The Jewish population of Nigeria has been growing by leaps and bounds, doubling over the past five years to encompass an estimated 10,000 people and at least 20 active synagogues. (The origins of Judaism’s presence in Nigeria are disputed, though it seems that Judaism may have spread from North Africa to West Africa and Nigeria several hundred years ago or earlier.)
Unfortunately, Nigeria’s Jews are now at risk, writes Orji Sunday. A secessionist movement calling for the creation of the state of Biafra has sprung up recently, led by a Nigerian Jew, and in response Nigerian authorities have cracked down on the Jewish community at large:
The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), the separatist movement that’s a successor to the earlier Biafra campaign [in the late 1960s], is led by Nnamdi Kanu, a British-Nigerian political activist who is Jewish. Most of Nigeria’s Jews are from the country’s southeast, which is also the home of the Biafra movement. They largely belong to the Igbo, Nigeria’s third-largest ethnic community, which has formed the base for the separatist campaign since the 1960s. Jewish Nigerian protesters have joined peaceful marches seeking a separate state. And though IPOB doesn’t directly link its demand for a new country to Judaism, Kanu resurfaced in Israel late last year, a year after going underground following raids at his home.
All that has set the stage for increasingly targeted attacks by Nigerian agencies against the Jewish community and its places of worship. More than 50 Jewish worshippers were arrested last December in the southeast state of Abia after they called for a separate Biafra. In January last year, Nigerian police forces raided a synagogue, also in Abia, and arrested two people over alleged links to the IPOB. But according to upset worshippers, they also took away the synagogue’s Torah and the Tanakh. Police raided another synagogue in the state in February. In 2016, an Amnesty International investigation showed that Nigerian forces had killed more than 150 pro-Biafra activists that year.
Nigerian authorities deny any religious-based persecution, insisting that they’re only targeting a terrorist group, the IPOB. But at least 28 Jews were among those killed in 2016, some of them taken from — or shot at in — synagogues and Kanu’s home. The walls of Nwachukwu’s synagogue are pockmarked with bullet holes. And the growing violence against Jews could lead to a chilling effect on the religion’s growth in Nigeria, some leaders fear.
“The synagogue is one of the riskiest places to stay,” says Yermeyahu Chukwukadibi, a Hebrew teacher and rabbi who heads a synagogue in Port Harcourt, in the southeastern River state. “People are afraid of identifying with Jews because of the persecution.”