Boko Haram headlines hide persecution of Christians in mid-Nigeria


Date:                March 23, 2015


This article contains two stories:

1. Boko Haram headlines hide persecution of Christians in mid-Nigeria

2. Gunmen kill 100 Christian villagers in central Nigeria

By Christina Thomas

The whole world has heard of the Chibok abduction: the 275 girls, predominantly Christians, kidnapped by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria in April 2014. More than 230 still missing. But the publicity surrounding this serves to hide a more widespread persecution of Christians in the Middle Belt Region of Nigeria. Nigeria lies on the Christian/Muslim fault-line across Africa; it passes through the middle of the country, meaning there are inherent tensions over land and identity in this area. A general election on 28 March might be to turn the tide of violence, much of it - though not all - targeting Christians. It is, however, unlikely to help, according to a new report.

Migration and Violent Conflict in Divided Societies: Non-Boko Haram Violence against Christians in the Middle Belt Region of Nigeria examines the background to the violence in the Middle Belt Region. Drawing on field investigations between January and June 2014, including interviews with victims of violence and refugees, it reveals a more complex picture than simple migrant incursion, the usual interpretation.

The human race is by nature mobile. If the community needs to move, it will. A settled community will wish incomers to integrate and conform to their culture and tradition; the migrant community will want to keep its own identity. For millennia this has led to conflict in different parts of the world.

In Northern Nigeria, it cannot be disputed that the droughts are worsening and the fertile Middle Belt Region offers attractive grazing grounds to beleaguered pastoralists from the north. The Hausa-Fulani herdsmen, predominantly Muslims, have gradually moved into the Middle Belt Region and there are a growing number of well documented instances of violence against indigenous, predominantly Christian farmers. These in-comers are burning farms, raping women and attacking houses and churches.

The authors of the report argue that this is not an advanced form of jostling over territory. Rather, they say, it is part of a political strategy that is inspired by the Islamic doctrine of darul Islam. Darul Islam translates as 'the house of Islam' and describes the obligation to bring the non-Islamic under the rule of Islam. It is an ideology that pitches the migrant Hausa-Fulani herdsmen from the North against the indigenous Christian population of the Middle Belt Region. The migrants, the authors say, are determined not only to keep their own traditions and culture, but also to make them dominant: the battlegrounds are religious, political, economic and social.

The report focuses on four states in the Middle Belt region: Plateau, Benue, Taraba and Nasarawa. The stories coming out of all four tell a consistent tale of harassment, discrimination and outright persecution.

Attacks caused mass internal displacement

In Taraba State, for example, Hausa-Fulani attacks on Christian communities have caused mass internal displacement. Thousands of indigenous farmers have scrambled to the state capital of Jalingo for safety. The authors cite specific cases of the murder of women and children in the villages, destruction of farms and the burning of homes and churches. Their information comes from extensive interviews with victims of violence in the region. Most residents fear that their forced migration into the towns will be permanent, and that there is no hope of returning to their land or way of life. As the rural communities flee, so Muslims, some of whom are not even Nigerians, take over the land, say the authors.

The social effects are far reaching and food security is an increasing concern. There are documented instances of herdsmen letting their cattle eat the crops of indigenous farmers. The conflict prevents crops being grown and harvested. Displacement also interrupts the education of children and often removes their access to medical facilities that a settled existence provides.

Local media are silent over such events, say the authors, and international media are selective in their reporting. Local governments do not want to acknowledge that there is a problem and make no provision for the displaced. The camps are set up by the displaced themselves, in churches and schools. If official action were taken it would draw the attention of the world to the plight of this already large and growing body of displaced people. Moreover, while government at every level remains silent, the atrocities committed by the Hausa-Fulani can continue unchallenged.

The report says that state governments are allocating lands for grazing, an official process that will result in traditional lands being taken from Christian communities and given to Muslim herdsmen.

Christians forced to convert for political office

The Hausa Fulani ruling classes have imposed the Hausa language in the Middle Belt Region and the authors say there is a clear pro-Islam bias in the political system. Christians are forced to convert to Islam to gain political office. The report gives as an example Alhaji Yahya Kwande, a prominent Christian from Plateau state who saw conversion to Islam, in order to fight the system from within, as the only viable course of action.

Some of the indigenous emirs have had to convert from Christianity to Islam. The present Emir of Ganye, in Southern Adamawa state, was a Catholic but had to convert to Islam in order to become Emir, even though most of the people in his chiefdom are Christians.

