- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 7, 2019

The horror that enveloped Rebecca Sharibu’s world in early 2018 when her 14-year-old daughter, Leah, was kidnapped by Boko Haram militants in Nigeria felt like it might suddenly end when news broke, after just a few weeks of back-channel efforts, that the more than 100 girls taken in the raid were being released.

But then it became clear that one girl, Leah, was being held back by the jihadis because she refused to renounce her Christian faith. For Mrs. Sharibu, the nightmare would only get worse.

Five months after the others were set free, a grainy video emerged of a sad, frightened-looking girl wearing a light brown Islamic head covering, a hijab. It was Leah, and she was pleading for Nigeria’s government to respond to the demands of the jihadi terrorist group Boko Haram, which has aligned itself with the Islamic State.


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“I just started crying,” Mrs. Sharibu said in a recent interview with The Washington Times. “That was the only time I saw her and heard from her. … I don’t know what is happening to her.”

The mother’s anguish continues to this day. Mrs. Sharibu and a delegation of other Nigerian Christians sought to highlight that anguish on a recent visit to Washington, where they met with U.S. lawmakers and staffers of Vice President Mike Pence.



The group was hosted by Save the Persecuted Christians, a charity focused on anti-Christian violence around the world and by the International Committee on Nigeria (ICON), a nongovernmental aid and advocacy organization focused on Nigeria.

ICON co-founder Stephen Enada said the U.S. should be giving a stronger response to a security crisis in Nigeria that began nearly a decade ago with the rise of Boko Haram and has evolved into a landscape of chaos in the northern part of the country, where minority Christian communities are targeted.

Complicating the crisis are expanding clashes between ethnic Fulani cattle herders, who are mainly Muslim, and Christian farmers spread across Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim northern states.

Throw in widespread government corruption, and the result has been an epidemic of violence and religious kidnappings. Christian groups say Boko Haram has emboldened Muslim Fulani herdsman to carry out attacks.

“We’ve realized seeing these strands of terrorist activity in Nigeria in the last seven to eight years,” said Mr. Enada. “Now, everybody is asking the Nigerian government to do something, but doing something has not amounted to anything. So we still have a lot of Christian communities, especially, that have been decimated.”

Religious tension is not new in Nigeria, an oil-rich yet impoverished nation whose population of more than 200 million has long been tensely divided between the majority Christian south and mainly Muslim north.

Also not new are kidnappings tied to Boko Haram, whose name translates roughly in English to “Western — or non-Islamic — education is sin.” The group, which the U.S. has designated as a foreign terrorist organization, made global headlines in 2014 when it kidnapped more than 270 schoolgirls from the largely Christian northern Nigerian village of Chibok. At least 50 of the Chibok girls later escaped and more than 100 have since been released, but dozens are believed to remain in captivity or to have suffered violent deaths.

The U.S. has backed Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon in carrying out airstrikes and ground offensives to take back villages and towns held by the extremists, but the results are debatable.

Palpable frustration

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, a retired Nigerian military general who came to power in 2015 on promises to grow the economy, tackle corruption and defeat Boko Haram, has had limited success despite winning a second term in office in February.

All the while, frustration mounts among those seeking to draw attention to the security crisis for both Christians and Muslims in Nigeria. The frustration is particularly palpable among advocates like Mr. Enada, who points to “a human rights and humanitarian crisis affecting almost 100 million Christians in Nigeria.”

President Trump seemed eager to address the situation when Mr. Buhari visited the White House last year. “We have had very serious problems with Christians who are being murdered in Nigeria,” Mr. Trump said at the time. “We are going to be working on that problem very, very hard because we cannot allow that to happen.”

The comments drew praise from some Christian groups, but Mr. Enada told The Times that the U.S. government, which has an economic and security stake in the stability of Africa’s most populous nation, should be doing more, starting with the appointment of a special envoy to the crisis.

Such an envoy, Mr. Enada said, could focus U.S. agencies toward upholding what he described as a “flagship” American foreign policy issue: the protection of religious freedom around the world.

It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will take such a step.

In the interim, the pain of Nigerians affected by the kidnapping crisis is not subsiding.

Mercy Maisamari, 29, recalled how Fulani militants armed with AK-47s used lit cigarettes to burn her back during captivity. They did the same to her mother and two cousins who were kidnapped alongside her in 2017.

The family, which belongs to the Christian Adara tribe in the north-central state of Kaduna, was let go after 10 days when Mrs. Maisamari’s father paid a $14,000 ransom.

But 33-year-old Alheri Magaji, whose father is a leader of the Adara tribe, said she believes her people are being targeted not for money but because they are Christian. She suspects the Fulani-aligned government of Kaduna state is tolerating, if not directly facilitating, grisly attacks against them.

“Christian communities are being attacked by Fulani herdsmen all the time. From February to April [this year], we’ve had 400 women, kids and elderly people killed,” Ms. Magaji, who was part of the recent Washington delegation, told The Times.

She described violence of the macabre nature.

“Pregnant women having their stomachs turned open and their babies [taken] out,” she said.

“We’re predominantly farmers and hunters, and one thing they’ve done this year is to cut off limbs of people,” she said. “We believe it’s because they are planning for us not to go back to the farms to work. Because even if you’re healed, how do you go back to work?”

For some, there is no question that the violence and kidnappings are religiously driven.

“Leah was asked to recite the Muslim creed, but she did not, so that’s the reason why she’s still in captivity,” said Mrs. Sharibu, who has not seen her daughter for more than 18 months.

“I have come to your country to plead with your government, to plead with all of you, that you should please put some pressure on our government or do anything that you can so that my daughter will be released,” Mrs. Sharibu said.

She added that the strength of God is behind her in fighting for Leah’s release. “God,” she said, “is the only one helping me.”

• Moss Brennan, Maggie Garred and Rachel Greenland contributed to this report.

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