Trump Mulls Conditioning Aid on Religious Freedom, As Violence Flares in Nigeria

A Self-Taught Facebook Reporter in Port Harcourt Applauds

By Douglas Burton

November 19, 2019

Stephen Kefas Solomon is an unlikely poster boy for freedom of speech in Nigeria. Solomon, a janitorial manager with a flair for Facebook, was imprisoned earlier this year after running afoul of Nigerian authorities for speaking out for beleaguered Christian communities in Nigeria.

Solomon didn’t plan on being a human rights  defender when he was studying engineering at Nigeria’s Polytechnic University eight years ago. He had plenty of time to consider that and other life choices during a 162 day prison stint earlier this year.

While in prison Kefas, as he is usually referred to, had become a cause celeb in Nigeria. His confinement for bad-mouthing public officials on Facebook had prompted human-rights demonstrations in the capital of Abuja and become the project of the Human Rights Writers Association.

The White House is mulling an executive order that would help Solomon and millions of other persecuted Christians in Nigeria by conditioning foreign aid on each nation’s performance on religious freedom, according to Politico.

In a speech to a group of UN officials in September, President Trump pledged to make religious freedom a stronger guiding principle of U.S. policy and bemoaned the persecution of Christians worldwide. “Hard to believe, but 80 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where religious liberty is in significant danger or even completely outlawed,” Trump said. “Americans will never tire in our effort to defend and promote freedom of worship and religion.”

Solomon is a member of the Koro ethnicity and a practicing Christian. He has spent his spare time over the last five years documenting scenes of massacres and violence against Christians in Kaduna in Nigeria’s troubled Middle Belt and using social media to speak out about what he saw.

“There is an obvious double standard for handling Christians when it comes to protecting human rights,” he says. “Muslim radicals can accuse Christians of whatever they like, and they are never bothered by the officials, but if a Nigerian Christian tells the truth about the genocide against his people, he’ll get charged with ‘incitement of violence.”

Solomon lives in a modest apartment in the oil-rich city of Port Harcourt, where he worked as operations manager for a custodial company prior to his arrest by state authorities in early May.

Since his release he hasn’t been able to find employment, partly due to the fact of the stigma of the prison stay and because employers are wary of provoking the authorities. Raised as part of the Christian minority in Kaduna, Solomon felt called to photograph the grim aftermath of the wave of attacks on Christian villages by what local media described as “bandits” and “hoodlums” in 2017.

“Mr. Solomon has made his mark as one of Nigeria’s champions of human rights reporting,” according to Stephen Enada, founder of the International Committee on Nigeria (ICON), who used Solomon as a field researcher to document the tragic loss of life in Nigeria’s killing fields.

“Western media has covered the rising threat of the Islamic State linked groups of terrorists in Northeastern Nigeria, yet an even more serious threat has emerged in the so-called Middle Belt, where tens of thousands of Nigerian civilians, usually Christians, have lost their lives,” says Enada. Enada blames the attacks on what he calls “radicalized Fulani terrorists.”

Nigeria’s Middle Belt has seen growing conflict in recent years between pastoral herders and farmers. While the conflicts over land use have gone on in the region for decades, the conflict has increasingly taken on religious over-tones in recent years. Fulani who make up the bulk of the pastoralist population in the state are largely Muslim. Many of the farmers in the rural parts of the Middle Belt are Christians of various denominations.

Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo spoke to Washington think tanks on Oct. 14 during a trip to the United States to warn that Nigeria was in danger of collapsing under the pressure of multiple insurgencies, brutal ethnic cleansing and lawless bandit gangs. ICON sponsored his visit in order to raise awareness among Trump Administration officials about the threat this violence posed to the U.S.-Nigerian alliance.

“Mainstream media usually doesn’t go to the field to get the facts first-hand. They report whatever police officials tell them. When people like us get the facts on the scene and report it, we get tagged for hate speech makers who are inciting violence,” Solomon said in an interview with ZNews.

Solomon is not the only one to run afoul of Nigeria’s media laws much of which takes its inspiration from British colonial regulations. Several Nigerian journalists landed behind bars on the charge of “incitement,” chief among them Omoyele Sowore, 48, founder of the Sahara Reporters in 2006.

Sowore was arrested by authorities in August and reportedly is being held without bail for calling for “revolution,” and for taking part in raucous street protests.

Media personality Segun Onibiyo, an employee of the government-owned Radio Nigeria, was jailed last year for 24 days for “defamation of character, incitement and injurious falsehood” against Kaduna State’s controversial governor, Nasir El-Rufai. The same charges have been filed against Solomon, whose trial date has been set for early February.

“Since 2014 it seems that the Nigerian mainstream media has made an agreement with the government not to report or to under-report the degree of the terrorist attacks,” Solomon says. “For example, we heard about attacks on Christian farmers in Bakin Kogi, in Southern Kaduna State, in February 2017 where it was reported that four houses were burned and two persons killed,” he said.

Solomon took off time from his job in Port Harcourt to drive to the site of the murders, a journey of nearly 20 hours given the traffic conditions on Nigerian highways.

There he photographed the burned remains of 157 houses and mass graves that held the corpses of more than 12 people, he said. CSW News, a British media outlet, reported that seven people were murdered in Bakin Kogi on February 19, 2017.

“I am 100 percent in support of President Trump’s plan to condition aid on the basis of religious freedom,” he wrote in a social media message. “Most third-world nations lack the maturity to protect religious minorities. In fact, they use religion as a tool to divide and rule minorities.”