A mayor surveys the smoldering ruins of his town. When he heard the militia were about to attack, he called the security services, stationed nearby, begging them to come. Instead, the well-armed Fulani herdsmen arrived, carrying Islamic flags and yelling “Allah u Akbar” (God is the greatest). During the following eight hours, they separated the Christian civilians from the Muslims, destroyed the church, and ritually slaughtered the “unbelievers.” The following day, the mayor told me, the security services finally arrived, bringing a mechanic digger so the survivors could dig a pit for the hundreds of bodies.
This did not happen in the Middle East but in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria, a nation ranked third on the Global Terrorism Index of countries affected by terrorism. Fundamentalist Islamism makes the West African nation more dangerous than Syria, Pakistan or Somalia now. Nigeria is closely followed in the league table by other countries in the Sahel, where turbocharged jihadism is taking an increasing toll. To put it in context, Israel is number 40 on the index.
A new British report on the persecution of Nigerian Christians highlights the role of the security services in human rights abuses. But it also questions the West’s reluctance to recognize the sectarian motivation of the killers. The Nigerian House of Representatives designated the treatment of Christians in the Middle Belt as genocide in 2018. Yet, there is resistance to acknowledge the extreme Islamist element in the crisis among some Western commentators and officials. According to another Nigerian mayor, whose village was destroyed in 2019, “Why did the Fulani leave Muslims who are farmers and attack only Christians if this is not a religious issue? There is more than grazing land or a farmer and herders’ fight over land.”
The British All-Party Parliamentary Group on Religious Freedom and Belief report concludes that more Christians are being killed by Fulani militias in the Middle Belt of Nigeria than by the more well-known Boko Haram Islamist insurgents in the mainly Muslim north. Given that the Nigerian government receives the equivalent of $1 million a day in aid from the UK, the British legislators want the authorities to do more to protect unarmed civilians.
The Parliamentarians set out to examine the roots of the violence perpetrated by mainly Muslim herdsmen against mainly Christian farmers – a situation not confined to Nigeria, but repeated across the Sahel, affecting people of all faiths in Niger, Mali, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and the Central African Republic.
The report concludes that climate change, desertification and a rapidly growing population threatens the livelihood of pastoralists, leading them to move their herds onto farmland. Problems that were previously resolved with traditional mediation have turned deadly due to the availability of cheap weapons from conflict zones in the region. Herders are emboldened by unscrupulous politicians and extremist Muslim clerics to destroy Christian villages and churches, targeting pastors, and carrying out “ritual slaughter” and mutilation. They also kill thousands of unarmed Muslims who do not subscribe to their particular interpretation of Islam.
According to the NGO Open Doors, between November 2016 and October 2019, there have been 7,081 recorded murders of Nigerian Christians and 26,406 assaults; 741 churches and 37,064 Christian-owned businesses and homes have been attacked.
However, the conclusions most likely to rankle the Nigerian government concern the role of its police and army. Based on its research, Amnesty International concludes the security services demonstrate “at least, willful negligence; at worst, complicity” in attacks on Christians.
Testimony from a former Nigerian army chief of staff confirms fears that the armed forces are “not neutral, they collude” in “ethnic cleansing” by expensively-equipped Fulani militia.
Yet, in Parliamentary answers, British officials refuse to acknowledge the sectarian aspect of the conflict, repeatedly blaming the “competition for resources” among groups, hinting at moral equivalence because some young Christian men have formed self-defence militias.
The British report is dedicated to Leah Sharibu, the abducted Nigerian schoolgirl who refused to convert to Islam. While her Muslim classmates were released, Leah remains a hostage, and has given birth to a child resulting from being raped by her captors.
The Parliamentarians’ report should matter to a wider audience than Nigeria-watchers because its conclusions apply to a broad swathe of Africa and the Middle East where environment and demography are creating a perfect storm of discontent.