikh Gumi who’s based in Kaduna. He tells us himself that there are thousands of gangs in the Northern states, and they are bankrupt in the churches.
Many of the ransoms are ransoms of people who are of modest income, pastors of little churches. According to the International Committee in Nigeria, the average ransom in Nigeria is about $10,000, but that is like a so-called king’s ransom for these people. Most people in Nigeria, in the middle belt, live on less than $1,000 a year.
Mr. Jekielek: This is a really large scale thing that I think a lot of the world just simply isn’t aware of, right? Let’s go back to Luka now. Luka is specifically looking at individual examples of these massacres and reporting on them, among other things.
Mr. Burton: Well, Luka, he’s a professional. According to the reports of his fellow journalist in Kaduna, he’s fearless, and he’s been telling the truth about the massacres for a long time, partly because his tribe is on the front line of being genocided in Southeast Nigeria. His tribe suffers these attacks on a regular basis. And Luka is a Roman Catholic guy.
I don’t know him that well. I know he’s in his early 50s, he’s got grown children, and Luka just tells it the way it is. So he was put in jail four years ago, that he was charged with breach of the peace and with defamation of the governor and other officials. That case was never resolved, but Luka was in jail or prison for about four months. It’s very terrible. It’s a hard thing to endure.
More recently, what got him into trouble is that, and I’m partly to blame because I edit Luka’s stories, Luka did a story that was published October 29th about a massacre of 38 people in a little village or town called Madamai in Southern Kaduna. Then Luka did a very complete story. He was there at the mass burial of the people, and he took statements from the State Security Commissioner.
A month later, we published his story a little belatedly. In the story, he points out that there had been no arrests. Well, there have been no prosecutions. 38 people were killed. If that had happened in the United States, there would’ve been wall to wall coverage, but in Nigeria, it’s actually not that much of a big deal.
So Luka printed that and he quoted exactly verbatim what the State Commissioner of Security said, his name is Mr. Samuel Aruwan. He said that, unfortunately, there had been clashes in the state. He was looking into everything, and he was going to catch the culprits.
Well, what wounded him is that Luka in the story pointed out that there weren’t any clashes. He quoted a state Senator, Mr. Laah, who said, “There’s no clashes. If there was clashes, why aren’t there any Muslim casualties? There are no Muslim deaths. It’s just Christian deaths.” That’s true. So what he pointed out is that the government is using a false narrative.
What Mr. Aruwan said is not unusual. That is the conventional narrative that has been given by public officials for a decade. I’s actually repeated, it’s promulgated by the fake news media, or I would say it’s the media that has been intimidated by the government to use euphemisms and Orwellian language like not identifying who the killers are.
So Luka told the truth, and I think he stung the officials who have come back to him and he’s been jailed for the crime of cyber stalking. That’s why he was arrested last Thursday. He had a court appearance yesterday, and then today, second court appearance, and the judge has ordered him to be moved from a police jail into the prison in Kaduna.
Mr. Jekielek: So Luka quoted the Senator, but the Senator disputes that he said these things?
Mr. Burton: Correct, yes. Now the Senator has said in a statement from his lawyers, he didn’t say it. He’s backed off completely. Now, the Senator’s a Christian. According to some sources, he’s been intimidated to say this because he stands to lose a lot if the whole weight of the government comes down on him. You rarely see these stories in Nigerian media.
Usually government officials, they say nonsense, or they speak in a very vague, polite genteel way, and the people who object to their stories also use indirect language. But Luka’s story is not indirect. My friends have told me that they think the Senator may have been intimidated. We don’t know.
He’s not taking any media calls, neither is Mr. Samuel Aruwan. Oof course I’ve been contacting Mr. Aruwan myself. I have a channel to him. He hasn’t responded to any of the calls. So he’s stonewalling me, and we don’t know why. This is the problem of the so-called genocide against Christians in Nigeria. No one can really understand it in the West because the Nigerian media themselves don’t fairly report it.
Mr. Jekielek: Very difficult situation. Actually you mentioned today … We’re recording this on Wednesday, we’re going to publish this interview on Thursday, so a week after his arrest. You did get some updates, so tell us what the current situation is for Luka.
