As communities turn to militias for protection from rampaging herdsmen, Rosemary Udoh reports on the conflict tearing Nigeria apart – and asks what really lit the country ablaze.
Sunday April 16, 2019, will forever be remembered by the people of Numa in Nigeria’s Nasarawa state.
It was supposed to be a day of merriment for the family and friends of John Kabiru Ali and his wife Safaratu, who were going to the town’s Baptist church for a special thanksgiving and dedication for their new-born baby.
But for many in the congregation it would be their last day on earth.
According to Samson Gamu Yare, a community leader of the Mada ethnic group in the north-central region, the celebration had moved from the church to the reception, where guests were enjoying food and music, when gunmen arrived and started shooting at the guests.
Seventeen people were killed in the ensuing bloodbath, including Safaratu and her three-month-old baby.
Such attacks by so-called ethnic Fulani ‘herdsmen’ have been growing increasingly common over the past few years.
In recent weeks alone, the deteriorating security situation saw 11 people killed and a church burned to the ground during an attack on Christmas Eve, as well as at least two separate incidences of Christian priests being kidnapped and murdered by herdsmen in January.
In the southern state of Oyo, meanwhile, terrified villagers have turned to an ethnic Yoruba militant, Sunday Igboho, who has launched reprisal raids against the heavily armed herders throughout February.
It’s a potential tinderbox that has led to fears for Yorubas living in the Fulani-dominated north and other rural areas, as well as concerns for the future of Nigeria’s fragile federation.
The governor of the southern Ondo state, Arakunrin Rotimi Akeredolu, recently ordered Fulani herders from his region, as long-simmering tensions between farmers and pastoralists erupted across the country.
Though inter-communal conflict is nothing new in Nigeria and cuts across traditional sectarian divides – Igboho’s war on the Fulanis, for instance, was sparked by the December killing of a high-profile Muslim politician, while the Christian militant has been sought out by Muslim Igangans who are also been butchered by the herdsmen – attacks against Christian villagers, in particular, have become increasing common since President Muhammadu Buhari came to power in 2015, with up to 12,000 murdered and 2,000 churches destroyed during the period, according to Genocide Watch.
This has led some outside observers to accuse the president, a Fulani Muslim, of allowing a ‘genocide’ to be committed against Christians by the herdsmen.
Usman Stingo, a retired teacher and local politician in Kaduna, northwest Nigeria, said attacks on Christian in the area started exactly one year after the new government took over.
He said they have become increasingly routine over the past two years in particular, leaving many villages in the region completely deserted.
‘In one attack about 71 lifeless bodies were found, properties belonging to the villagers were looted, and some of the looted houses were set ablaze.’
Recounting a recent attack on the Dogondoma community in Kaduna, the community leader said attackers break into three groups, with one group going house to house shooting civilians, while the second hides in the bush to gun down those who escape.
A third group will then go around the village setting fire to the houses.
The violence, which typically takes place between 3am and 5am when people are sleeping, is the work of Fulani-speaking Muslim herders, according to Stingo.
‘One of the ways we know who they are is by their chanting ‘Allah is great’ repeatedly,’ he explained. ‘The moment you can identify yourself as a Muslim you are safe.’
As well as the early morning raids on villages, insurgents have been known to throw up roadblocks, dragging people off buses and butchering anyone they suspect of being a Christian.
Such brutal attacks have left behind thousands of traumatised victims, such as Peter, a 13-year-old, who described seeing his missionary parents slaughtered in their home.
But while Muslim civilians are also routinely killed by the so-called ‘herders’ – as well as by outraged Christians in revenge killings – the situation is so severe that the UK-based organisation Open Doors, which investigates religious murders around the world, placed Nigeria 12th in a list of countries where Christians suffer the most persecution.
The rebuke echoes a number of high-profile reports on the threat Nigerian Christians face outside their southern heartlands.
The Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, for instance, warned that more than 1,000 Christians were killed between January and November 2019, and estimated more than 6,000 had been between 2015 and 2019.
A group of British parliamentarians warned that 7,000 Christian civilians had likely been murdered in the same period, and cited Fulani herdsmen for the violence, as well as jihadists from Boko Haram and the Islamic States in West African Province (ISWAP), another Islamist group that split off from Boko Haram in 2015.
