In the bustling capital of Ikeja in Nigeria’s Lagos State, thousands of lay faithful throng into St. Leo’s Catholic Church on May 22 to attend a requiem Mass.
Inside the church compound, more than 250 priests file in for the Mass in a solemn procession that included Alfred Adewale Martins, the archbishop of Lagos.
All of them are here at the behest of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria, which directed all dioceses to organize requiem Masses and peaceful demonstrations to coincide with the burial of two priests and 17 parishioners hundreds of miles away in central Nigeria’s Benue State.
“In the moment of hopelessness we should be strengthened by our faith in Jesus. As we mourn the dead, we must not mourn like people that have no hope,” Bishop Martins told the congregation.
Father Joseph Gor and Father Felix Tyolaha were killed along with the other victims when St. Ignatius Catholic Church, in the village of Ayar-Mbalom in Benue, was attacked during morning Mass on April 24.
In a statement, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said the killing of priests and worshippers was “vile, evil and satanic” and promised to deal with the attackers. It is suspected that Fulani cattle herders fired on the church, razed some shops, and stole money, communion wine and other valuables, according to the BBC.
Benue State, a hotbed of sectarian unrest, has suffered particularly because of clashes between largely Muslim Fulani cattle herders and mostly Christian farming communities.
This is coming some three months after a mass burial in Benue for 73 people killed in remote farming communities since the beginning of the year. Fulani herdsmen are also suspected in those attacks. This violence has displaced almost 100,000 people across the state, according to the Benue State Emergency Management Agency.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria condemned the killings and called on President Buhari to step down if he “cannot keep our country safe.”
“We are sad. We are angry. We feel totally exposed and most vulnerable,” the bishops said in a statement. “How can the federal government stand back while its security agencies deliberately turn a blind eye to the cries and wails of helpless and armless citizens who remain sitting ducks in their homes, farms, highway and now, even in their sacred places of worship?”
Ethnic and religious tensions have often led to conflict in Nigeria, a nation of 198 million people evenly divided between Muslims in the north and Christians (including about 28 million Catholics) mostly in the south.
Benue State is in Nigeria’s Middle Belt (also known as central Nigeria), home to a diverse set of ethnicities, cultures and religions. This region, a hotbed of sectarian unrest, has suffered particularly because of clashes between largely Muslim Fulani cattle herders and mostly Christian farming communities.
Semi-nomadic herders from the Fulani ethnic group range with their livestock from Senegal, Mali and Chad in West Africa to the Central African Republic. Conflict with farming communities led to some 2,500 deaths in Nigeria in 2016, according to a report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.
Some Christian groups accuse Fulani herders of waging a jihad—a belief fueled by the role of Fulani pastoralists inthe spread of Islamic revivalism in Nigeria and some of parts of West Africa.
Tensions over access to land and water use, but also grievances arising from livestock theft and crop damage, propel the conflict. Farmers accuse herders of allowing their livestock to trespass onto their farms and damage their crops, while pastoralists grumble over the theft of their cows by gangs in local communities, as well as the disappearance of traditional migration routes.
Ikemesit Effiong, lead analyst at the Lagos-based geopolitical consulting firm SBM Intelligence, says grazing areas and migration routes carved out by Nigerian authorities as far back as 1964 have been overtaken by the expansion of farmlands, human settlements and public infrastructure amid rapid population growth, “forcing the herdsmen deeper into farmland.”
“As Nigeria’s border controls have gotten laxer, there has been a proliferation of weapons, making it easier for people to resort to violence to settle disputes,” Mr. Effiong adds.
These problems have been exacerbated by the Muslim insurgency group Boko Haram, which has been active in most of the northeast, as well as climate change. The latter has forced herders to migrate southward in search of greener pasture and water for their cattle.
In Nigeria’s arid north, advancing desertification, high temperatures and changing rainfall pattern (which brings more frequent drought) have led to the loss of vegetation and to water resource depletion. An estimated 1 million acres of productive land in 11 states in the north are lost to desertification every year.
Nomads and farmers in Benue had clashed in the past, but it never resulted in “the kinds of death we see today,” says Shettima Mohammed, the Benue state secretary of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, the umbrella union for Fulani pastoralists in Nigeria.
Mr. Mohammed attributes the surge in violence to a breakdown of local conflict resolution mechanisms. Just 10 or 15 years ago, he says, “misunderstandings were settled by traditional rulers.”