Mr. Burton: Well, the court hearing began yesterday and Luka Binniyat was charged with cyber stalking, which means that you’ve published something online or electronically that the target of your communication may take to be intimidating or a threat of some kind. Mr. Samuel Aruwan apparently filed a complaint, or he wrote a letter to some police agency, and that resulted in the arrest and the charge with cyber stalking, which is a controversial statute as the article in The Epoch Times points out.
Cyber stalking is apparently a medium for restraining speech. It’s for punishing people for saying something that’s politically incorrect. So Mr. Binniyat was charged with cyber stalking, which is a federal crime, but he was charged in a magistrates’ court that doesn’t have authority to rule on that because it’s a lower ranking court.
Luka’s case has to be moved to a federal court. In the meantime, he will stay in detention. He can’t get cash bail from the magistrate because the magistrate doesn’t have authority over that crime. Some of our sources have told us that they think that was the intention of the government to begin with.
They charged the man in a court that doesn’t have authority to give him cash bail, so he has to go to another facility. So now he’s in the Kaduna prison, which is a very awful place to be. And we don’t know how many days or weeks it will take to get his case heard in the federal court.
Now, there are cases of other journalists I’ve worked with like Mr. Steven Kefas, who was charged with cyber stalking in 2019. He had the same problem. Got charged in a lower court, couldn’t get cash bail in the federal court, and actually the judge in that case wouldn’t give an explanation, or they gave odd explanations that he was being considered for some of the charges or whatever.
Well, Steven Kefas was in prison for five months. And during that time, his health deteriorated. I spoke to Steven Kefas just a few days ago. He says, “Well, I now have hepatitis C. When I got out of prison, I had malaria, typhoid.” It’s hard for the people to endure this imprisonment.
So some people believe that Luka’s being just kept, he’s just being stashed into a prison. But other people like his assistant, who’s taken over his job at the Southern Kaduna People’s Union, she’s more optimistic. She thinks that the lawyer can get cash bail, and that he’ll be out soon.
Mr. Jekielek: As someone who’s worked on international human rights issues myself, you might be surprised that I ask this question, but I think it’s important. Why should Americans be concerned about these massacres happening in Nigeria?
Mr. Burton: It’s a good question. The fact is that Americans have to be concerned about terrorism in other countries that will come here. Stephen Enada of the International Committee on Nigeria has said dozens of times that what happens in Nigeria, doesn’t stay there. It’s going to come here to this country.
You remember the shoe bomber of about 10 years ago? The shoe bomber was a Nigerian guy. He tried to blow up an airplane by putting explosives in his shoes, right? There are many terrorists who’ve come from the Middle East and have done attacks, or they have planned attacks in this country.
They’ve had quite a few massacres by Middle Eastern people who happen to be in the United States, right? So if we allow the Islamic State in West Africa to bloom and become a caliphate, which is possible, then it will become a state where terrorism is funded, and it will go all over the world. That’s what happened when ISIS was in Northern Syria and Iraq.
So terrorism can come here. The other reason we have to be concerned is that Nigeria is the dominant state in West Africa, and what happens there easily influences the surrounding states. So if the government of Muhammadu Buhari becomes an authoritarian Islamic state, or an Islamist kind of state, not an ally with the United States, which on paper it is an ally.
But if it becomes a country that’s hostile to the United States, its government and its culture will influence the surrounding republics—Republic of Niger, of Benin, of Mali, of Chad. Ten states could follow suit. So that’s one reason to be concerned. The other reason is that Americans are basically a moral people. Their national tradition is to be concerned about human rights abuses. And this is a massive one.
Mr. Jekielek: Doug, you have a pretty fascinating perspective on how these terrorists and bandit groups originate. Tell me about that.
Mr. Burton: Here’s how I got really interested in Nigeria. After I got back to the United States and I started really studying ISIS, I found out about its origins. ISIS started in 2012 in Northern Syria, and it started as a criminal group. They were radical guys. They were terrorists who had come from Al-Qaeda in Iraq. They were in shelters in Northern Syria, and they began making money.
Every terrorist group starts as a criminal group. So their money making means was kidnap for ransom, extortion, and theft. As we studied ISIS in Iraq, and ISIS in Iraq performed dozens of types of theft, including large scale theft of oil and gasoline, and all kinds of things, which you realize is that all these are radical groups.