‘One of the main drivers of this persecution in Nigeria is the militant group Boko Haram, who frequently abduct and kill those who refuse to conform to their extremist brand of Islam,’ explained the MP Jim Shannon, who chairs the unofficial group of British lawmakers.
‘Unfortunately, Boko Haram are not the only threat that Nigerian Christians face. Attacks by armed groups of Islamist Fulani herdsmen have resulted in the killing, maiming, dispossession and eviction of thousands of Christians.’
Well-armed and rarely obstructed by Nigeria’s security forces, the Fulani herdsmen have a long animosity with the settled Christian farmers in Nigeria’s north and Middle Belt. The conflict between the two groups led former US president Donald Trump to accuse his Nigerian counterpart of instigating a genocide against Nigerian Christians.
President Buhari met Trump in Washington in 2018, and Buhari recently revealed that Trump had accused the Nigerian president of deliberately killing Christians.
Denying the allegation, Buhari apparently told Trump that the conflict had no religious element, and the friction between farmers and herders was caused by cultural matters alone.
Attempts to downplay the violence as a herder-farmer conflict were met with outrage by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), which described Buhari’s comments as insincere, adding: ‘It further confirms that the present administration does not care about the carnage in the country.’
Meanwhile, high-profile Nigerian Muslims have warned church leaders to be mindful of the effects their comments could have on Muslim-Christian relations, and pointed out that Muslims are also being targeted by jihadists. More than 300 Muslim boys were kidnapped from their school in December by insurgents linked to Boko Haram.
‘The truth of the matter is that the gunmen killed both Christians and Muslims,’ said Lagos local business leader Alhaji Abdul Ghani Abdul Majeed.
‘It is therefore utterly misleading to say that only Christians were the target or to fault the response that the crisis was cultural and not religious. It is a disservice to always attempt to paint Muslims as enemies of Christians and vice versa.’
For many Christians, though, Trump’s comments shone a welcome light on a conflict that has forced an estimated four to five million people from their homes and left thousands of mostly Christian villagers dead.
The Nigerian human rights group Interscociety estimated that between 1,650 and 1,700 Christians were killed in religious violence in the first nine months of 2020 alone, with the majority of these – around 1,200 – killed by so-called ‘herdsmen’.
Emeka Umeagbalasi, a lawyer and human right activist at Intersociety, believes the realities on the ground vindicate Trump’s genocide comments, and warned that there was a direct link between Fulani herdsmen and members of the ruling party.
‘After 1999, promoters of radical Islamism, including wealthy Northern Muslims, began to fund and radicalise Fulanis for the purpose of making the central government – which was then headed by a Southern Christian – ungovernable,’ said Umeagbalasi.
He added that attacks by Fulani herdsmen had already begun in Plateau, Southern Kaduna and Benue states before the current government took charge, but said these had since spread across the country, including to some almost exclusively Christian regions in the southeast.
A recent report by Intersociety found several examples where Fulanis ‘protected by the country’s heavily Muslim controlled military, have moved in and violently occupied’ parts of the Niger Delta – a region far from ancestral Fulani territory.
Umeagbalasi’s view echo comments made by the Governor of Delta State, Ifeanyi Okowa, who openly accused Nigerian soldiers of ‘accompanying the herdsmen to massacre 14 rural Christians’ in his region last year.
Meanwhile, a prominent human rights activist, Steven Kefas, said the Fulani conflict is directly linked to the war on Boko Haram, adding that the so-called ‘herdsmen’ were in fact ‘cells of Boko Haram’.
Whether the raids are inspired by religious difference or merely part of a land grab by one group who just happen to be of a different faith, the chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Mervyn Thomas, said there had been a ‘regrettable failure’ on the part of the international community to hold the Nigerian authorities to account over the violence.
He also accused Buhari’s government of ‘negligence’ in addressing the violence that is ‘decimating communities, claiming thousands of lives, and driving people groups from their ancestral homes’.
Governors from the north and south of the country got together recently to try to end the cycle of violence, agreeing on a ban on night-time grazing and a registration system to identify legitimate herdsmen from jihadists.
It may be promising news, but given Buhari and the security forces’ refusal to arrest known killers and stop the attacks, it may not be worth the paper it's written on.