The killing of 19 people, including two priests, in a church in Benue State on 24 April by Fulani herdsmen has prompted the country’s Catholic bishops to urge Nigeria’s president to step down.
They said Christians are feeling “abandoned and betrayed”. In a statement signed by Archbishop Augustine Akubeze of Benin City, the bishops’ conference president, they said that, “if the President cannot keep our country safe, then he automatically loses to the trust of the citizens and he should no longer continue to preside over the killing fields and mass graveyard that our country has become”.
President Muhammadu Buhari was given the message that, “whether this failure is due to inability to perform or lack of political will, it is time for him to choose the part of honour and consider stepping aside to save the nation from total collapse”.
The bishops reminded the president, who is Muslim and a Fulani, that for more then two years they have consistently asked him to improve security in the country. They expressed concern that security bodies are run solely by Muslims and “the President has deliberately placed them in the hands of the adherents of only one religion”.
At a meeting between President Trump and President Buhari in Washington on Monday Mr Trump said he hoped the Nigerian authorities would "protect innocent civilians of all faiths, including Muslims and including Christians".
In a reference to last week's attack, President Trump added: "We've had serious problems with Christians who have been murdered, killed," Mr Trump said. "We're going to work on that problem and working on that problem very, very hard."
The deadly attack was carried out during early morning Mass in a parish church in Mbalom, Benue State. Muslim nomadic Fulani herdsmen have for many years clashed with Christian farmers over the use of land, but there are fears of a broader escalating anti-Christian Islamist campaign.
One of the murdered priests tweeted in January that the community was “living in fear”. In February, bishops met with President Buhari and the threat of “rampaging herdsmen” was discussed. Open Doors USA says, “in the last year alone, Fulani militants have razed more than 50 villages and over the last four months have killed now 516 Christians”.
The bishops issued their statement from Rome, where they were making a regularly scheduled visit to the Vatican, and said they received the news of the " gruesome, grisly and dastardly murder" with "deep shock, sorrow and utter horror."
"These innocent souls met their untimely death in the hands of a wicked and inhuman gang of the rampaging and murderous terrorists, who have turned the vast lands of the middle belt and other parts of Nigeria into a massive graveyard," the bishops said.
They said the unrestrained mayhem had become a metaphor for the untimely deaths that had now become the fate of many of Nigerian citizens.
"That our two priests, Father Joseph Gor and Father Felix Tyolaha, along with their parishioners were waylaid in the course of the celebration of the holy Mass early in the morning suggests very clearly that their murder was carefully planned," the bishops said. Nineteen people were killed in the attack.
They said recent events showed Nigerians no longer could trust Buhari. They mentioned the repeated calls from them and many other Nigerians, asking the president to take drastic and urgent steps to reverse the violence.
"It is clear to the nation that he has failed in his primary duty of protecting the lives of the Nigerian citizens," the bishops said.
"Whether this failure is due to his inability to perform or lack of political will, it is time for him to choose the part of honour and consider stepping aside to save the nation from total collapse," they said.
Often, the violence is characterised as a revenge attack, but the bishops asked, "Whom have these priests attacked?"
They cited a tweet from Father Gor on 3 January, in which he referred to the Fulani herdsman, a primarily nomadic group. The bishops quoted: "We are living in fear. The Fulanis are still around here in Mbalom. They refuse to go. They still go grazing around. No weapons to defend ourselves."
The priests could have fled, the bishops said, but, true to their vocation, they remained to continue to serve their people right unto death.
"We are sad. We are angry. We feel totally exposed and most vulnerable. Faced with these dark clouds of fear and anxiety, our people are daily being told by some to defend themselves," the bishops said, noting that most people had no weapons to defend themselves.
"How can the federal government stand back while its security agencies deliberately turn a blind eye to the cries and wails of helpless and
(unarmed) citizens who remain sitting ducks in their homes, farms, highway and now, even in their sacred places of worship?"
The bishops recalled that during a 8 February courtesy visit to Buhari, they expressed alarm about security in the nation.
"Since then, the bloodletting and the destruction of homes as well as farmlands have increased in intensity and brutality," they said. "Now our churches have been desecrated and our people murdered on their altars."
They said they had consistently advised their people to remain peaceful and law-abiding, but they felt "violated and betrayed in a nation that we have all continued to sacrifice and pray for."
"We are at a loss as to what excuse again we can continue to give about why things are the way they are in our nation, where a nation's landscape is littered with the bodies of its own citizens," they said.
"We are sad and fear that the clock is ticking. The bomb must be defused quickly before it explodes," they said.
"Nigeria can return to normal times if we put our heads together with sincerity," they said, offering prayers for the victims and for peace in the country.
PICTURE: Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is seen at the United Nations in New York City Sept. 19, 2017. (CNS photo/Shannon Stapleton, Reuters)