“In the past farmers reported any damage to their village chief, who would invite the chief of the Fulani community to assess the cost of the damage, and then the cattle herder would pay the farmer for the damage,” he explains.
Climate change has forced herders to migrate southward in search of greener pasture and water for their cattle.
“But now, once there is a trespass into the farm, some communities want to flush out cattle herders by force, and this would always result in people and cows being killed; the next thing is that the Fulani nomads would be totally angry, and you will have cases of retaliatory attacks.”
The conflict in Benue escalated after the state government implemented a controversial law banning open grazing in early November 2017. Under the law, herders are required to tend their cattle in ranches or leave the state. Any person who fails to keep the law faces a five-year jail sentence. Other states like Ekiti and Taraba have similar local legislation.
Mr. Mohammed said the Benue state government did not consult the herders before passing the law. “Most of the cattle herdsmen are [accustomed] to the traditional style of nomadic grazing, so telling them to keep their cows in ranches without showing them how to do it is almost like wanting to kill their way of life,” he says.
Mr. Mohammed is worried that the conflict is stoking religious tension. Some Christian groups accuse Fulani herders of waging a jihad—a belief fueled by the role of Fulani pastoralists inthe spread of Islamic revivalism in Nigeria and some of parts of West Africa.
“This conflict transcends questions of ethnicity and religion. It is a conversation about the sanctity of economic institutions like property rights,” Mr. Effiong says. “Nigeria cannot build a proper economy if basic property rights can be so casually violated, as we have seen repeatedly.”
When President Donald Trump and Mr. Buhari held ajoint news conference at the White House on April 30, Mr. Trump weighed in on the conflict.
“There’s nothing like religious conflict or jihad in this issue; allowing religion and ethnic sentiments to drive our reasoning would make the conflict difficult to solve.”
“We’re deeply concerned by religious violence in Nigeria, including the burning of churches and the killing and persecution of Christians,” Mr. Trumptold journalists it the White House Rose Garden. His comments sparked off controversy in Nigeria, though some Christians praised him for speaking about the crisis.
But Mr. Mohammed objects to this characterization. “There’s nothing like religious conflict or jihad in this issue,” he says, adding, “allowing religion and ethnic sentiments to drive our reasoning would make the conflict difficult to solve.”
Mr. Buhari, himself a Fulani who hasdeclared 270 head of cattle among his assets, has been accused of showing greater leniency toward the cattle herders. The president visited Benue and other states affected by the herder-farmer violence in March.
In mid-May, his administration approved 10 billion naira ($31.25 million) for Benue and other states affected by violence as part of an effort to rebuild communities and resettle people. Nigeria’s National Executive Council has also convened a committee on the herder-farmer conflict to come up with recommendations to address the problem.
“The authorities are struggling to get a handle on the violence because they are approaching the issue from a security framework,” Mr. Effiong argues. “This conflict will require examining the interplay of social, economic and political factors affecting it. Ranching has to be encouraged, and justice as well as the rule of law has to be brought to bear on both sides.”
Mr. Mohammed says Fulani nomads want Nigerian authorities to restore grazing reserves that had been established by the government in the 1960s.
“We want grazing reserves, but we [also] need money to move to fertile areas and build structures where livestock can be housed and fed,” he says.
Back in the streets of Lagos, thousands of church members wield placards with inscriptions like “Enough of the madness”; “Don’t divide us”; “No justice no peace”; and “Make Nigeria safe again.” They trek for nearly two hours from St. Leo’s Catholic Church to the Lagos state governor’s office under the sweltering heat. There Bishop Martins hands a letter to the representatives of the Lagos state governor.
Mr. Effiong believes the church has a key role to play in the path to peace.
“Nigeria is a deeply religious country, [so] traditional rulers and religious leaders enjoy significant influence in their communities. Their authority often has a religious dimension and they are trusted by the man and woman in the street more than politicians or government officials,” he explains.
“In the absence of an effective response by national authorities, an effort at reconciliation by religious leaders might be the shot in the arm everyone needs to begin to properly assess the consequences of what has been a devastating conflict.”
Christian Emeka Ogwo a parishioner of Our Lady Queen of the Apostles on the outskirts of Lagos, said he was happy to join the peaceful demonstration.
“Solidarity, love and sense of oneness and unity explain in clear terms my presence in this important peaceful demonstration by the Catholics in Lagos,” Mr. Ogwo tells America.
“We advocate for peace, unity and stability to be restored in all parts of Nigeria. I strongly believe our message has been driven home and the government would certainly take decisive actions without any further ado.”
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