Independent UK report exposes the official ethno religious bigotry of Nigeria government led by Muhammadu Buhari in the persecution and killing of Christians
Report by Philip Mounstephen
The “intensification of conflict” in Nigeria in recent years comes at a time when Christians in the country have suffered some of the worst atrocities inflicted on Churchgoers anywhere in the world. Since 2009, Boko Haram, the Islamist militant group in “allegiance” with Daesh (ISIS) extremists in Iraq and Syria, has 424 “inflicted mass terror on civilians, killing 20,000 Nigerians, kidnapping thousands and displacing nearly two million”.
The kidnapping of “mostly Christian girls” from a school in Chibok north-east Nigeria in April 2014 and the forced “conversions” to Islam of many of the students, demonstrated the anti-Christian agenda of the militants. Boko Haram’s continued detention of teenager Leah Sharibu, kidnapped in April 2018, showed that the militants were continuing to target Christians.
The Catholic Church in north-east Nigeria reported in spring 2017 that Boko Haram violence had resulted in damage to 200 churches and chapels, 35 presbyteries (priests’ houses) and parish centres. At least 1.8 million people in north-east Nigeria’s Borno state had been displaced by March 2017, according to Church sources. To this extent, Boko Haram delivered on its March 2012 promise of a “war” on Christians in Nigeria, in which a spokesman for the militants reportedly declared: “We will create so much effort to end the Christian presence in our push to have a proper Islamic state that the Christians won’t be able to stay.”
Hence, by 2017 it was being concluded that “Boko Haram has carried out a genocide against Christians in northern Nigeria.” By that time, a new and growing threat to mainly Christian farming communities had emerged from nomadic Fulani herdsmen.
The Fulani carried out attacks against Christian communities especially in Nigeria’s ‘Middle Belt’, the border territory between the Hausa-speaking Muslim areas in northern Nigeria and land further south mainly populated by Christians. Reports also showed mostly retaliatory attacks against Fulani by “predominantly” Christian farmers, such as the November 2016 killing of about 50 mainly Fulani pastoralists by ethnic Bachama local residents in Numan district, Adamawa state. The causes of this inter-communal conflict are complex and “attributed to many factors.”
That said whilst the conflict cannot simply be seen in terms of religion, it is equally simplistic not to see the religious dimension as a significantly exacerbating factor, and the Fulani attacks have repeatedly demonstrated a clear intent to target Christians, and potent symbols of Christian identity. This was evidenced, for example, by the April 2018 murder of two priests and 17 faithful during early morning Mass at St Ignatius Catholic Church, Mblaom, Benue State, in Nigeria’s Middle Belt.
The threat from Boko Haram and militant Fulani Islamist herdsmen – with evidence of some counter-attacks from Christians – suggests that the situation for Christians in parts of the country has “deteriorated” , with Nigeria rising through the ranks of countries with the worst record of persecution against Christians.
Faced with repeated accusations of inaction and even “connivance” in relation to Fulani violence, it remains to be seen if Muhammadu Buhari, re-elected in the February 2019 Presidential elections , will make good his promise, stated in Easter 2019, to “do all it takes to… confront these security challenges [and] not allow merchants of death and evil to overwhelm the nation.”
Context of the attacks:
The attack at St Ignatius’ Church, Mbalom fitted a pattern of earlier attacks in the region, known to have been carried out by Fulani. On 19 April 2018, less than a week before the Mbalom attack, James Tsave, a resident in the area, reported that “Muslim Fulani herdsmen in Benue State’s Anyiin village killed 25 Christians… The assailants set fire to 30 houses, destroying them.” The media quoted Mr Tsave saying: “Twenty-five Christians have been killed, and those of us who survived have been forced to flee our village.” On 10 April 2018, two weeks before the attack, in Gbeji village, in another part of Benue State, Fulani killed about 30 Christians. A resident stated that a Catholic church building was attacked and afterwards houses were set on fire.
“Herdsmen attacks in the first three weeks of April  are believed to have caused the deaths of more than 250 Christians in Benue State, according to local media reports.” “Some 73 people were killed in central states – known as the ‘Middle Belt’– in the first few days of 2018, prompting a high-profile mass burial in Benue State’s capital, Makurdi.”
