On 5 April, grieving families gathered at a funeral in the tiny village of Umogidi, in Benue State, Nigeria. Three young men had been chased and found murdered outside the settlement days before. As the village gathered, gunfire began in the market. Masked men entered the village square, firing directly into the mourners. Children and grandparents alike fled to the bush; they were hunted and mown down as they ran. So commonplace was the attack that the international media barely noted it. In total, 51 people were killed. From mid-March to mid-April, around 400 people were killed in similar attacks in Benue State alone.
It goes without saying that we should listen to the victims. And yet, along the terrifying fault lines of our poorest continent, Africa, it may surprise you to learn that the perspectives of victims are routinely ignored or silenced in the official telling of events that destroy lives.
The pitiless ferocity of Islamist jihadist groups attacking Nigerians may be known to you. The rise of Boko Haram around 2010 is notorious, but the numerous Islamist terror groups that have emerged, split and re-formed since are less well-known. They include Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah (JAS), Ansaru, Islamic State West Africa (ISWAP), and a little-examined force, known as the Fulani militia. Those who love Nigeria understand that a full-scale attempt to destroy the country has been in full swing for years.
But this week, a rare event is taking place. Testimony from nearly 50 organisations will be released, in a study, Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide? published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief. Isn’t this the title of the report we published three years ago? Indeed, it is. Atrocities across Nigeria are examined, but special attention is being paid to the targeted killings across Nigeria’s “Middle Belt”, the band of states where the majority Muslim North meets the animist and Christian South. Astonishingly brave Nigerian lawyers, church leaders, and community groups are speaking out, and with a single voice they assert what they know: that religious identity is the defining feature driving attacks against their communities. Who is being killed? Christians, African animists, and those that fuse different religious traditions together. Who is killing? The shadowy Islamist Fulani militia: a highly mobile, heavily armed force, drawn from Northern Nigeria and beyond. The attacks themselves are an echo of the past: a repeat of the historic patterns of Fulani slave raiding chiefs, who terrorised the same region in the early nineteenth century. Their power was enhanced by the British administration who left them in power during decolonisation.
The evidence from today’s victims is clear. It contradicts the easy dismissals and simple explanations Western diplomats and media actively promote. The UK Foreign Office explains it like this: the violence is caused by climate change, or poverty, or conflict over grazing rights. Climate change pushes Muslim Fulani herding communities southwards, in search of grazing, and this creates conflict with the settled Christian communities they encounter. In the minds of Western diplomats, it’s easy – the result of environmental damage. In the reporting of the media, it is “clashes” and “tit-for-tat killings” – gross simplifications that distort the asymmetric nature of what is occurring.
Those who experience this violence express it precisely. They know these attacks are not occurring at random, but that directing minds control and organise the Islamist Fulani militia. The attacks follow a pattern, and can even, community leaders say, be predicted. Who is fuelling and arming them? Who is selecting settlements to be attacked? And if this were a matter of grazing routes, or stolen cows, why is the grievance never resolved? Why does it continue, year after year – and why are villages renamed, and millions of people prevented from returning to their homes? Why the kidnap and rape of women especially young girls to deliberately impregnate them? In Benue State alone, close to two million people are now surviving in camps. It is the result of a land grab, facilitated by ethnic cleansing.
Three years ago, I was part of the last APPG which examined what was then horrific violence in Nigeria. Today, the violence has intensified. A thriving light weapons and small arms trade feeds Nigeria’s terror groups. The killings now take place against a background buzz of derogatory preaching, an increased volume of hostility from radical clerics and political figures gradually eroding freedom of religious belief. It is this setting that the killing of poor farmers has accelerated.
Consider the case of Mubarak Bala, President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria. He is serving a 24 year prison sentence for daring to question Allah’s existence on his Facebook page. His courageous colleagues insist that “inciteful preaching in mosques by clerics” is the significant driver of violence in the country. Not climate change. The Catholic Archdiocese of Abuja concurs: the church notes “the claim to religious superiority, the hostile and intolerant attitudes towards others who are derogatorily called infidel.’’
The targeting of Christians should be a signpost: 39 Roman Catholic priests were stalked, kidnapped and murdered in Nigeria in 2022 alone. And in the case of Deborah Samuel, a Christian student stoned to death and set ablaze by her classmates over accusations of blasphemy, the ugly tone of religious pronouncements are clear. Ibrahim Maqari, imam at the National Mosque, for example, condemned the mob nature of the murder, whilst insisting: “She deserves death. There is no doubt about it… But who should kill her, and how she should die, is the issue.”
The study notes that some political figures are playing this game, too. “Hateful and divisive political rhetoric” is pinpointed by Alice Nderitu, the UN’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. One particular figure is held up for scrutiny by several witnesses – Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, a former Kaduna State governor who, intriguingly, holds an advisory position at Oxford University’s School of African Studies. The report cites incendiary tweets by him, including warning the Nigerian military against intervening to defend a Christian community from attack. Another tweet by him suggests Boko Haram is a conspiracy deliberately perpetrated by Christians “to tarnish the name of Islam”. It is a side-issue, but exactly how Nasir El-Rufai is thought suitable to hold any position in a British university is a mystery.
We should listen to the victims. No-one who meets and speaks with the people of the Middle Belt can doubt the accuracy of their conclusions. Religious identity is assuming a frightening importance, where once it was of little notice. The charity Open Doors calculates that today, Nigeria accounts for 89 per cemt of all violent deaths of Christians killed worldwide. Nigeria is becoming a nest for jihadist terror, threatening the stability of the whole region – and one day, Europe. The report’s recommendations that a UN fact-finding commission be tasked, and a Special Rapporteur appointed, are useful. But perhaps the most important task is to listen. Only by listening do we get to the truth. The truth is a precious place. It is the place, the only place, on which people of different beliefs can stand together. This is where a future might be built. Without sincere commitment to uncovering the truth, Nigeria and the whole region will descend further still into destruction.
Baroness Cox is a campaigner for religious freedom and President of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust. She has visited communities under attack in Nigeria for over 20 years, narrowly escaping an ambush by armed Fulani militia herself, in 2016.