ROCKET-LAUNCHERS and AK-47s are being used in an escalation of attacks by herdsmen in Nigeria, in which hundreds have been killed in recent weeks.
On Saturday, during a raid on the home of the Archbishop of Jos, Dr Ben Kwashi, a neighbour was shot through the head, leaving a widow and children.
While church leaders in the country are warning of the “ethnic cleansing” of Christians, describing the narrative of a clash between farmers and Fulani Muslim herdsmen as “false propaganda”, the British Government has said that it is “not aware of evidence to support the view that religion is driving this conflict”.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reports that 238 people were killed in attacks by “Fulani herder militia” in Plateau State over the course of the penultimate weekend of June; 120 were killed as they returned from the funeral of an elderly member of the Church of Christ in Nations.
It estimates that, in the first quarter of the year, the death toll from these attacks in central Nigeria was 1061. While acknowledging a long history of conflict between nomadic herders and farming communities, CSW argues that the attacks by the herders are “currently occurring with such frequency, organisation, and asymmetry that the characterisation as ‘clashes’ no longer suffices”.
On Tuesday, Tearfund’s country representative for Nigeria, Paul Mershak, said that the recent violence had entailed the use of AK-47s and rocket-launchers, and had become more frequent, becoming “widespread” in the country’s “Middle Belt”.
The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has encouraged peaceful protests against the violence. Last Friday, the Revd Dr Soja Bewarang,who chairs its Plateau State branch, said that 6000 people had been “maimed and killed in night raids by armed Fulani herdsmen” this year. He called on the government to “stop this senseless blood-shedding in the land, and avoid a state of complete anarchy where the people are forced to defend themselves”. He accused the security forces of “grave bias and incompetency”.
“There is no doubt that the sole purpose of these attacks is aimed at ethnic cleansing, land-grabbing, and forceful ejection of the Christian natives from their ancestral land and heritage,” he said.
“We reject the narrative that the attacks on Christian communities across the country as ‘farmers/herdsmen clash’.”
CAN reports that herders have destroyed more than 500 churches in Benue state since 2011.
Dr Kwashi, who was unable to comment while travelling this week, confirmed an account of the raid on his house in Global Christian News, which also described how two Evangelical pastors and their wives had been killed by Fulani herdsman last week.
Lambeth Palace confirmed that the Archbishop of Canterbury had had a “private, pastoral telephone discussion” with Dr Kwashi this week. In April, during a meeting with the Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, Archbishop Welby expressed his concern about raids on Christian communities and villages and offered “support in finding a solution to the herder-farmer conflict”.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria has called on the President Buhari, to consider resigning: “If the President cannot keep our country safe, then he automatically loses the trust of the citizens. He should no longer continue to preside over the killing fields and mass graveyard that our country has become.” The RC Bishop of Gboko, the Rt Revd William Avenya, told Aid to the Church in Need last week: “We are convinced that what is happening is an ethnic cleansing of Christians.”
In a debate on the violence, held in the House of Lords on Thursday of last week, Lord Alton of Liverpool described “attacks by well-armed Fulani herders upon predominantly Christian farming communities. The asymmetry is stark, and must be acknowledged by the UK Government in their characterisation and narrative of this violence.”
Baroness Goldie, an Elder in the Church of Scotland, said, however, that the Government was “not aware of evidence to support the view that religion is driving this conflict”, and argued that the situation was “not helped by a narrative which overplays the ethno-religious dimensions”.
Open Doors reports that conflict between farmers and Fulani semi-nomadic herders dates back centuries, and that the increasing desertification of Nigeria has driven the Fulani south, resulting in conflict with the non-Muslim farmers in the Middle Belt.
Mr Mershak confirmed this account. While declining to comment on religious dimensions, he explained that herdsmen tended to believe that any cattle they encountered must have been stolen from their herds.
Tearfund’s peacebuilding work in the Middle Belt has brought adversaries together through peace committees and “helped settlers, pastoralists and farmers come to a place of forgiveness and reconciliation”. It has also helped to create a state-level peacebuilding strategy in Plateau backed by the Government, the first of its kind in Nigeria.
Mr Mershak urged the government to “intensify its efforts” to bring peace to the region. On Saturday, he met displaced women in camps who said that they would not stay another hour if the government was able to provide security in their communities. There was a need for more a “more pro-active” security strategy, he said.