According to the authors, the underlying principle here is Cuius region, eius religio (whose realm, his religion): in other words, whoever wields power can dictate which religion is dominant. The government in the region is backed by Muslims, so where Christians win an election, it is likely they will not be appointed to office and that Muslim runners-up will gain office in their place.

The same can be seen in the election of tribal chiefs. The report details the case of Agwatashi in the Obi local government area of Nasarawa state. The traditional ruler died and six of the seven king-makers voted for Peter Ashiki, who is a Christian. Umar Abubakar Apeshi, a Muslim, received one vote. However, the government of Nasarawa state under the leadership of Muslim governor Aliyu Akwe Doma still crowned the Umar as the Osoho of Olusoho - Agwatashi. Similarly, when the Oseshi of Aloshi, Solomon Obiokpa died, his son who was the heir to the throne, was denied his birthright - for no reason other than his faith.

Internal divisions encouraged by colonial powers

The seeds for the current situation were sown pre-independence when internal divisions were encouraged by the colonial powers. Then in 1999, when Nigeria returned to multi-party democracy after a period of military rule, Ahmed Sani, the former Zamfara state governor declared a Sharia state, which he was able to do thanks to a loophole in the constitution. By 2000, 12 out of 19 northern states had declared Sharia law.

Boko Haram emerged in the north of Nigeria in 2002 and, the authors say, has the avowed intention of eradicating Christianity from the Middle Belt region. Their chosen method is violence. In May 2014, for instance, two explosions in the market at Jos killed 118 people, who were mostly Christians. Such aggression, say the authors, paves the way well for the continuing incursion of Hausa-Fulani Muslim herdsmen and their ongoing campaign to uproot and eliminate Christian communities. A campaign that is well funded and well resourced, they report - with sophisticated weapons such as AK-47s.

Migration and Violent Conflict in Divided Societies concludes that the prevailing atmosphere of anti-Christian violence is supported by an expansionist Islamic policy and the complicity of government. Migration of herdsmen in search of fresh grazing grounds does not adequately account for the current situation. The question is whether the indigenous people of the Middle Belt can find a way of unifying and then resisting the onslaught. The imminent election clearly offers no 'quick fix' hope in a region where the pro-Islamist bias in government is so ingrained.

Read the report:

Migration and Violent Conflict in Divided Societies: Non-Boko Haram Violence against Christians in the Middle Belt Region of Nigeria.

By Abdulbarkindo Adamu and Alupse Ben

Nigeria Conflict Security Analysis Network

Commissioned by the World Watch Research Unit of Open Doors International, a charity which works to support persecuted Christians around the world

Gunmen kill 100 Christian villagers in central Nigeria

While all eyes are on Nigeria's north-eastern regions where the radical group Boko Haram is at last being challenged by multi-national military forces, violence targeting Christian communities in the group of states across the centre of Nigeria, known as the Middle Belt, has increased dramatically. This comes ahead of Presidential elections on 28 March.

In the early hours of 15 March in a village in Benue state, close to the Cameroon border, 100 people, including women and children, were slaughtered by Fulani herdsmen who broke into homes and started shooting while their victims slept.

A witness who escaped the killings said 'we were still sleeping when they entered our village and started shooting sporadically in all directions killing every human and animal in sight'.

Worst attack by herdsmen in four years

The Fulani destroyed crops and set houses ablaze in what was described by a local priest as the worst attack by the herdsmen in four years.

Presidential candidate General Muhammadu Buhari, himself an ethnic Fulani, condemned the attack as 'killings in cold blood'.

Many Fulani are known to have strong links with regional Islamist movements. They are largely a nomadic tribe, who spread across national boundaries and are found in countries from Senegal to Sudan.

Since 2011 hundreds of lives have been lost during raids or because of targeted killings by Fulani, with many victims from Christian communities.

Zangang is one of several communities in the mainly Christian-populated southern part of Kaduna state, in the northern Middle Belt, that has come under persistent attacks.

About 300 kilometres from Kaduna, the state capital, Zangang, is one of the ancestral homes of the mainly Christian Atakad ethnic group, which locals say is falling in to the hands of the Fulani invaders who have continued to ravage communities in southern Kaduna.

The killing of the traditional ruler of Zangang, Yohanna Daniel Shinkut on January 3, 2015 has raised fresh concerns about killings in the southern part of Kaduna state since 2011.

Widow of the late chief, Elizabeth Shinkut, told World Watch Monitor that her husband was targeted for elimination by the Fulanis about three years ago, adding that he narrowly escaped the first attempt on his life in 2013.

