The continued killing and violence against Christians in Nigeria by various radical Islamic groups is continuing unabated. This writer noted the severe problem in two articles two years ago, as well as the effective denial of a campaign of Islamization as its cause by the State Department. But there does seem to be more attention to it recently, as the continued failure to stop the violence raises the prospect of civil war in that country and a refugee problem of unprecedented scale from Africa’s most populous nation.
The problem of violence, mainly against Christians, is longstanding, but in terms of massive killing, it is basically a twenty-first-century problem. The Silent Slaughter, a report by the International Committee on Nigeria (ICON) in 2020 provided abundant documentation on the problem as it existed to that point. More recently, the Heritage Foundation recently posted an article outlining the problem, and besides the massive number of people being killed, one of its worst aspects – the denial of the essentially religious character of the killing by the current State Department and other commentators. It referred to a statistic from Open Doors that for 2022, 90% of the 5,621 Christians killed for their faith were in Nigeria alone. Besides the killing, the ICON report noted the massive land grab, with Islamic militants driving (commonly Christian) farmers off 134,028 acres of farmland, preventing an estimated 120,000 people from making a living from farming.
Open Doors’ summary of the situation says the violence ultimately stems from “an ingrained agenda of enforced Islamisation” in the predominately Muslim north of the country, with the violence now spreading to the south. Its full report, issued this past April, provides abundant data on the scale and locations of the killing and violence, the Islamic groups involved (principally terrorists from the large, cross-national Fulani tribe, Boko Haram and ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) organizations). The Open Doors report notes that these organizations draw in other lawless groups (“bandits”), and then target Christian communities and Muslims non-compliant with Islamist agenda.
Although the brutal facts on the ground are apparent for all to see, conflicting interpretations are long-running and contentious. The Trump Administration ultimately settled on religious persecution as being the primary driver of the violence and added Nigeria to the State Department’s Countries of Particular Concern list which officially recognizes religious persecution in the country. This makes the improvement of religious freedom an American foreign policy objective for that nation. The Biden Administration removed the CPC status, favoring an economic explanation, with Fulani cattle herders moved by climate change into conflict with Nigerian farmers for land to graze cattle. One can easily find denials of the “Islamization” thesis, advancing a “farmer/herder conflict” thesis instead.
One such denial from late 2021, about the time of the State Department’s removal of CPC status, admits that Boko Haram has an Islamization agenda, but says its activities are practically limited to the north. The depredations of armed Fulani groups, which seem to have become increasingly prominent in the bloodletting, are attributed to local economic conflict. Attacks by Fulani on churches, clergy, students, and other non-farmers can thus be known, but if addressed, understood as collateral damage of Fulani attacks, or simply ethno-religious hostility. Government inaction is characterized as “ambivalence,” so that apparent complicity in attacks can be understood as unreal. Yet the practical, and certainly not the undesired result of Islamic attacks is to impoverish and dispossess Nigerian Christians, and thus Islamize the country. Importantly, the article also claims that concern about Fulani violence leads to stigmatization of the Fulani. The implication seems to be that the Islamization thesis leads to stigmatization (much as news of the attack by a transgender student on a conservative Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee was held to endanger transgender identifying people). Yet Fulani violence naturally leads to suspicion of Fulani.
The net effect of this analysis is to see Islamist violence and killing and destruction of Christian communities, and yet deny that it is fundamentally religious in nature. The article’s conclusion despairs the Nigerian body politic resolving the problem and holds common Nigerian perceptions of Islamist terrorism to be wrong. While pessimistic in tone, it ludicrously sees some type of “we are the world” movement against police brutality as the (unlikely) answer. Targeting the police to pacify violence is not a solution working well in the United States.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which had denounced Nigeria’s removal from the CPC list when it happened in 2021, picked up on the “stigmatization of Fulani” thesis to claim that such stigmatization has led to Christian attacks on Fulani, and thus Fulani violence is in some measure simply retaliatory. Criticism of Fulani violence is characterized by the USCIRF report as “xenophobic rhetoric and policies.” This is basically a “moral equivalency” thesis, which was advanced in the past in the Cold War with communism and in Sudan during the war for South Sudanese independence.
On the other hand, LifeSiteNews pointed out that Islamic terrorism against Christians in Nigeria has been going on for years, and cites Catholic bishop Chikpa Anagbe to say that the Fulani have been “‘systematically’ murdering local populations and occupying their territories. The killings have a motive of religion behind them. The Fulani killers are Muslims and the conquering of territory is paramount to large Muslim populations in Nigeria.”
