On July 10, America’s top diplomat for Africa in opening remarks before a congressional subcommittee hearing said Nigeria has the second largest Muslim population and in a few years will surpass Egypt to become the largest Muslim state” in Africa. Anyone listening to Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson’s remarks then and also at the Center for Strategic International Studies in April would be forgiven for assuming that Nigeria is a “Muslim state.”
Barely three feet behind him, sat the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor who leads Nigeria’s estimated 80+ million Christians. It was jarringly symbolic of the administration’s near total black out and slight on the plight of Christians in Africa’s largest country who have been bombarded by a mass-murdering Islamist insurgency.
But there is an even more sinister undertone. Boko Haram the Islamist anti-western jihadist group that bombed half a dozen churches in June alone had just hours before taken credit for a massacre that left close to a hundred people dead. The group reiterated its often repeated ambition to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria. Carson’s statement that in a few years Nigeria will be Africa’s largest Muslim state essentially comes across like a prediction that the jihadists agenda will succeed in northern Nigeria as it has in northern Mali. In Carson’s mind Nigeria is and has been a Muslim state.”
It is arguable that this was not the intent of the diplomat and that he is guilty of exceptionally poor phraseology. On April 9th 2012 Carson had said Nigeria “is home to the sixth largest Muslim population in the world, Nigeria's Muslim population is larger than any Arab state” again ignoring the equally significant Christian population. At the time I cautioned him not to characterize Nigeria in religious terms especially since he not only did not get the facts right but was in denial that the extremist attacks were “religious” in nature.
However the trail of pseudo diplomatic gaffes by Ambassador Carson goes back even further. On April 28 2011, speaking after Nigeria’s elections, he said “It is also the most populous country in Africa with 150 million people. It’s also the second largest Muslim country in Africa after Egypt.”
Carson apparently did not heed my advice in April when he appeared before Congress in July but what was most disturbing of all is that his official statement was supposed to read Nigeria has “the sixth largest Muslim population in the world, and Nigeria is the world’s largest country to have approximately equal number of Christians and Muslims.” For whatever reason, Carson has consistently read something entirely different from what was contained in his official policy remarks. He has progressively called Nigeria a “Muslim country” and a “Muslim state” with very worrisome connotations for a US diplomat.
But Carson doesn’t stop there. He claimed that one arm of Boko Haram exists solely to embarrass and discredit the government of Nigeria. But Boko Haram has consistently said it seeks to abolish democracy, annul the constitution and impose Islamic sharia rule on the nation. Blowing up police stations and killing scores of police officers is not merely an effort at “embarrassment.” Interestingly the very week of Hilary Clinton’s visit widows of over 1000 policemen many killed by Boko Haram in the last 7 years were also in Abuja protesting for their death benefits.
Carson’s crowning spectacle was during the question and answer part when Congressman Chris Smith asked why only the state department was opposed to “Foreign Terrorist Organization” designation when all others were in favor. Ironically in his responses Carson kept calling them “terrorists.”
In his prepared remarks, Carson said bank robberies and other crimes had been blamed on Boko Haram which may not have been committed by them. When Smith asked how the terror group was being funded, Carson said it was from extortion and other crimes to ripples of laughter from the packed committee room audience that saw the obvious contradictory testimony.
When Carson tried to tug at heart-strings with tear-jerker stats about poverty in northern Nigeria as an apologetic for the extremist Islamism that has claimed thousands of lives in the last few years, Rep Smith said “that’s an insult to poor people.”
However what was by far Carson’s most insidious contribution to the hearing went largely unnoticed. Asked by Rep Smith if there was any Iranian arms connection to Nigeria, Carson said “I am not aware of Iranian arms coming to northern Nigeria.” Now this was either a bold-faced lie or inconceivable incompetence. Here’s why.
In 2010 a shipment of arms from Iran was confiscated by authorities in Nigeria. It comprised sophisticated weapons including rocket-propelled grenades etc.
The weapons were reportedly linked to staff of the Iranian embassy in Abuja, Nigeria. The Iranian foreign minister flew into Nigeria and, invoking diplomatic immunity, rescued a suspected Iranian official from hiding in the embassy and flew him home.
Now here is where it gets interesting. The Nigerian government, embarrassed and miffed by this total violation of diplomatic norms, reported this arms shipment to the United Nation’s Security Council as a violation of resolutions and sanctions sought for and obtained by the US against Iran.
When Carson denied knowledge of arms shipments from Iran to Nigeria, he was either being economical with the truth or he was being inexcusably negligent. The top diplomat for Africa cannot claim not to know of a serious international incident rising to the level of the UN Security Council on an issue driven by the US.
The question therefore arises that if ambassador Carson could be so wrong on Iran arms given his background in intelligence what else has he been wrong on and why isn’t anyone catching it? The US newly released International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 does not contain data on the over 700 churches destroyed in 48 hours after the elections. Carson has spoken only of “elites” as victims again not mentioning the overwhelming Christian casualties in systematic attacks across the 12 northern sharia states.
Sadly the last time Carson made his decidedly odious remarks, it was the day after 40 people were killed in attacks targeting Easter Sunday services. This time, it was 2 days after about 100 Christians were killed. Ignorance and or deceit continues to claim lives as the state department plays hide-and-go-seek with the truth. Exactly a week after Carson’s botched testimony before Congress, BBC news reports that a Rocket Propelled Grenade attack occurred in Jos, Nigeria. It’s the first of its kind.
As Secretary of State Hlilary Clinton visits Nigeria, can she not see that 17 Christians were killed in church, dozens of Muslims were arrested for not fasting, and widows of slain policemen are protesting neglect, and still say terrorism is “economic” not “extremism” and it’s just an “embarrassment”?
Spero columnist Emmanuel Ogebe is a U.S.-based attorney and an analyst of U.S./Nigeria Affairs