Fulani attacks have been attributed to the desperate search for grazing pastures for their cattle at a time of increasing “desertification” arising from climate change. Father Patrick Alumuku, Director of Communications for the Archdiocese of Abuja, told Vatican News: “‘Groups of nomadic shepherds are forced to move south because of desertification, resulting in conflicts over lands and resources in this fertile region.”‘
The superiority of the weapons used by the Fulani has prompted commentators to suggest that the herdsmen are funded and trained by others. Bishop Wilfred Chikpa Anagbe said the herdsmen were “being armed with ‘sophisticated weapons… the Fulani tribesmen for the most part live in the forest and cannot afford the luxury of such sophisticated weapons – so who is funding them?”
Analysis specifically relating to the attack at St Ignatius’ Church, Mbalom, pointed to an unambiguous religious motivation. Samuel Ortom, Benue State governor, said: “The reverend fathers [Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha] were not farmers. They were not in the farm. The church where they were holding the Mass had no grass.
The armed herdsmen have moved the narrative of the current crisis from search for grass to other obvious motives.”
Aftermath of the attack:
In the weeks that followed, attacks similar to that at St Ignatius’ Church, Mbalom, re-inforced the view of Church leaders that religious hatred and territorial expansion were central motives for the attacks. News reports highlighted that
“The attack took place near… where the Muslim north [of Nigeria] meets the southern Christian area.” Speaking on Wednesday, 30 May 2018, Bishop Wilfred Chikpa Anagbe of Makurdi “pointed out that 11 parishes in his diocese had been attacked.”
Referring to the killings at St Ignatius’ Church and elsewhere, Bishop Anagbe said: “Up to 100 Christians have died this year in the hands of nomadic herdsmen… There is a clear agenda – a plan – to Islamise all of the areas that are currently predominantly Christian in the so-called Middle Belt of Nigeria.” He also said: “The Fulanis’ agenda was the same as that of Boko Haram. Both groups are united in the same intention to Islamise the entire region.”
In the UK, The Telegraph’s Africa correspondent Adrian Blomfield stated: “The attack [on St Ignatius’ Church on 24 April 2018] has had a powerful effect on Nigeria’s Christians, persuading many, justifiably or otherwise, that the Fulanis’ real intent is dispossession, territorial acquisition and the expansion of Islam – all to be achieved by the ethnic cleansing of Christians.”
Reports indicated that Christians had carried out violence against the Fulani, while acknowledging that the attacks by Fulani were far greater both in number and severity. “Herdsmen involved in the communal violence are mainly Muslims from the Fulani ethnic group, while members of the settled farming communities are mostly Christian. Attacks have been carried out by both sides.”
Political reaction to the attack:
The Government of Nigeria immediately responded to the attack by publicly acknowledging its significance. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, who was in the US in the days following the attack, tweeted : “Violating a place of worship, killing priests and worshippers, is not only vile, evil and satanic: it is clearly calculated to stoke up religious conflict and plunge our communities into endless bloodletting.”
Nonetheless church leaders accused the government of inaction. “In the wake of the attack” at St Ignatius’ Church, Mbalom, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria issued a statement “calling on President [Buhari] to ‘consider stepping aside’ and accusing the government of security failures: ‘How can the federal government stand back while its security agencies deliberately turn a blind eye to the cries and wails of helpless and armless citizens who remain sitting ducks in their homes, farms, highway and now, even in their sacred places of worship?’
Local leaders in Nigeria called for police and other security forces to take action.
“Trever Akase, a spokesman for the Benue governor, said: ‘The armed herdsmen also burnt numerous houses, shops and other property in the area. This mindless attack was unprovoked, and we urge security agencies to arrest the herdsmen behind the killings for prosecution.’”
US politicians and government called for the Government of Nigeria to act quickly to stem the crisis of repeated Fulani attacks. US Congressman Chris Smith, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, said: “[The] killing of priests and parishioners… of St Ignatius’ Catholic Church in the Makurdi Diocese signals that the religious violence is escalating. It’s imperative that Nigerian authorities punish those who are culpable, lest violence worsen…”
On 30 April 2018, US President Donald Trump said in front of President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria at a press conference outside the White House, Washington DC: “We are deeply concerned by religious violence in Nigeria including the burning of churches and the killing and persecution of Christians.”
Foreign Office Minister and the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Lord Ahmad, when answering a Parliamentary Question on this subject, has said: “We condemn the recent attack in Mbalom, Benue State, which included an attack on a church and up to fifty houses. Two priests were among at least 18 people reportedly killed. We are appalled by the tragic loss of life” Case Review and Analysis In spite of uncertainly over the identity of the attackers, the evidence suggests a religious motive lay, at least in part, behind the 24 April 2018 killing of priests and worshippers attending an early morning church service at St Ignatius’ Church, Mbalom, in Nigeria’s ‘Middle Belt’.
