Nigerians go to the polls on Saturday to choose their next president in an election some Christian observers call a "matter of life and death," as ongoing violence prompts activists to call for the appointment of a U.S. special envoy to the country.
One fourth of the nation's 36 states have been devastated by radical Muslim attacks that have claimed up to 37,000 lives during the last 10 years, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Terrorists belonging to the ISIS-affiliated Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast or radical Muslim militants of the Fulani tribes, who are attacking towns and cities in Nigeria's northwestern states, make up slightly more than half of the dead. The rest are innocent victims and Nigerian soldiers and police. Close to two million Nigerians have sought shelter in refugee camps.
Unknown gunmen killed 66 persons on the eve of presidential and parliamentary elections, according to Vanguard News Nigeria.
The West African nation is sliding toward becoming a new Islamic Republic, said Dr. Oluwasayo Ajiboye, who was raised in Nigeria and now teaches at a Christian seminary in Texas. Ajiboye returned from Nigeria Feb. 10 after 13 days in the country's seven northern states, where he interviewed hundreds of victims in 10 cities. For Christians, "this election is a matter of life and death," Ajiboye said.
The choice for voters Saturday is between two Muslims, both with roots in the Fulani herdsmen ethnic group.
The current president, 75-year-old Muhammadu Buhari, is expected to allow the continued march of the nation toward Islamization, which will lead to more violent ethnic cleansing, Ajiboye said. While the current vice president is a Christian and a member of Ajiboye's own denomination, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Ajiboye believes most Nigerian Christians are believed to be supporting Buhari's challenger, Atiku Abubakar, reputed to be a corrupt billionaire yet never prosecuted in court. They look to Abubakar to show resolve in the war against the terrorist militants.
As elections have approached, Boko Haram has stepped up attacks against Christian villages in an effort to suppress the Christian vote. It killed four people in an attack in Adamawa State on Tuesday.
Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2015, after years of terrorism, including kidnapping Nigerian girls and selling them into sex slavery.
In 2014, the Obama State Department recalled from retirement a former ambassador with years of service in Africa, Dan Mozena, and tasked him with coordinating the U.S. diplomatic effort against the militants. Activists and observers say they are underwhelmed.
"Ambassador Mozena has done nothing to remediate the threat of Boko Haram," said Stephen Enada, head of the International Committee on Nigeria. "Mozena served in Nigeria from 2015 to 2016 and maybe is still there, yet his reports have been a disaster. If he is doing something behind the scenes to stop the terrorists, why are we seeing so much killing going on?"
Enada says the appointment of a special envoy from the United States is crucial to win the fight against terror. Dede Laugesen, executive director of Save the Persecuted Christians (STPC), agrees.
"The U.S. may have a special coordinator facilitating interagency work for the Department of State, but to the victims, he is an empty suit," Laugesen said. "This special envoy appointment of a well known defender of human rights … will give encouragement to the people and send a message to the region's government officials and the terrorists themselves that the United States will not stand idly by while dark forces—be they Fulani militants or Boko Haram's ISIS in West Africa—push forward an ideological agenda seeking to establish an Islamic Caliphate."