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Kevin ClarkeJanuary 11, 2024
A man stands in front of a burnt out house following an attacked by gunmen in, Bokkos, north central Nigeria, on Dec. 26, 2023. (AP Photo)A man stands in front of a burnt out house following an attacked by gunmen in, Bokkos, north central Nigeria, on Dec. 26, 2023. (AP Photo)

Followers of America Media’s “Dispatches” already know that the section—weekly online and monthly in print—seeks to bring issues of international and U.S. regional significance to the attention of our readers. This week America is launching a new column that will explore breaking events and issues of significance that may not have gotten the attention they warrant, not only alerting readers to news they may have missed but offering a slightly deeper dive into it, providing the background they need to make better sense of the headlines speeding past us each week.

The lead-off focus of this new column derives from some grave news over Christmas out of Nigeria.

As many as 295 people were killed and more than 500 wounded in a series of apparently coordinated raids on some 30 villages in Nigeria’s Plateau State that began on Dec. 23 and continued through Christmas Day. More than 10,000 were displaced by the violence, and sporadic attacks in other Nigerian states have followed.

Nigeria, a West African nation of more than 226 million people, is deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines.

The attackers are believed to be members of Nigeria’s Fulani community, the majority of whom are Muslim pastoralists—cattle herders who frequently cross state and national borders across West Africa in search of grazing land and water. Their victims were Christians gathered in farming communities across Plateau State and other “Middle Belt” states in Nigeria, so named because they create a kind of dividing line between Nigeria’s mostly Muslim north and its Christian south.

Nigeria, a West African nation of more than 226 million people, is deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. Just over 46 percent of the population of Nigeria is Christian and about 25 percent of Nigeria’s Christians are Catholic—12 percent of the overall population.

The attacks have left the Christian community of Nigeria “shaken and distraught,” said Wilfred Chikpa Anagbe, C.M.F., the bishop of Makurdi in Benue State, in a letter to Aid to the Church in Need on Dec. 28 that was shared with America. A.C.N. is a pontifical foundation serving imperiled Christian communities around the world.

“The violence inflicted upon the people of Plateau State is a stark reminder of the pressing need for immediate action,” Bishop Anagbe wrote. “We cannot remain silent while innocent lives are lost and families torn apart. It is our collective responsibility to raise our voices and demand justice for the victims and their grieving communities.”

In a statement released on Dec. 28, Isa Sanusi, the director of Amnesty International Nigeria, described the Christmas rampage as an “inexcusable” security lapse and urged an impartial and independent investigation of the failure of the Nigerian military to halt the bloodshed. According to Amnesty International Nigeria, villagers in Plateau State waited hours for Nigerian security forces to arrive after the assaults on their communities were first reported.

Despite the Christmas attacks and other violent incidents throughout 2023, Nigeria was not included on the 2024 list posted on Jan. 4 by Secretary of State Blinken.

“I called security, but they never came,” Sunday Dawum, a youth leader in the Christian community of Bokkos told The Associated Press. “The ambush started [at] 6 in the evening, but security reached our place by 7 in the [next] morning,” he said. At least 27 people were killed in his village, Mbom Mbaru, including his brother, Mr. Dawum said.

“Patterns of recent deadly attacks on the rural areas of Plateau State clearly show the Nigerian authorities have left these communities at the mercy of rampaging gunmen,” Mr. Sanusi said. “Nigerian authorities’ failure to tame the tide of this violence is costing people’s lives and livelihoods, and without immediate action, many more lives may be lost.”

The attackers have been called bandits by Nigerian authorities, and some analysts say their presence reflects years of inattention by the central government, violence in response to land-grabbing by other ethnic communities and lack of economic opportunity. According to this perspective, Fulani pastoralists, unable to continue their herding tradition or to find other work, turn to violent crime.

Other analysis focuses on how the increasingly arid conditions caused by climate change have escalated resource competition between Fulani herders and Christian agrarian communities, but Joop Koopman, the director of communications at Aid to the Church in Need-USA, believes that ecological and economic pressures alone cannot make sense of the ferocity of the violence.

He explained that tensions between Christian farmers and Fulani-Muslim herdsmen have been a long-term reality. But this level of violence against Christian villages in Nigeria is a comparably new phenomenon that has been building since 2009.

“The ambush started [at] 6 in the evening, but security reached our place by 7 in the [next] morning,” a youth leader in the Christian community of Bokkos said.

In an interview conducted over email, Mr. Koopman agreed that climate change “has worsened the situation through the desertification of arable land, driving the Fulanis southward into the fertile Middle Belt of Nigeria.” But he insists that the systematic massacres of thousands of Christian farmers in recent years cannot be solely attributed to resource competition heightened by the impact of climate change.

“Fulani attackers are well armed with expensive sophisticated equipment, which suggests there is—as several bishops have charged—a source for funding these clearly now radicalized Fulanis,” he said. Christian farmers have so far not taken up arms in response, he explained, but there is a growing concern some might because of the ineffectual government response.

