“We do not sleep with our eyes closed” – how long will the international community fail the people of southern Kaduna?

“We do not sleep with our eyes closed; we take a nap, then wake up and keep watch… we are just depending on the grace of God.”

These are the words of a villager from the Maro Ward of Kajuru Local Government Area (LGA) in the southern part of Nigeria’s Kaduna state. In the absence of effective security or government assistance, this is what targeted communities across the state have been forced into: spending their days and nights on alert patrolling, living in fear of terrorists who destroy their crops, take their lives, and abduct hundreds, if not thousands, for ransom.

Kaduna has been an epicentre of violence and banditry for several years now, with attacks on non-Muslim farming communities in the south increasing exponentially with the advent of the current administration amid a general deterioration in security.

In June 2020, the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Freedom of Religion or Belief raised the question of whether the violence that was unfolding in central states of Nigeria may amount to an unfolding genocide, while in January 2022 the Nigerian government published a gazette which finally designated the armed groups operating in the north, centre, and increasingly in the south of the country as what they are: terrorists.

And yet, abductions and killings in southern Kaduna, and indeed in several states in the north, centre and now even the south of the country, have continued throughout the year. For example, at least 29 people were killed and 21 were abducted during attacks on five communities in Kajuru LGA which saw assailants grouped three to a motorcycle as one drove and two others would shoot to the left and right respectively. The attack was made even more concerning by the alleged involvement of a helicopter, which either highlights the increasing sophistication of the terrorists’ operations, a level of official complicity, or in the most likely scenario, a combination of the two.

Inhabitants of three of these communities – Ungwan Gamo, Dogon Noma and Maikori – have since been informed by the terrorists that if they are kidnapped in the future they will not be held for ransom and will instead be executed. As such, many are now forced to avoid taking the main route when travelling to market, as it is a hot spot for kidnapping, and women from these villages have moved to small safe shelters in the bush, only returning on occasion to collect essentials.

The state government itself has even reported that 804 Kaduna residents were kidnapped between 1 July and September 2022, while the Southern Kaduna People’s Union has added that over 100 Christians were abducted in September 2022 alone.

Stories and figures such as these make the ineffective official interventions increasingly reprehensible. During a visit to the country in November 2022, CSW met with several former captives who insisted that the authorities are well aware of the locations of the camps in which the terrorists are holding their abductees. Several claimed that army helicopters often hovered over the area where they were being held only to move away to bomb an empty area, seemingly to give the impression of addressing the insecurity without actually targeting perpetrators.

The international community is also failing the people of southern Kaduna, and indeed of Nigeria. Many still proffer a narrative that the crisis in the region is a communal conflict between farmers and herders centred on competition for resources such as land and water and exacerbated by climate change. Last year, the United States’ State Department inexplicably decided that Nigeria was no longer a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ (CPC) in relation to the right to freedom of religion or belief, even removing it from the Special Watch List, despite clear and persisting evidence of the egregious violations taking place in Kaduna state and elsewhere.

This decision completely failed to acknowledge the religious aspect to the current violence in the region, where church leaders, along with their families and congregations, are particularly targeted for abduction for ransom, or even execution. In addition, former abductees have told CSW that upon arriving at their assailants’ camp, any Muslims found to have been caught up in violent raids were released without having to pay ransom and returned to their homes on motorcycles.

It is impossible to develop an effective and holistic response to the crisis in southern Kaduna while continuing to ignore its religious dimension.

Possible steps to hold the Nigerian government to account for its failure to respond to this human rights crisis include the convening of a special session at the United Nations Human Rights Council, which could mandate a fact-finding mission to investigate the violence that is now affecting civilians of all creeds and ethnicities, and poses an existential threat to the nation. Doing nothing is not an option as the daily loss of life and trauma inflicted on communities in southern Kaduna will only grow worse.

By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer Ellis Heasley

Click here to read CSW’s latest briefing on southern Kaduna.