YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – February 19 will mark the fourth anniversary of the kidnapping of Leah Sharibu in Nigeria. She was taken, along with 109 other girls, at the Government Girls Science and Technical College in Dapchi in Yobe State in 2018.

The other girls were released, but Leah remains in captivity because of her refusal to renounce her Christian faith.

General Lucky Irabor, Nigeria’s Chief of Défense Staff, recently reassured Leah’s parents and other Nigerians that concrete plans are being put in place to secure the release of not only Leah, but all those being held captive by terrorists.

“She is now approaching her fourth year in captivity, and action is long overdue, so we urge the government to ensure that it spares no effort in following through on these commitments, and commitments to others who remain in the hands of terrorists,” said Kiri Kankhwende of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, an NGO that works for persecuted Christians.

What follows are excerpts of her conversation with Crux.

Crux: Nigeria’s Chief of Defense Staff, General Lucky Irabor, says the military is intensifying efforts to secure the release of Leah Sharibu and all other people kidnapped by terrorists. How comforting is that reassurance?

Kankhwende: While General Irabor’s assurances are welcome, it is important to remember that the Nigerian government, and specifically President Muhammadu Buhari himself, has made repeated promises, including to Ms. Sharibu’s parents, that it is doing everything in its power to secure her release. She is now approaching her fourth year in captivity, and action is long overdue, so we urge the government to ensure that it spares no effort in following through on these commitments, and commitments to others who remain in the hands of terrorists.

It is also vital for the government to follow through on adjustments to its previous strategies that will enable the security forces to free all who have been abducted for ransom in northwest and central Nigeria by armed assailants of Fulani ethnicity, who were recently designated as terrorists, and bring an end to what has become an existential threat.

What has been the impact of the lack of decisive action on the part of the authorities?

Successive governments have failed to address the newly designated terrorist groups in the northwest and north center with the seriousness they merit. However, the situation in these areas has worsened significantly since 2016.

The lack of decisive intervention has not only facilitated the growth and entrenching of impunity; it has also given these armed non state actors the space in which to evolve into a significant national security threat. They are now able to mount raids on prison facilities to free their members, to shoot down military aircraft, and even to breach the security of Nigeria’s premier military training institute in Kaduna state, and kill two officers while abducting another for ransom.

So far both federal and state governments have been less than effective in securing the release of captives.  For example, despite persistent declarations by the Kaduna state governor of his determination to end the scourge, we still await the rescue of the last of the 121 school children abducted during an attack on Bethel Baptist High School in Kaduna in July 2021. While a few escaped, most were released over an extended period in small groups, as their captors demanded increasing amounts of money to secure their release, and without official interventions.

These militia have evolved even as the original terrorist threat posed by Boko Haram factions, the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) terrorist group, who are Ms. Sharibu captors, and the al Qaeda affiliate Ansaru, continue to terrorize the northeast, with reports of a fresh attack on the predominantly Christian Chibok community on January 15 in which three people were killed. There are also credible reports that factions of Boko Haram who are disaffected with the ISWAP take-over have relocated along with their bomb makers to forests in the southern part of Kaduna state, where the population is predominantly Christian.

If Leah isn’t released by February 19, she would have spent exactly four years in terrorist captivity, and her crime being that she has refused to renounce her Christian faith. What does that kind of resilience in the face of danger tell you about the power of faith?

Ms. Sharibu’s faith is deeply inspiring. The fact that at such a young age she refused to accede to the terrorists’ demands reveals a level of spiritual maturity few have attained, and an incredible bravery that brings to mind the honor roll of faith found in Hebrews 11. We continue to believe that the God who is faithful will honor her faithfulness, and look forward to the day when we are able to celebrate her freedom with her.

How would you assess Christian persecution in Nigeria today, generally?

The situation varies regionally. While the right to freedom of religion or belief is generally respected in the south of the country, the situation of Christians and minority religious and belief communities in the northeast, northwest, and central regions, is deeply concerning.

In the northeast, Christians remain the primary targets of the terrorist insurgency that is now amalgamated under ISWAP.  There have been several incidents reported of these terrorists mounting roadblocks and seizing Christians, security force personnel and NGO workers from their vehicles.

In communities in central states, thousands have been killed, hundreds of thousands more have been forcibly displaced, and hundreds abducted for ransom by the assailants of predominantly Fulani origin, who are now deemed to be terrorists. In states like Kaduna Plateau and Benue such attacks are occurring on an almost daily basis, with some 1.7 million displaced by such attacks in Benue state alone. Moreover, Christians, and church leaders in particular, remain primary targets for abduction for ransom.

And no-one is safe. As was mentioned, an army officer was abducted for ransom from the Nigerian Defense Academy in Kaduna, and we are also just learning of the abduction of a second paramount ruler in Jos.

As was also mentioned, the government has failed to address this violence effectively, allowing it to metastasize, occasion similar death and displacement in Muslim communities of Hausa ethnicity in northwestern states, and extend to similarly affect communities in southern Nigeria.

Christians also face a host of historic violations in Nigeria’s 12 Sharia states, both official and societal, which are ongoing, including the abduction, forced conversion and marriage without parental consent of underage girls, refusal of land for church construction, and land seizures without compensation. For example, in October 2021 the Kaduna state government demolished 263 buildings in the predominantly Christian Gracelands community in Zaria, including six churches, a school complex and homes, despite a court ruling against any demolition in at least one instance.