Nigeria is a ticking time bomb, with violence and discrimination threatening to tear the country apart and spread its existing refugee crisis throughout the region, a new report claims.

“Nigeria is a country on the verge of fracturing along religious fault lines,” stated a report “Nigeria: Fractured and Forgotten” released by the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative June 8.

“What is unfolding in Northern and Central Nigeria is one of the worst, most neglected humanitarian crises in the world,” Elijah Brown, executive vice president of the 21st Century Wilberforce Initiative, stated at the Heritage Foundation on June 9, introducing the report.

Attacks on villages and schools by the terror group Boko Haram— most known for its April 2014 abduction of over 200 school girls in Chibok — have displaced millions in the last few years. Other problems that have arisen are attacks by militants of the Fulani herdsmen in the fertile Middle Belt region, destroying entire villages.

This has created a “humanitarian crisis” with displaced persons, especially pregnant women and young children, vulnerable to violence and in need of aid. Furthermore, they are disenfranchised, many are homeless, they face “food insecurity” and “minimal access to health services,” and have “virtually no access to education.”

Compounding the problem is “systematic discrimination” in the north of the country against religious minorities, the Wilberforce report noted.

All together, the problems, if not addressed, could tear the country apart, the report warns. If refugees decided to flee the country, the current humanitarian crisis would spread to other parts of Africa, and possibly even Europe, noted former congressman Frank Wolf, distinguished senior fellow at the Wilberforce Initiative, at the Heritage event.

“What is unfolding in Northern and Central Nigeria is one of the worst, most neglected humanitarian crises in the world,” Brown said. “Millions affected, thousands slaughtered, insecurity rampant, children ravaged by malnutrition.”

Almost 15 million in northeastern Nigeria “have been impacted” by the violence in the region, Brown noted, with over 2 million recorded internally-displaced persons.

However, since many refugees are living with family members or outside of refugee camps, the actual number of displaced is probably more like 5 to 7 million, according to UN estimates — “perhaps second only to Syria globally,” the report stated.  

In addition to the violence, widespread religious discrimination further tears at the societal fabric of Nigeria, Brown said, noting “a foundation of discrimination that exists throughout Northern and Central Nigeria against religious and ethnic minorities” that is “far greater and far more substantive than is often considered.”

For instance, he noted, “12 northern states adopted Sharia [Law] as a reigning principle,” thus putting religious minorities in the area at risk of disenfranchisement.

Instances of discrimination include “health care denied to non-Muslims,” the inability to procure “land for church construction,” disenfranchisement, and “predominantly Christian areas” left without sufficient security forces.

“In other words, just as important as considering the general economic malaise within Northern Nigeria,” he insisted, “it is also imperative to address the ongoing policies and practices that intentionally target and seek to disempower religious minority communities within the north and the Middle Belt.”

The U.S. Ambassador at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Rabbi David Saperstein, praised Nigeria’s “vibrant” religious witness but warned of widespread abuses of religious freedom there.

Depending on the region of the country, he noted, religious freedom laws might be nullified by political leaders favoring one religious group over others. A Muslim leader reported discrimination committed against Muslims in a Christian-majority area in the south. Christian leaders informed him of Christians having “to submit to Sharia courts” because of “social pressures.”

Religious freedom abuses like blasphemy laws have also surfaced, he said, allowing for discrimination to occur with “impunity.”

Religious tensions have indeed helped undermine social cohesion, Rabbi Saperstein found on his recent trip to Nigeria. Christians cannot trust Muslim neighbors in the north any more after the rise of Boko Haram because of suspicion that they cooperated with the terror group, he said.  

“Those with whom I met identified politics, confusion between religion and culture, poor religious education, and most of all the impact of sectarian violence as major drivers of separation between religious communities, of religious discrimination and even conflict in Nigeria,” he said.

“The challenges in Nigeria are serious,” he continued, “and we need to continue to explore a range of meaningful opportunities to counter terrorism, to promote security for displaced people who want to return to their home, and to promote tolerance amongst religious groups.” 

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