This goes back to the Red Army. All radicalized groups begin as criminal groups. Crime of all kinds is at the center of what they do, and their radicalism justifies it. When I started looking at Boko Haram, I saw the same thing—kidnap for ransom, sex slavery, for example, extortion, intimidation. Kidnapping for ransom was the main thing ISIS did in Iraq. That was their chief moneymaker, and they’re still doing it.
People don’t realize that the key to understanding ISIS is its business model. Radicalism, terrorism is a kind of business. So when I looked at West Africa, I saw the same business, and that is how you can understand the connection between the herdsmen groups and the Al-Qaeda groups like Ansaru. I did the first story that explained that Ansaru had reemerged in the Northwest.
And how did it manifest itself? It’s a big kidnapping gang, and it operates out of the forest just west of Kaduna City. There’s huge kidnapping there. That’s how you can understand how all the groups relate. They all have the same business model. Their radicalism gives them an ideological justification for doing any kind of crime.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating.
Mr. Burton: Yes. Look at it through the lens of who benefits. Now, that’s how the terrorists benefit. Now, look at it the other way. How does the government benefit? Well, that’s easy and your friend, Batya Ungar-Sargon, explained this very well. There’s a moral crisis. There’s a moral panic in this country. And why is it? Because there is a need to consolidate consensus about what is wrong with our country.
Why? Because once you have this consolidation or you have a consensus about what’s wrong, it empowers the people in power. The government elites, the political class, empowers them to take action, which means grabbing more power. That’s exactly what’s happening in Nigeria. The political class in Nigeria is comprised of people in both major parties.
There’s just two parties, PDP and the APC. They win power no matter who wins the election. And no matter who wins, the government gets bigger and stronger. For example, let me explain it this way. The government has a big budget for the military. They got the Navy, Army, Air Force. So over $20 billion, the equivalent of $20 billion is spent every year to contain the insurgency in Iraq. I mean, not in Iraq, but in Nigeria.
So the more violence there is, the more they have a case that they need more weapons. They need aircraft from the United States, and they need explosives, and they need expertise. So they spend money on all these things and there’s huge corruption and graft. A lot of this money that goes into the armaments, it’s actually siphoned off by the officials, just like every part of their government.
I’m not the only person who’s saying this. You look at other sources, they’ll tell you that Nigeria is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. That is how the government benefits and gains, by having insurgencies. Now, how do they benefit from the other conflict? The herdsmen gangs? Well, the herdsmen and the bandits who are doing the kidnapping, they happen to be radicalized Muslims and the government itself, centered around Muhammadu Buhari, just happens to be leaning toward Islamic fundamentalism.
Some of the Salafist are actually in his cabinet, not all of them. Some of the people are Christian, but he is a former herdsman himself, and he’s very closely connected to the Cattlemen’s Association. The people who are doing the killing, bringing revenue—and some of it undoubtedly goes to these lobbying groups and these political groups, the so-called Cattlemen’s Association, and they have another name for it, but that’s what it is.
They’re getting wealthy. I got insight from a London based military analyst, Mr. David Otto, who was a consultant to the army in Nigeria, and he travels to West Africa frequently. He said, “The army in Nigeria never wins the war. And it’s not really trying to win the war. It’s managing the war.” You have to understand the difference. Managing means you keep the spigot going of funding for your government, right?
Now, here’s the question we have. It is a fact that the government of Nigeria has made progress pushing Boko Haram back. In fact, Boko Haram is over. The new group is called Islamic State of West Africa, and they have won military victories, but the government has not made much progress in pushing back the kidnapping gangs and the mercenaries who have cleansed 380 towns in villages in the Middle Belt.
Three hundred eighty towns in villages have been wiped away of Christian settlers, and many of them have been renamed. And the Muslim people, either Fulani or Northern Hausa, have occupied those towns and villages.
Well, what has the government done to stop that? The answer is nothing. They don’t arrest any of these people. They don’t do any prosecutions. They keep explaining and repeating that, “oh yeah, we’re going to get to the bottom of this, we’re going to make arrests,” but they never do. They don’t stop it because they have no incentive to stop it. They are benefiting from it.
Mr. Jekielek: So you’re saying there’s no prosecutions, nothing. This is what you’re saying.
