The world’s most “unfashionable” persecuted minority is arguably Christian. Despite being persecuted in far more countries than any other religion, Christians are simply not on the radar of Western consciousness. At a time when the persecution of Rohingyas in Myanmar, Uyghurs in China and Yazidis in Iraq is being under-reported, the world has done little to help any of these minorities and persecuted Christians have become the victims of increasingly outrageous neglect.
Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in Nigeria, particularly among Christians living in the central Middle Belt and northern regions of the country. In these regions increasing numbers of Christians have been slaughtered by Muslim Fulani herdsmen and the Sunni Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram. In recent years they have been killed in the tens of thousands. In the first six months of 2020, NGOs reported that 1200 Christians were murdered by Fulani herdsmen alone, and a further 390 were killed by Islamic State’s West African affiliate Boko Haram.
Despite the acceleration of attacks with clear religious links, Western media have repeatedly dismissed the events as simple violence between herders and farmers over land and resources. But it has become increasingly clear in recent years that the violent attacks are religiously motivated. Bishops, priests, pastors and entire Christian villages have become targets of deliberate attacks, while Muslim villages have been completely spared. Churches are burnt in many attacks and an increasing number of herdsmen have joined or become supporters of the jihadists.
Meanwhile, Nigeria’s Muslim President Muhammadu Buhari and the country’s security apparatus, which is dominated by northern Fulani-Hausa Muslims, has repeatedly turned a blind eye to the persecution of Christian citizens in Nigeria, leaving Christians to peacefully protest their plight and to appeal to Christian church leaders in the West to speak out about their persecution.
Horror stories abound about the plight of Nigerian Christians. The Chibok schoolgirls who inspired the #BringBackOurGirls campaign were mostly Christians who were forcefully converted to Islam and served as the sex slaves of Boko Haram jihadists. These details have often been omitted by Western media.
Christian aid workers, missionaries and pastors have all been targeted by Islamist groups. Some have been beheaded. Moreover, whenever the “herder-farmer violence” occurs, many in the Western media do not mention the scale of the attacks. On many occasions, hundreds of Christians have been killed in attacks carried out in a single day. Between 2015 and 2020, Fulani herdsmen killed 17,000 Christians in the Nigerian Middle Belt. Boko Haram murdered another 27,000 between 2009 and 2020. More Christians have been massacred in Nigeria than in Iraq and Syria over the past two years.
Demographic time bomb
However, these acts of genocide are not the only threat to Nigerian Christians. Perhaps more concerning is the fact that demographically, in the mid-to-long term, the Christians will soon be greatly outnumbered by their Muslim compatriots. This would fundamentally disrupt the traditional power-sharing system between the Muslim north and the Christian south.
It is important to point out here that Christians in Nigeria are definitely not a beleaguered minority on the way to extinction. Far from it. Demographically, Nigerian Christians are among the fastest growing population groups in the world, with a Pew Research estimate showing that Nigeria will have the third largest Christian population in the world by 2050 — up from the sixth position in 2010. The population of Nigerian Christians is expected to double from 78 million in 2010 to 155 million in 2050. In short, they are definitely growing in numbers and are not going anywhere anytime soon.
However, the same Pew Research study shows another interesting fact about the demographics of Nigerian Christians. Despite doubling their numbers in just 40 years, Nigerian Christians will go from outnumbering their Muslim counterparts in 2010 (49.3 percent to 48.8 percent) to being outnumbered by Muslims. Christians will shrink to 39.3 percent of the Nigerian population by 2050, giving the Muslims a decisive demographic majority.
So how can this be? Well, for a start, Nigerian Christians have far less children than Nigerian Muslims. This is despite the fact that historically the Muslim dominated north and the Christian south have had similar birth rates. Nigeria has also been labelled a country with a stubbornly high birth rate, with the total fertility rate hovering above 5.0 for decades. A closer look, however, reveals the cause of the high birth rate. It comes from the increasingly large regional disparity in birth rates between northern and southern Nigeria.
The divergence began in earnest in the late 1990s when sharia law was once again implemented in northern Nigerian States for the first time since the precolonial era. Ever since then, Christian Nigerians living in the north have complained about increasing harassment and violence. But, amazingly, the introduction of sharia law unintentionally torpedoed the family planning and female education transformations that were unfolding in Nigeria at the time. Sharia law greatly restricted access to contraceptives and discouraged Western-style education in northern Nigeria. And over the next two decades or so, a huge chasm appeared in the populations of the two regions.
According to a 2015 Princeton University paper, in 1990 the fertility rate difference between southern and northern Nigeria was a meagre 0.3. However, by 2008 the TFR difference had skyrocketed to 2.3, meaning Muslim northern Nigerians are now having 2.3 more children than the southern Christians. Between 1990 and 2008, the fertility of Christian Nigerians actually decreased significantly from 6.1 to 4.7 children, but Muslim Nigerians, especially those living in States that now have sharia law in place, actually increased from 6.4 children to 7.1 children, easily one of the highest fertility rates in the world.
