Since 2001, the Africa Center for Strategic Studies has estimated that up to 60,000 Nigerian have been killed in violence between Fulani herdsmen and farmers.
According to statistics provided by the Institute for Economics and Peace, 1,229 people were killed in 2014, up from 63 in 2013 and Benue State seems to be the hardest hit in recent times. Barely five days to the end of Governor Gabriel Suswam’s administration in May 2015, over 100 farmers and their family members were reportedly massacred in villages and refugee camps located in the Ukura, Per, Gafa and Tse-Gusa local government areas of the state.
More recently, the organisation Open Doors has collated reports of at least 611 deaths in the latest spike of militant Fulani unrest involving 50 incidents, where churches and homes were burned and residents were murdered, raped and kidnapped.
Yet, unlike Boko Haram, the violence of the militant Fulani herdsmen has been strikingly underreported. Analysis of the attack sites, by Open Doors led to the conclusion that
* 88% of Fulani attack victims in Nigeria’s Benue State were Christians.
* 70% of victims in Taraba State were Christians.
* 75% of victims in Nasarawa State were Christians.
Local interviews further disclosed a strong perception among Christians in the regions most affected that in addition to taking land, the militant Fulani’s ultimate goal is to undermine Christianity and the homeland rights of indigenous Christians.
The Catholic bishops of Kaduna have made their belief clear that militant Fulani herdsmen are seeking to subjugate Christians saying that “There is a hidden agenda targeted at the Christian majority of southern Kaduna,” and that, “This jihad is well-funded, well-planned, and executed by agents of destabilization.”
There is also a widespread belief that the central Nigerian government is turning a blind eye to the violence. Some victims of the attacks even contend that weaponry used in the violence suggests external assistance, and the growing consensus is that the government of President Buhari is doing little to stop the violence. While clergy from Kafanchan in Southern Kaduna have alleged instances where militants have been seemingly protected by the government.
“In most of these attacks, the military stands aloof and watches while our people are being massacred.” …though, “When the youth mobilized to repel the attackers, the soldiers deliberately blocked them from entering the town.” Claims which were further confirmed by eyewitness reports gathered by Open Doors following the attacks.
Open Doors called subsequently for real action by the Nigerian government to
- Ensure that all Nigerians are protected equally, regardless of ethno-religious affiliation, with timely security assistance against impending attacks, and sensible land-dispute solutions that take into account everyone’s needs.
- Take tangible steps to ensure the rule of law is applied uniformly, including through credible, transparent and impartial investigations to bring perpetrators of violence to justice.
- Expand international coordinated efforts for law enforcement and legal training, monitoring and prevention of violence, and distribution of humanitarian assistance to forestall mass migration and help rebuild victims’ lives.
The fact that many Nigerians believe the President of Nigeria has deliberately shied away from commenting on the crisis because he comes from the Fulani ethnic group underlines the divisive nature of these issues for Nigeria;
In the elections scheduled for next February President Muhammadu Buhari will be running again, though dozens of defections from his ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) party to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the main opposition party, have altered the balance of power within the National Assembly and this will test his re-election plans.
In Nigeria, politics and militancy are closely connected, and the country’s leadership at times has tacitly backed, exploited and used insecurity as a political weapon. The close connection between politics and militancy certainly will be a key factor in determining whether Buhari, a former military head of state turned civilian president, will win a second term.
The wider picture:
Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, more than 190 million people in an area which is roughly twice the size of California. While it is commonly described as being split roughly in half between the Muslim north and Christian south, this is an oversimplification which ignores the significant divisions between the Kanuri and Hausa ethnic groups in the north and the Yoruba, Igbo and Ijaw ethnic groups in the south.
Managing these divisions — north-south, east-west, Christian-Muslim — has proved difficult.
Moreover, between 1966 and 1993, the government was overthrown eight times and several political and military leaders were killed in coups, countercoups and coup attempts as military officers of different backgrounds sought to control and exploit the country for their respective constituencies.
Nonetheless, there has not been an attempted coup in Nigeria since it changed to civilian government in 1999. And in part this is probably because the country’s political leadership has followed an unwritten convention that power should rotate among the country’s main population identities.
Nigeria has essentially six geopolitical zones: the North-West, North-East, North-Central, South-West, South-East and South-South. What is particularly important to note is the further point that each region more or less represents a key ethnic group or stakeholder group, such as the Yoruba (South-West), Igbo (South-East), Ijaw (South-South), Hausa (North-West) and Kanuri (North-East).
Power has come to rotate among these six zones while also moving alternately between the larger north and south.
The vice presidency also rotates among the zones in a way that prevents the north or south from having the presidency and vice presidency at the same time. In theory, this setup ensures that neither the north or south can monopolize power and that each of its eight zones.
It is these delicate arrangements that have allowed Nigeria to negotiate a path through some of its flashpoints in recent times and has allowed for political power to be more balanced. But the country has almost always been confronted by insurgencies and insecurity which various politicians and tribal elders have exploited as they sought influence and power
Collectively, all this has created a major risk however for the country’s long term future and cohesion as tensions continue to rise between the peoples of the main religious traditions and between Muslims and Christians in particular as the former are widely perceived to be seeking hegemony.