On 3 June the predominantly Christian Tudun Agwalla community in Kajuru Local Government Area (LGA), Kaduna State, Nigeria, buried nine of its members in a mass grave. They had been murdered by machete wielding assailants of Fulani ethnicity, who had attacked the village in the early hours of the morning. An unknown number of people were also injured during the attack. Seven remain missing.
The tragedy continued the next day when three-year-old Elizabeth Samaila became the tenth victim of the attack after she died from her injuries.
This is by no means an isolated event. Since the start of the year, predominantly Christian communities in southern Kaduna have been violently attacked in this manner on an almost daily basis. Hundreds have lost their lives, hundreds more have been injured, and an estimated 20,000 people have been displaced.
While the attacks have taken on a new level of frequency and severity in recent months, the targeting of civilians by Fulani militia is not a new phenomenon. Coordinated violence characterised by firearms and indiscriminate killings was first reported in Plateau State in March 2010, during attacks on Dogo Nahawa, Ratsat and Zot villages that claimed over 400 lives. Since 2011 it has affected non-Muslim communities in states across Nigeria’s central belt. Attacks increased exponentially in 2015, with communities in Adamawa, Bauchi, Benue, Kaduna, Nasarawa, Plateau and Taraba states all being targeted.
“What kind of ‘conflict’ hacks children to death when they are sleeping?”
The fact that this violence has continued for over a decade since first being reported serves as a damning indictment of a failure of successive Nigerian governments to address it, of the current government to prevent its recent intensification, and of the international community to call the Nigerian authorities to account for an inexcusable dereliction of duty.
Failing to recognise the asymmetry of the violence, which some local observers have described as a campaign of ethno-religious cleansing, the international community and numerous media outlets have mischaracterised the ongoing crisis as a ‘conflict.’ However, in the words of Professor Chidi Odinkalu of the Open Society for Justice Initiative: “What kind of “conflict” is it that hacks children to death when they are sleeping?”
There have been some notable efforts to address a lack of informed attention on the situation. This week the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief (APPG-FoRB) published a report on the situation, entitled ‘Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide?’.
The report explores a variety of factors driving the escalating violence, including resource competition, extremist ideology, criminality, government inaction, the flow of firearms into the country, and the spread of misinformation. Crucially, the report highlights the often-neglected religious dynamic of the crisis:
“The drivers of the farmer-herder clashes are complex and need to be addressed if the violence is to be curbed. Religious ideology nevertheless has an important impact. Failure to acknowledge this or to overlook the underlying tensions between religious groups will only serve to limit attempts to reduce violence.”
Inaction cannot continue
There is a mounting body of evidence of the crimes being perpetrated in central Nigeria, for use in legal action on the international level; what is now needed is concerted action to stem the loss of life and restore homes and livelihoods.
Less than a month before the violent attack on the Tudun Agwalla community, a family of four was shot and injured as they were praying in their home in Plateau State. Days later, Fulani militia conducted a series of attacks on villages in Kaduna State which claimed at least 25 lives over a 48-hour period. One of those who survived the attacks was a six-month old baby who was hit in the head by the bullet that killed his mother.
CSW has long advocated for a comprehensive, holistic security plan for areas of Nigeria afflicted by a spiralling cycle of violence. The Nigerian government must ensure that police and army are adequately resourced – and mandated – to combat the threat posed by Fulani militia and all other armed non-state actors such as Boko Haram, the Islamic State’s West Africa Province and the armed bandits, also of Fulani ethnicity, who are terrorising Hausa Muslim farmers in Katsina and Sokoto states. The impunity surrounding these crimes must also end, and the authorities must spare no effort in holding perpetrators to account, prioritising the protection of vulnerable communities, and fostering interreligious dialogue and cooperation.
Nigeria’s international allies must support the government in efforts that tackle the real root causes of the violence, including by offering technical assistance and humanitarian support to those who have been displaced or otherwise affected by the widespread violence.
A solution cannot be found until there is a nuanced understanding of the multifaceted elements of the crisis, which recognises its religious and ethnic aspects, and avoids terms which mischaracterise ongoing violence that is largely flowing one way as a ‘conflict’ or farmer-herder ‘clashes.’
In its submission to the APPG investigation, CSW noted that the violence “has mutated from its traditional form into a sustained, deadly campaign with outworkings reflecting Nigeria’s main religious fault line,” with religion and ethnicity serving as a rallying point for perpetrators, many of whom are reportedly from neighbouring countries.
Without concerted international efforts to address this crisis in a manner that acknowledges and includes its religious aspects, the plight of Christians in central Nigeria will only continue to deteriorate, to the shame of the entire international community.
By CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas