When she was just fourteen years old, Leah Sharibu was abducted by Africa’s deadliest terrorist group, Boko Haram. Leah is one of Nigeria’s ‘luckier’ victims, by virtue of the mere fact that she is still alive, and in May this year she will become an adult.
For girls her age around the world, this time in life means a discovery of self, a stable relationship or engagement perhaps, starting out in a vocation or maybe university. It could mean a part-time job with ample space to realise their interests, hobbies and deepen their friendships. Not so for the hundreds or thousands of innocent young women held captive across Nigeria by brutal terrorist gangs, with no signs of their whereabouts for their families to digest, and no sign of their lengthy ordeals coming to an end.
Leah has been held captive for three years. That’s a long time in a young woman’s life – she could have completed an undergraduate degree, got married and had her first two children, or travelled the world. Instead she’s spent the equivalent 78 two-week Covid quarantines, or nine four-month lockdowns, in the hands of terrorists.
Leah’s long captivity is down to the fact she was the sole Christian among 110 schoolgirls abducted from their school in Dapchi, Yobe state in 2018. While her surviving classmates returned a month later following government negotiations, she was denied her freedom for refusing to convert. When Leah’s mother Rebecca visited London last February to plead for Boris Johnson’s help, I was honoured to meet her and learn about the bravery of her daughter. Despite all that may have happened to her, Rebecca, understandably sorrowful and emotional, nevertheless talked with calm resolve and a hope that her daughter would return. The same Christian faith her daughter had refused to give up inspired Rebecca to keep fighting for her girl and all those held unjustly and sometimes killed in torturous conditions in the North East and Middle Belt of Nigeria.
Just as in Syria and Iraq, foreign forces have been crucial to destabilising Nigeria and creating the conditions for a caliphate to emerge. Many of the Middle East’s Islamist groups found fertile ground for their warped projects in the vast and poorly defended wastelands of the Sahel, where they can operate in the shadows. Yet tragically, they have now begun to devastate rural and urban settlements, raiding schools, shooting and butchering Christians and Muslims alike who reject their ideology, murdering farmers and stealing their land. They are being supported in this endeavour by militant indigenes – especially from the Fulani tribe. Twelve of Nigeria’s nineteen northern states are under full Sharia law, boosting their cause significantly and raising the imminent prospect of a regional caliphate of the kind that failed to survive in Syria.
Many academics and politicians have attributed this growing violence to causes other than Christian persecution. They have blamed climate change, desertification and poverty as reasons for the routine harassment and murder of innocent citizens. But this ignores the fact that much of the violence is ideologically motivated. Solutions to the problems of climate change or poverty are useless in the face of religious radicalism. And desertification doesn’t explain the cry, often heard in Nigeria’s terrorised northern villages, of ‘Allahu Akbar’.
Nigeria is now ninth on Open Doors’ World Watch List 2021, which measures Christian persecution around the globe. In recent years it has shot up, overtaking the infamous killing fields of Iraq (eleventh), Syria (twelfth), Saudi Arabia (fourteenth) and Egypt (sixteenth), where Christians are ritually slaughtered, and oppressive totalitarian regimes such as China (seventeenth), Turkey (twenty-fifth) and Qatar (twenty-ninth), where Christians are kept under strict surveillance, and even tortured by their own government. According to Open Doors, more Christians are murdered for their faith in Nigeria than any other country.
The UK Government must intervene in this failing state, to prevent a repeat of the appalling events in Syria which we saw earlier in the decade. Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and has the potential to be the breadbasket of the future, offering vital raw materials and manpower to the continent and Europe. It is the highest-ranked Anglophone country on the World Watch list, and one of only two countries in the top twenty-five where Christians constitute roughly 50% of the country, and are not in an overall minority. If a caliphate can be established not only in the Middle East, but in West African nations with significant Christian populations, the implications for global security are severe. If a country like Nigeria with its western influences falls to terrorists, we can expect an avalanche worse than Syria and Iraq to take place.
If the UK fails to stand up for its values of religious freedom, peace and institutional justice on the world stage, no one will. As the head of PSJ UK, an NGO rallying the attempt to bring Leah Sharibu home, I urge you to #SpeakUpForLeah on social media and in your circles, breaking the silent slaughter keeping thousands of vulnerable women and girls in chains.
The fight for Leah is a fight for our free and peaceful civilization, nothing less.
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