"The problem started in 2013, when the Fulani started sending letters to our communities that they were coming to attack us. My husband immediately started mobilising members of the community to be on their guard.

"Since that first attack on him in 2013, my husband never knew peace again.

"They burnt our house last year and we are yet to fully recover from that incident, and now they got him this time around.

"He went to Kafanchan [a southern town in Kaduna State] to pick up a battery for the car. About three hours later I saw his missed call on my phone; I couldn't call back immediately because I had no credit on my phone.

"But after a short while I heard gun shots. I ran so fast I fell and hurt myself. I managed to get up and ran to where I could load my phone."

Her attempts to call her husband several times on his phone were not successful. He did not answer and the phone seemed to have been switched off. That's how she and other relatives made the discovery that he'd been killed.

"His body was riddled with bullets"

"We got to the car and saw his lifeless body inside," Mrs Shinkut continued.. "His hands were still on the steering wheel. The car was riddled with bullets from all sides. His body was riddled with bullets.

"As we were pushing the car home with the corpse, the Fulani opened fire at us. [Nigerian] soldiers responded by firing back at them, and we ran to the bush.

''We are a peaceful people. We don't know what we have done to these people. We have been praying to God to touch their hearts and stop these killings and destruction."

Every family in the community has a story about how their loved ones were killed, how their homes were destroyed and how they escaped being killed.

Mrs Shinkut added that the murder of her husband had left her and her six children in a precarious situation as all the children were still in school.

Mrs. Kauna Julius Adamu is another among hundreds of women who are victims of attacks by Fulanis.

"My husband was working in a bakery in Jos, Plateau State. He was coming home to see our baby, but was ambushed on the way and killed. They removed his eyes and tongue," she said.

Another victim is Daniel Wurip, 56. He and his family of eight were made homeless and without any means of earning a living following the sacking of their village by the herdsmen.

"We lost everything in the attack and relocated to my relation in Fadan Attakar where we have been staying," he said.

Fulani weapons "can only be supplied by the military"

Enock Andong, a community leader in Fadan Attakar, explained that the attacks normally go unchallenged, whether taking place in the night or the day. He added that the Fulanis have sophisticated weapons that can only be supplied by the military.

He said although the security agencies have been trying their best, the hilly terrain of the area had been a challenge to the special military task force deployed to the Southern part of Kaduna state since the post-election violence in 2011.

According to him, the Fulanis were based in the Kaduna village of Ganaruwa, which is next to of the Christian Atakad people in Zangang.

"The Fulanis come from Ganaruwa, kill our people, burn our houses and run back. They have destroyed all economic activity in our communities as people have run away from their homes.

"There is also impending hunger because victims of the attacks no longer go to their farms as it is not safe."

Churches levelled to the ground

He said hundreds of children were missing out on their education following the destruction of their schools. Churches in the affected villages too have been levelled to the ground.

"The Fulanis have either burnt or occupied their houses, and have turned farmlands into grazing areas," Andong said, adding that the only way to address the problem was through collaboration between the authorities in Kaduna and Plateau states.

A former councillor representing Zangkang ward and the deputy National President of Atakar Community Development Association, ACDA, Ignatius Raymond, disclosed in an interview in Fadan Attakar that 480, including mostly women and children, have been killed since the attacks started in 2011.

He added that a total of 3,090 houses were burnt down and over 10,000 people made homeless, while 13 churches and six schools were also burnt down.

Raymond traced the root of the attacks to the killing of two of Attakar people by the Fulani in 2011, recalling that on March 30, 2013, the Fulanis came and ransacked two villages on the hills, Mafang and Zangang, killing 33 people.

The ruler of the Attakar people, Tobias Nkom Wada, said he was deeply concerned about the killings going on in his domain.

While condemning the killings and the wanton destruction of his people's property, he wondered why the Fulani have decided to be waging war against his people.

However he recalled that in 2012, thieves killed one of his subjects and made away with his herd of cows.

"They killed him and removed some parts of his body. We were able to arrest a Fulani man who was one of the thieves and handed him over to the police. The police took him to Kaduna but we have not heard anything more about the case.

"In March 2013, all the Fulanis suddenly moved out of our communities on the hills quietly, with their cows and families. We didn't know why they were leaving. The following day, we discovered one of our own was killed again. The Fulanis became suspected of the killing.

"Precisely, this, I can tell you, is what brought about the bad relationship between my people and the Fulanis and they started firing on people and burning houses up till today" he said in a telephone interview.

He added that, through ongoing talks, a concerted effort was being made to bring an end to the killings.

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