Mr. Burton: There are no prosecutions of the terrorists who come out of these Fulani bandit gangs. If there is one, show me it. Even the Nigerian media itself doesn’t say this because it’s politically incorrect. My friends in the journalist community, the Nigerian Union of Journalists, the UNJ have told me, “Well, we just can’t say that because all of the newspapers, they depend upon government patronage, advertising, or support.”
Many of them are bribed, actually. Bribery is very common in Nigeria. Even our little group run by Lawrence Zongo, they had to bribe people to come to their press conference. On October 15th, they had to bribe the military police to come. I mean, the secret police came and they expected to be paid just to come to the press conference. That shows you how weird it is.
There is corruption and the journalists in Nigeria, they don’t make much money. Good jobs are hard to get. So if you get a government job, you want to keep it. If you get a job in media, people I know love to do journalism. That’s why I chose to do it in the mid ’70s. So they are subject to coercion by the government and subject to inducements like payoffs.
And Luka Binniyat just decided he was not going to be one of those persons. Luka doesn’t make much money. Since he got jailed four years ago, he hasn’t been able to get a regular job in journalism. So he works as a media coordinator for the Christian group, the Southern Kaduna People’s Union.
Mr. Jekielek: What you’re describing here is a situation where people almost literally are taking their lives into their own hands to do the kind of work that our journalists have been doing. I don’t know if that may be lost on some people.
Mr. Burton: It is hard to believe because it seems so far away. As you point out, it’s complex. It’s hard to grasp. That’s why I feel really driven to help Luka, and Lawrence Zongo, and other reporters get the word out. It’s not surprising, in a way, that Luka is getting in trouble again, because he’s done a lot of good.
He’s actually exposed the government’s Orwellian language, and he’s exposed their, what I would say, false narrative. This raises another question, why did they do it? The government knew that Luka is a widely known dissonant journalist, and they knew that if they prosecuted him, it was going to cause international embarrassment. But why did they do it? Well, they did it, I think I would just argue, because they needed to shut him up.
Mr. Jekielek: I’m going to read a quote that you gave to Lara Logan in this really excellent documentary that she made, actually based on the reporting of our journalists in significant part, at least. You said, “In order to get…” This is right at the end, “In order to get a solution, we need to listen to the victims themselves.”
Mr. Burton: From the beginning, I talked to the victims and that’s why Lawrence Zongo was so helpful. Lawrence Zongo, before I started working with him, he had a job taking photographs of the corpses of people who’d been murdered. And he had a lot of work to do. Now, you have to take pictures quickly because in Nigeria, they have a tradition of burying people within 24 hours of death.
So Lawrence had to go to the scene where the corpses were available before they were put into the ground. He was documenting that for a nonprofit organization. So Lawrence has seen a lot of this. I think Lawrence has probably suffered post-traumatic stress syndrome, possibly because of this.
We started by getting the testimonies of the victims, and that is why I’ve encouraged other journalists to get in touch with the people on the ground who are the victims, or talk to the people who are the witnesses, like the Catholic priest or the pastors who have to bury these people.
One of my first stories was in 2019. I didn’t have many contacts, but a friend gave me the telephone number of a Roman Catholic priest in the Northeast of Nigeria, Father Lawrence Ikeh. He was in this parish where he said when he came there a couple of years ago, it seemed like it was a graveyard because so many people had been killed.
I was really moved to hear and talk about this because I realized this man’s all alone. He’s got a little parish house there and he doesn’t have any security. I mean, he cannot really escape if he gets attacked. So I prayed with him by my cell phone and he was really moved by it.
Then a week later, his fellow priest called me because Ikeh had given my number out, and this young man said, “Well, Mr. Burton, we’re under attack right now. I’m in the town of Michika, and we’re standing on a hill. It’s about 10:30 at night, we’re watching the town burn down. The town’s in flames. The Boko Haram boys are going through town.”
I took the report down and then the next day, I sent it to the Washington Examiner and they published it. That is how I came to realize that a person who’s never even been to Nigeria can get the story just with a cell phone. I came to realize that Nigeria is not really 5,000 miles away, it’s only a cell phone call away.
Not only can journalists call, but any concerned citizen in the United States can have a direct relationship, a bond and a friendship with a person in these conflict zones. If that would happen on a large scale, then even if the mainstream media isn’t covering it, the story will get out because concerned citizens will get it out.