In a powerful reflection on the recent violence posted on Dec. 30, Matthew Hassan Kukah, bishop of Sokoto, shared his concern that the patience of Christians—and members of Muslim agrarian communities that have also been targeted—is running out.

Sadly, with time, Nigerians are gradually losing hope in the ability of their government to protect and secure them. While we religious leaders have continued to use our moral authority to encourage our people not to take the laws into their hands, we risk being swept away by the anger and frustration of our people. We even risk being seen as accomplices to an erring state. The Nigerian state itself risks becoming an undertaker in the eyes of its citizens. Our cups of sorrow are overflowing. We have cried enough tears.

According to Mr. Koopman, successive leaders of Nigeria, including its current president Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who assumed office in May, have failed to protect Christian farmers. “Despite the scale of the killings,” Mr. Koopman said, “no one yet has been arrested and brought to trial.”

Climate change “has worsened the situation through the desertification of arable land, driving the Fulanis southward into the fertile Middle Belt of Nigeria.”

The inaction, he said, has created a suspicion among Nigeria’s Christians of “a willful neglect” of the plight of Middle Belt Christians. Adding to those suspicions, he said, was the fact that under the previous administration led by former military leader Muhammadu Buhari, a member of the Fulani community, leadership of Nigeria’s military and security sectors “were exclusively in the hands of Muslims.”

In his post, Bishop Kukah raised the specter of government complicity in the attacks on Christians. “These killers are professionals,” he wrote, adding, “their sponsors are among us.”

"They must be in high places,” he said. “They are now embedded in the architecture of state. President Tinubu must know that the legitimacy of his government hangs on resolving this and giving us our country back.”

More than 5,000 Christians were killed in attacks by bandits and Islamic or Fulani militia across Nigeria in 2022, and in 2023, Nigeria’s Christians endured a similarly high toll. According to an analysis from Intersociety, a Nigerian civil society group, between 2009 and 2022 more than 52,000 Christians “have been butchered or hacked to death for being Christians.” According to the report, 34,000 moderate Muslims suffered the same fate. Intersociety added that 18,000 Christian churches and 2,200 Christian schools were also partially damaged or completely razed during that period.

Mr. Koopman reports that the Nigerian church is doing what it can to respond to the ongoing crisis, but its capacity is limited. Because of the violence, more than 2.3 million displaced people have been living under extreme conditions in camps in Benue State, the epicenter of Fulani attacks, where the Diocese of Makurdi is attempting to assist thousands of people. Only a few of the camps, church officials say, are patrolled by the Nigerian military, leaving hundreds of camps still vulnerable to attack.

Bishop Kukah raised the specter of government complicity in the attacks on Christians. “These killers are professionals,” he wrote, adding, “their sponsors are among us.”

Catholic leaders in Plateau State are certain that the attacks on Christian villages are the product of Islamic extremism, long a problem in Nigeria where both Boko Haram and ISIS terrorist networks remain active, and have been direct in their language about the crisis. Bishop Anagbe, in a previous letter to A.C.N. dated the day before the Christmas attacks, wrote:

The activities of jihadist Fulani terrorists who masquerade as herdsmen started surreptitiously in Benue State over two decades ago. Successive governments, because of Islamic leanings, neglected the attacks and its victims, and where action was taken, it was insufficient.

According to Bishop Anagbe, in recent years the attacks increasingly “took on a genocidal dimension with appalling killings and other atrocities… [against] Christians in the area, the destruction of places of worship, schools, hospitals, homes and the destruction of livelihoods, compounded by a complete loss of human dignity.”

Political leaders in the United States could do much more to come to the aid of Nigeria’s Christians, Mr. Koopman says. A House resolution that calls for the appointment of a special envoy for Nigeria and the Lake Chad region has been sponsored by Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey House Republican. That envoy “would have the authority to call the U.S. government to action, for example by wielding diplomatic leverage or by using economic pressure,” Mr. Koopman says.

Bishop Anagbe endorsed Mr. Smith’s effort in his letter to A.C.N. The resolution, he wrote, should “add pressure on Nigeria’s international partners and the government to address the silent persecution of Christians in our country.”

Mr. Smith’s resolution also calls for the State Department to redesignate Nigeria as a “country of particular concern” because of religious freedom violations. Nigeria was dropped from the annual list of nations of concern in 2021, a move deplored by many advocates of religious freedom. And, despite the Christmas attacks and other violent incidents throughout 2023, Nigeria was not included on the 2024 list posted on Jan. 4 by Secretary of State Blinken. But “the utter neglect of the needs and safety of Christians,” Mr. Koopman said, suggests that Nigeria should be included with other states where religious persecution is tolerated or encouraged by governments.

The State Department’s decision was sharply criticized by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which called for congressional hearings on the status of Nigeria and India, another nation not designated as a country of concern despite ongoing persecution of minority Muslim and Christian communities.

More on the continuing conflict in Nigeria from America Media

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