LifeSiteNews also cites the Nigerian Atrocities Documentation Project report posted by the Religious Freedom Institute and produced by the Kukah Centre for Faith, Leadership, and Public Policy in Abuja, Nigeria which documented atrocities against Christians in Nigeria over the course of 2022. The report says that the Fulani are “driven by an ideological thrust of universal ownership of lands across the Sahel Region.” The NADP report also says that the Fulani attacks continue because of “the lack of functional migratory laws, increased armed acquisition by herdsmen, and the lack of security presence especially in rural communities, and as a reaction to the ban on anti-grazing laws in some states,” and “tagging these attacks as a conflict between Fulani herders and the indigenous farmers is but concealing the true religious dimensions of the attacks.”
NADP report notes that Christian leaders are killed by the Fulani, which is not something to be expected in a mere farmer/herder conflict. The report also observed that in Taraba state, which is 90% Christian, about 120,000 persons were displaced and properties destroyed. This indicates an effort “to depopulate Christians in the state and take hold of its resources for the advancement of Fulani cum Islamic dominance in Northern Nigeria and even beyond.”
Also typical of Islamic militancy is kidnapping and demanding huge ransoms from non-Muslims. Again in Nigeria, it was religious leaders who were kidnapped. Since the beginning of 2022, 18 Catholic priests have been kidnapped by Fulani, mostly in northwest Nigeria.
The killing of farmers and destruction of crops in north-central Nigeria, the country’s greatest food production region, has also led to a food shortage. The motive, NADP said, is to displace Christians and occupy the land. Even in camps of internally displaced persons (IDPs), there is no adequate security, with a family of six being killed in January. In one first-hand account, that doubtless could be repeated numerous times, a farmer recounted last month that:
“They have killed our farmers and stolen our farm produce, leaving us helpless and with nothing to take home. The hunger and starvation most of us suffer in this community are because insurgents deprive us of accessing the farmlands, and even when we risk our lives in our fields, they steal everything and allow us to starve. The lack of rain this year has worsened the current hunger crisis my family is facing. All our remaining crops are dried and dead. It has taken us back to starting fresh because most farmers are cutting down their dried crops to plant new ones. We have nothing to eat and nowhere to go. We can go days without eating a meal.”
International Christian Concern has very persuasively pointed out why Nigerian Christians see the conflict as essentially religious. It is because their attackers, whether Fulani Boko Haram or ISWAP, are Muslims. Religion is the common denominator of the conflict, not economics or climate change.
The complicity of the government of former President Muhammadu Buhari in the violence against Christians and farmers seems inescapable in reports coming out of Nigeria. ICC has observed that destruction of farms in north central Nigeria “has become the new normal,” and “there has been no serious intervention by the government at any level, whether federal, state, or local, and officials have failed for years to protect the farms or render humanitarian support to the farmers.”
It is not that the government doesn’t have the ability to punish crime. Bishop Jacob Kwashi of the Christian Association of Nigeria observed that the Nigerian Army will “ransack” communities in Kaduna State looking for cattle killers, but puts forth no effort to apprehend killers of 33 people, including a five-year-old boy, who obviously did not kill cattle. It was also noted last year that Buhari quickly clamped down on the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in the Christian southeast of the country, but not on Islamic terrorists.
In another report from May of this year, ICC reported that there were 100 Christians killed in north-central Nigeria in 16 villages in Plateau State. A survivor said, “We did nothing to them, but the Fulani killed us because of our faith.” Another survivor said “We don’t have guns to defend ourselves … The military and police came when the Fulani finished attacking the village and killing 27 from my village.” In another attack “We received an early sign warning, but the security officials refused to listen to us … They came after the attack and carried 10 dead bodies for burial.” The witnesses to the attack said it was well-planned and designed to drive Christians from their community. Additionally, it was noted that the town was “under a government-imposed curfew.” Such curfews are used to lock down Christian communities in their homes before attacks, as has been documented. This prevents Christians from keeping a lookout for attackers, and neither the army nor police comes during the attacks, only thereafter. In addition to leaving the communities helpless to attackers, it deprives farmers of their livelihood, as they cannot tend their farms as they should. It should also be noted that lockdowns are used as community punishment for protesting killings.
Another report by various research organizations in the U.S. and U.K. indicates that ex-President Buhari intentionally funded jihadist groups to enter the overwhelmingly Christian lands in southeast Nigeria to engage in slaughter and seize Christian lands.
Nigerian Pastor Discusses Islamization Objective
Jeff King, President of International Christian Concern interviewed an anonymous Nigerian pastor regarding the apparent effort to slowly eliminate Christianity and Islamize Nigeria in two video segments. In the first, King observed that over the past 20 years, killings of Christians have moved from Plateau State, where the Hausa tribe used Fulani to dominate, to northeast Nigeria, bordering Chad and Cameroon. The attacks were focused against “not just farms, [but] … schools, households, and churches … Especially those institutions linked with missionaries” were attacked, it was observed. Over 2 million Christians were displaced in northeast Nigeria, the Nigerian pastor said.