Insofar as the massacre fitted with a general pattern of attacks by militant Fulani nomadic herdsmen, the killings appeared to point out the error of an analysis, which downplayed religious motives in exclusive favour of issues including climate change, the search for cattle-grazing pastures and other economic factors. In the US, response to the St Ignatius’ Church killings from President Donald Trump and other political leaders both recognised the religious dimension to the violence and renewed calls for the Nigerian government to do more to bring the perpetrators to justice. A similar approach is evident in the response made by the UK government.
Nigeria is one of a number of West African countries straddling the sub-Saharan transition zone between majority-Muslim regions in the north and majority Christian regions in the south. Since independence there has been a conscious effort to ensure that both communities are fairly represented at all levels in the structures of power in civil and military life. But in more recent years this balance appears to have been disturbed. In the northern and central regions of the country attacks on and abductions of unarmed civilians by armed groups have become increasingly frequent. The case study above gives full details of one such attack in the so-called Middle Belt, and cross-references others that demonstrate a consistent pattern.
Members of the Independent Review Team visited Nigeria in March. They met with church leaders, representatives of international civil society, FoRB NGO representatives, witnesses to persecution and attacks in the northern and central regions and staff at the British High Commission in Abuja. This included a roundtable discussion hosted by the British High Commission specifically on the farmer/herder clashes in the Middle Belt. There was a consensus in condemnation of the activities of Boko Haram and associated groups in the northern regions as religiously motivated, the widely publicised abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls being but one example of these activities. But when it came to the numerous attacks by Fulani herdsmen on farming communities in what is known as the Middle Belt, where Christian and Muslim communities are intermixed, there was a divergence of view.
Representatives of some international organisations and FCO staff maintained that these attacks were primarily caused by factors such as a changing environment and the clash of livelihoods This would reflect the position taken in an April 2019 FCO 65 research analysts’ paper cautioning against seeing the attacks as being sparked by a Fulani Islamisation agenda (this was despite assurances from senior FCO researchers in London that their own analysis, supplied to Post, always took the religious dimension into account). However church leaders and witnesses from the region maintained that the facts pointed to a further ethno-religious dynamic as a significant exacerbating factor. It was pointed out that the effects of climate change are more severe in neighbouring Niger to the north, but farmer-herder disputes there do not lead to mass loss of life as government security forces are quick to diffuse tensions and initiate traditional dispute-resolution procedures.
Additionally there are normally only primitive weapons available to both sides. By contrast in Nigeria the herdsmen side is often armed with sophisticated assault rifles, the government security forces seem to steer clear of getting involved; and traditional dispute resolution procedures cannot operate when the situation has already been significantly enflamed with one party to the dispute suffering disproportionately.
Add to this that Christian villages are predominantly targeted and that attacks often start by attacking the priest and the church and the religious dimension of the conflict becomes ever more evident.
Specialist witnesses interviewed in London also reported observing spikes in geo-located jihadi social media traffic both before and after such raids.
Whatever the motivation behind these attacks, however, it is striking that nobody is being brought to justice for these crimes.
Where there is such impunity the incentive is clearly given for the attacks to continue and the affected communities are denied protection. In just four months in early 2018 there were at least 106 of such attacks and the resulting death toll was 1,061 Christian villagers killed, over the same period there were seven attacks on Fulani herdsmen, two of them in the south of the country .
Since 2015 more deaths have resulted from these violent attacks than those caused by Boko Haram further north. By June 2018 11,833 485 displaced persons from these raids were living in 17 camps and 54 communities in Plateau state alone had been occupied and renamed by the raiders. On 3 July 2018 the Nigerian House of Representatives declared the killings in Plateau State to be a genocide. Around the same time British Government Ministers were insisting in parliament that these killings had little to do with religious extremism.
Victim witnesses from Plateau state reported that they received regular visits from staff at the US mission in Abuja, but said that the British hardly ever visited (although a forthcoming visit to Jos was promised at the roundtable meeting).
Post have since clarified that they had visited Plateau a number of times during the past year to visit other groups, but had not had the opportunity to meet affected communities. Nonetheless Independent Review Team members were assured that contact is good between the British High Commission and the Nigerian Federal Government at the highest levels and that security and humanitarian assistance has been offered.
Until at least some of the perpetrators of violence in the Middle Belt are brought to justice; the security forces intervene effectively on the side of those being attacked; and solutions are formulated which take the ethno-religious dimension seriously, victims and survivors will remain unconvinced that diplomatic efforts to date have been as effective as they might otherwise have been.