Mr. Jekielek: This is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about as we finish up here. There’s plenty of viewers, I’m sure, who are interested in somehow helping, somehow supporting. And what you’ve just been describing is a really interesting way to do that.
We’ve had Tony Perkins with UCIRF, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, come out and make a statement on this topic and reach out to his contacts in the area, from what I understand. But for people that are just out there thinking to themselves, what can we do, what is the next step for people?
Mr. Burton: There are many things people can do. The call to action has been made by eminent people—writers like Bernard-Henri Lévy, who said, “There’s so many things you can do. The U.S. Congress can put sanctions on the government of Nigeria and condition aid upon improvement in law enforcement.” So we could work through our elected representatives, especially the senators because they control aid overseas. That’s one thing.
The other thing is that we can work through civil society groups to contact the churches that are under attack in Nigeria. Now, Mr. Lévy said at a press conference recently, and the story is up just today on The Epoch Times, he said, “If I were a member of one of these vibrant little churches of which there are thousands in the United States, I would say, guys, let’s get together and rebuild some of these churches they’ve been burnt down.” I mean, thousands of them.
There’s one denomination in Nigeria you probably never heard of, but it’s a very popular denomination called Ecumenical Church Winning All. They have six congregations in the United States, but more than 1,100 churches belonging to the ECWA group in Nigeria have been burnt down, totally destroyed.
What if that had happened in the United States? That would be a huge story, but there, I mean, no one writes about it, right? We don’t even keep records. So what is happening is that the churches are being ransacked, burnt, and people driven out, driven into internally displaced people’s camps and so forth, and no one’s talking about it.
So we can help through our churches. Tony Perkins, he’s an ordained minister, he’s doing that. There are so many church groups that are trying to help somehow. But the other thing we can do is just as individuals.
I’ve always been a proponent of citizen to citizen diplomacy. I even tried to do this when I was with the State Department in Iraq. I connected boy scout groups in the mid states area of the Washington area. I connected those boy scout troops to the boy scout troops in Kirkuk, Iraq, and the Iraqis are so grateful.
What I suggest is go around mainstream media and even go around mainstream nonprofits. If you can find a person in Nigeria in the conflict zones who’s in harm’s way, make that person your friend, do what I did. Just make one person your friend, and talk to them, encourage them, take notes. If you want to give them money, do it. I send people money. I’m not wealthy, but when I started, I started giving little packets of money to my reporters because they needed it.
If people want to help, if they want to make a donation, they can do it through a centralized group. The International Committee on Nigeria is taking funds. It is a registered nonprofit and they will accept donations. You can go to iconhelp.org and they will transfer the donations to Lawrence Zongo’s group, Rural Watch.News. You can do that.
But I would say there’s nothing wrong with making your own friend. You don’t have to go through ICON. Find a friend. Look, there are millions of concerned citizens, many people of faith of all kinds of backgrounds—Protestant, Catholic, Baha’i, Muslim, and all kinds of groups. Americans are great people. We have a tradition of caring about people in harm’s way. That’s why we rescued Korea in 1950. No country has done what we did in 1950.
So Americans can search their hearts after seeing me and seeing the evidence. That’s pretty evident. If you look on the internet, you’ll see lots of documentation of the Christian genocide. Just ask yourself, what does my God in heaven want me to do? And if you make that prayer, God will guide you to someone in Nigeria who can use your help.
Regardless of whether people are believers or not, this is a catastrophic situation. This is one of the worst human rights catastrophes in history. It’s an embarrassment for the West that we’re not looking at it clearly. Bernard-Henri Lévy, he has done a new book, it’s interesting called “The Will to See.” He points out that the West has seen many genocides happen and it didn’t take note and get engaged, even though government officials knew in the beginning. But they didn’t get engaged until after it was over, like Rwanda, for example, in 1994.
Genocides in the 20th century begin with the Armenian genocide in 1915, and more recent genocides have taken place in Rwanda, of course, in Cambodia 1975, in Sudan, 2004. He says, the West has a chance now in Nigeria to recognize a genocide that’s unfolding and to stop it. So in Nigeria, there is a chance that we can turn this off and we should.
Mr. Jekielek: This highlights the bravery and the importance of the work that Luka and the other journalists that you’re working with are doing. Doug Burton, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Mr. Burton: Really privileged to be here.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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