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Nigeria’s climate of terror

Militant religion, not just climate change, is fuelling violence in Nigeria

On Good Friday, about three hours after dark, Fulani gunmen attacked a primary school in Nigeria’s Benue State. They killed around 40 Christians sleeping inside, who had previously fled attacks on their own villages. Those killed included children and pregnant women. It is a story that in the last decade has become all too common in Nigeria’s Middle Belt. In fact, Nigerian media estimate almost 400 people have now been killed in this and similar attacks in the previous three weeks in Benue State alone.

It is part of a pattern of targeted violence across Nigeria’s Middle Belt that has now claimed thousands of lives. Despite the fact that the victims are overwhelmingly Christians or adherents of African traditional religions and the perpetrators are overwhelmingly Muslims, Western media have repeatedly insisted that this is not a religious conflict. Instead, it was created by climate change. The argument goes that climate change in the Sahel has pushed Muslim Fulani herders southwards from their traditional grazing lands, bringing them into conflict with settled Christian farmers in the Middle Belt. 

It is a narrative that risks dangerously fuelling the level of angst felt by some young men from Christian villages who, in the face of the failure of Nigerian security forces to prevent such repeated attacks, have formed their own defence groups. Some of these have now begun to engage in reprisal attacks on uninvolved Muslim communities. 

Nigeria now stands on the brink of genocide

If this is really a settled farmer/herder conflict, some difficult questions emerge: why are those killed overwhelmingly Christian villagers, rather than broadly similar numbers of herders and settled farmers? When herder/settled farmer conflicts have long existed right across Nigeria, generally without killings, why has violence against Christian villages in the Middle Belt involved targeted killings of not only farmers defending their land, but also of women and children? Why have churches and Christian leaders also been specifically targeted? Why did the numbers killed by the Fulani suddenly increase twentyfold in 2013–14?

There is no question that climate change is part of the context of what is happening in the Middle Belt. Nonetheless, the failure to properly understand the causes of the killings and, in particular, the denial that there is any religious element involved, has allowed the situation to escalate to the point where Nigeria now stands on the brink of genocide. 

It is the specific targeting of churches and Christian pastors that should be sounding alarm bells, warning that this is not simply a conflict over access to agricultural land. Four years ago, the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief published a report on the situation in the Middle Belt. It included information that 500 churches had then been destroyed in Benue State alone, with attackers shouting slogans such as “Allahu Akbar” and “wipe out the infidels”. The attacks have now reached the point where several hundred thousand people have been displaced from their villages and are living in camps, such as that housing the primary school that was attacked on Good Friday. In 2018 the Nigerian House of Representatives declared that the killings in Plateau State constituted genocide. Given that the Genocide Convention 1948 defines “genocide” as either killing members of an ethnic or religious group or inflicting on them conditions of life calculated to bring about the partial or complete destruction of the group, that was probably a fair assessment. 

The Lindisfarne Centre for the Study of Christian Persecution has just published a research report examining the religious dimension of the conflict. What we found was that the Fulani attacks closely resembled the pattern of Fulani raids on the Middle Belt that persisted prior to the imposition of British colonial control in 1903. These raids, which sought to capture both cattle and slaves from non-Muslim villages, were legitimised by the teaching on jihad, booty, land seizure and enslavement of non-Muslims in west African madrassas. These concepts played a central role in the traditionalist form of Islam practised by the Fulani. The Fulani Sokoto caliphate had an estimated 1 million slaves when Northern Nigeria was annexed by the British in the early 20th century. In fact, raiding and slavery continued covertly for at least a generation despite the efforts of the British colonial authorities. One particular Fulani chief, Hamman Yaji (1863–1929), is still renowned amongst the Fulani as having continued the enslavement of many non-Muslims until he was finally arrested by the British in 1927.

It is this background which may help to explain why the numbers killed by the Fulani suddenly spiked in 2013–14, when, according to the Global Terrorism Index, the numbers they were killing each year jumped from 63 to 1,229. This was at precisely the point when Nigeria’s homegrown jihadist group, Boko Haram, ramped up its own attacks in the Fulani heartland of Northern Nigeria, specifically targeting churches and Christians as well as Nigerian security forces. In 2014 it became the world’s most deadly terrorist organisation, killing more people than even Islamic State, which was then at the height of its power in Syria and Iraq. It was also in April 2014 that Boko Haram hit major world headlines with the abduction of 276 predominantly Christian school girls from Chibok in Northern Nigeria. Then, just in case, any fellow jihadist groups had failed to notice the rise of Boko Haram, its leader Abubakar Shekau announced the following month, “Slavery is allowed in my religion, I will capture people and make them slaves.” In other words, he was reimplementing the shari’a provisions legitimising the enslavement of non-Muslims that had been dormant since the colonial era, an action which appears to have been copied shortly afterwards by Islamic State. 

This is not the first time Nigeria has suffered as a result of a Western cultural blindspot

These actions by Boko Haram would almost inevitably have reawakened memories amongst at least some of the Fulani of the raiding expeditions their great-grandparents had undertaken against non-Muslim villages in the Middle Belt. When Abubakar Shekau announced the reintroduction of slavery, he was immediately identified by people in northeastern Nigeria as being akin to the Fulani slave raiding chief Hamman Yaji. The massive escalation of Fulani attacks on Christian and African Traditionalist communities in the Middle Belt occurred at precisely this time, which means we must consider the possibility that the Fulani have been inspired by Boko Haram to return to a traditionalist pattern of Islamic practice. Raids on the Middle Belt were seen as legitimised by Islamic teaching on jihad. 

When we examined this, we found that for the last few years, jihadist groups across west Africa had been seeking to exploit local tribal grievances, including targeting the Fulani in a number of countries in order to radicalise them. There is little if any evidence that these jihadist groups are directly controlling the Fulani militias who are now killing large numbers of Christians in the Middle Belt, although there is the possibility that they may be arming them. 

Our research also highlighted significant future risks. If some elements of the Fulani have indeed been radicalised to re-implement a traditionalist form of jihad practised only four to five generations ago, then there is clearly a risk that they may reimplement other aspects of that — such as the enslavement of non-Muslims. It may also mean that the decline in Boko Haram attacks in recent years may actually be due to their exercising “strategic patience” — waiting for the Fulani to religiously cleanse the Middle Belt of much of its non-Muslim population. Then they may make their next move towards their stated goal of turning the whole of Nigeria into an Islamic state governed by shari’a.

This brings us back to the repeated claims by Western media that the killings in Nigeria’s Middle Belt are simply herder/settled farmer conflicts created by climate change. Unfortunately, it is not the first time Nigeria has suffered as a result of a Western cultural blindspot. It was only in November 2013 that the US State Department finally recognised Boko Haram as a terrorist organisation, having previously claimed that the widespread attacks it was carrying out on Christians in northern Nigeria were simply a socio-economic conflict between Christians and Muslims. By the following year Boko Haram had become the world’s deadliest terrorist organisation. How long must we wait this time for the West to wake up to what is happening in Nigeria?

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