Funding for terrorism has come from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Terrorists now admit to this funding as a point of pride, since their violence is a religious war. Houses to be burned marked are marked “Iraq” and “Afghanistan” to show the religious nature of the war.
In a second segment, the pastor said that “not less than 63,000 Nigerians were killed” in the last eight years. King maintains that while one can’t get “a court of law stamp on the number,” from his work in this area, it is likely that 70,000 to 100,000 Nigerians have been killed in the last 20 years. He agreed with the anonymous Nigerian pastor that whether the violent killers are Boko Haram, Fulani, or “bandits,” they are all Islamic terrorists “and their mode of operation is the same.” The objective of killing Christians and driving them off their lands in “a massive land grab” is the same. The ultimate objective of Islamization is the same.
King noted that the line taken by the Nigerian government (and seemingly accepted by the Biden Administration’s State Department) is that the situation is complex, with many players, and the government wants to bring order. Both the current president, Bola Tinabu, and the past president, Muhammadu Buhari were elected with a pledge to bring order. King observed as well that Buhari is himself a Fulani. King recounted that during the period of British rule in Nigeria, the British relied heavily on Fulani and Muslims to rule the country, and Muslims were therefore left in control of the Army and security apparatus at independence. Consequently, they take no effective action (and are sometimes complicit with) violence and killing.
The pastor said that violence has escalated beyond being a simple herder/farmer crisis to effectively a war. Villages are attacked by hundreds of Fulani at a time. He said that mercenaries and people “not from the region” are employed in the attacks. However, he maintained that local Fulani were “informers” who assisted in advising in the attacks. The campaign amounts to “ethnic cleansing and land grabbing.” King added to what the pastor said that former President Buhari not only didn’t want to hurt his (Fulani) people but aided and abetted in the attacks. The pastor then observed that Buhari told the governor of Benue State to be more accommodating to the attackers. The attackers were not even reprimanded. Thus, there is “no will” on the part of the Muslim-controlled government to take the necessary military and/or police action to make the northern farming communities secure.
King also observed that some southern Nigerian states are forming their own security forces in response to the attacks by Fulani groups. Kidnapping from wealthy Muslim families has now been used to raise money, which in turn has caused a greater will by Southerners to fight back. King further said that the depopulation of the north, massive casualties, and flight to the south would result in many unemployed and angry young men and ultimately a possible civil war of unprecedented scale with an unprecedented number of refugees. With a population of about 200 million, there will be massive chaos in the surrounding nations. Also, Islamic militancy is now growing in surrounding states, in particular, Burkina Faso and Mali.
Continuing Insecurity and the Need for Action
There is no want of recent stories of continuing atrocities in Nigeria. On August 10, 21 villagers were killed in north-central Nigeria, probably by Fulani militants. Boko Haram killed 13 people on August 13 in northeast Nigeria. In mid-July an intelligence report warned of attacks on numerous villages in Plateau state, with terrorists planning to wipe out non-Muslim residents. The Nigerian army killed three neighborhood watchmen in Plateau State, Nigeria, on July 12, saying they were “terrorists.” Yet the watchmen in Plateau State are reportedly standing firm. The same source reports that the International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law (InterSociety) – an “international genocide watch group” – has said 2,500 Christians have been killed in Nigeria in the first half of 2023. InterSociety’s estimate for the last 12 years is that 43,000 Christians have been killed, 18,500 permanently disappeared, and 17,500 churches have been attacked. Another InterSociety estimate for the last 14 years reported by Vatican News is that 52,250 Christians have been killed, and 18,000 churches have been set on fire.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Chairman of the Bipartisan Commission on International Religious Freedom, said in a Congressional subcommittee meeting chaired by Rep. Chris Smith on July 18 that Nigeria is in a “slow-motion genocide.” The army is slow to act to protect farming communities. Local watchmen can slow attacks to allow women and children to reach safety in the bush, but this certainly does not solve the problem. Smith has sponsored a House Resolution (H.R. 82) that would call on the State Department to restore Nigeria’s Country of Particular Concern (CPC) status. Such an action could “prevent the U.S. government’s granting a bilateral trade agreement or may cause a conditioning of U.S. aid.”
In addition to restoring CPC status for Nigeria, this writer would add two other actions that would be helpful. One is continuing publicity for the crisis, which does not receive the attention it should and runs counter to a contrary narrative of marginalization of elements in the north of the country and climate change. The other action to be taken is prayer. So many people in Nigeria live in fear as night falls, knowing that they or their loved ones could be brutally murdered at any time, their property destroyed, and their land confiscated. Others have suffered terrible loss of family, friends, property, and livelihood. We must pray that God would sustain their faith in him, deliver them from their tribulation, give them a path to the future, and a sure hope of eternal life with him.