This development led Princeton University scholars to conclude that should these fertility trends continue, by 2060 the Muslim population will dominate with Muslims making up 70-80 percent of the Nigerian population by 2060.
What does this mean? It means that the Pew predictions may be even too optimistic for Nigerian Christians. The Princeton study suggests that the fertility trend will expand ever further.
In March 2019, a study published in the Fertility Research and Practice Journal found that Nigerian Muslims have actually further expanded their fertility growth since 2008. The Muslim Hausa-Fulani ethnic groups, who dominate the sharia ruled north, now have a total fertility rate of 8.01 children. Meanwhile the Christian fertility, represented by the ethnic Igbos (who are said to be the most Christianised people in Africa), has a TFR of 4.43, which signals a further dip from 2008 levels. The Yorubas, who are half Christian and half Muslim, had an in-between TFR of 4.91. Therefore the 2.3 Christian-Muslim child differential found earlier has now expanded to at least 3-3.5 children.
This differential is further confirmed in the 2018 Demographic and Health Survey, carried out by the Nigerian Government, which listed the TFR of all Nigerian States. Nearly all northern sharia states have fertility rates above 6, with Jigawa reaching 7.1, Katsina 7.3 and Bauchi 7.2. In Christian majority southern States, some fertility rates are dipping as low as 3.6 in Akwa Ibom, 3.8 in Ogun and Osun, 3.4 in Lagos and 4.5 in Oyo. Muslim States were having twice the number of children that the southern States were having in 2018.
Why the demographic gap?
So what is the reason behind this huge TFR gap? Well, we can get a clue from the huge differentials in education in the different religions of Nigeria. In December, 2016, Pew Research found that the Muslim-Christian gap in formal schooling was not only persisting among all generations, but in fact widening among women. Nigeria, which had among the youngest age cohorts that the study surveyed — ages 25-34 — only 19 percent of Christian women had no formal education. Among Muslim women in that same age bracket, a whopping 63 percent had no formal education. This is actually an even more pronounced difference when you take into account the fact that in the oldest age bracket (55-74) the formal schooling gap was only 12 percent (80 percent of Muslims without formal education vs 68 percent Christian).
This means that after only two generations, Christian Nigerian women are approaching universal access to formal schooling while Muslim Nigerian women are not there at all. This strongly suggests that the sharia law implemented in the northern states is greatly hindering progress.
Female education is one of the key benchmarks that can be used in estimating fertility. The higher the rate of education among women, the less children they tend to have. This is both a blessing and a curse for Nigerian Christians. On one hand, they are becoming more educated, but on the other they are becoming increasingly outnumbered and embattled. Large numbers of Muslim Nigerian men (over 40 percent) do not have formal schooling in the 25-34 age group compared with just 8 percent of Nigerian Christian men. Men who do not have formal education are also potentially going to be targeted by ascendant Salafist Islamists bankrolled by Gulf/Saudi petrol dollars, meaning tens of millions of young Nigerian Muslim men may be on the radicalisation route.
Tragedy is looming
This will completely change the ballgame for political, social and cultural aspects of Nigerian society. For many decades Nigerian politics has seen a tacit power-sharing system in which during one term a Muslim president will have a Christian vice-president, then in the next ter will be a Christian president with a Muslim vice president. This was guaranteed by a decades long 50-50 balance between the Christian and Muslim populations, helping to appease both the northern and southern political elite. But with this population transformation already underway and completely swinging the previous balance in favour of the Muslims, things are likely to change dramatically.
As the population imbalance grows, it is inevitable that Christians will struggle to make their voices heard, at least politically. They will be outvoted, outnumbered and simply will not be able to have the same degree of power they have now. What’s more concerning is that a booming Fulani population will mean more incentive to push further into Christian southern territory, meaning the currently raging Middle Belt mass killings have a real chance of spilling into the south and exacerbating the situation, which, if not tackled immediately, may develop into a Rwanda situation.
This may have incredibly serious consequences for the stability of the entire West African region and even the world. Nigeria may become a ticking time-bomb and if Christian Nigerians continue to suffer from mass violence and persecution, as well as neglect from the government which may become increasingly dominated by the north, secession could develop just like it did with the Biafran War in the 1960s. In that case, Igbo-dominated southeastern Nigeria fought to secede and was crushed by a largely Muslim dominated northern military.
If similar events unfold in the 21st century, hundreds of millions more Nigerian lives will be affected. A religious and communal war in what is likely to become the world’s second-most-populous nation must be averted at all costs. But if present demographic trends are offering such clues and the trends continue to accelerate, the looming tragedy may one day become inevitable.