MIDDLE BELT, Nigeria (BP) — At least 170 Christian farmers and Muslim Fulani herdsmen have died this year in Nigeria’s Middle Belt in a centuries-old feud driven by Muslims seeking to graze their cattle on farmland, Christian advocacy groups have reported.
Advocacy group Amnesty International (AI) counted 170 killings through Jan. 30 in Adamawa, Benue, Taraba, Ondo and Kaduna states. Many killed were Christian farmers attacked by herdsmen seeking grazing land for their cattle, but others died in retaliatory clashes.
Thousands of residents have been displaced, homes and churches have been destroyed and Sunday worship numbers have declined, according to reports from AI, Morning Star News and International Christian Concern (ICC).
Nigeria’s military has announced a six-week offensive set to launch Feb. 15 to combat the violence that has increased in conjunction with several new local anti-grazing laws meant to protect the farmers.
In Benue state, where ICC said more than 80 Christians were killed in January, the ramped up violence has been traced to the enactment of a law two months earlier against open cattle grazing there. The new laws must be revised in order for the violence to simmer, a national leader of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association told Nigeria’s Punch newspaper.
“We don’t wish for the crisis to continue, but let us give it [the law] another look,” Punch quoted association secretary-general Usman Ngelzerma Jan. 9. “Give the farmers their rights, but consider the pastoralists too.”
Boko Haram terrorists aided herdsmen in attacks that killed eight Christians in four ambushes spanning several days in late January in Zanwra, a village in a northernmost area of the Middle Belt in Plateau state, a pastor told Morning Star News.
“A critical look at these attacks has revealed that it is not the herdsmen who are attacking Christian communities, as there are terrorists collaborating with them to carry out these attacks,” said Gado Biri, pastor of the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) in Zanwra. “It is unfortunate that the soldiers brought here are not taking decisive actions against the herdsmen.”
The attacks have displaced church members and cut Sunday church attendance in half, from 400 to about 200, Biri told Morning Star News.
While the military has not been effective in stopping the herdsmen, Biri continues to appeal to the Nigerian government to stop the attacks.
AI has cautioned that the military has used excessive force in previous responses to Fulani herdsmen attacks. In December 2017, military air raids killed at least 35 Christians and injured numerous others in response to herdsmen attacks in five separate villages, AI said in a Jan. 30 report based on 15 eyewitness accounts. As many as 100 died in those attacks in Lawaru, Dong, Kodomti, Shafaron and Nzuruwei, according to news reports.
“As the herdsmen shot people and torched homes, and the air raid resulted in fire, it was not possible to establish how much of the death and destruction was a direct result of the air attacks or attributable to the attack by herdsmen,” AI said in its report at amnesty.org. “Based on witness testimony, field observations, determination of the nature of weapons used as well as analysis of photographic and satellite images, Amnesty International believes that the air raids caused significant destruction, and estimates that they were responsible for at least 35 deaths and numerous injuries.”
In Nigeria’s new military offensive announced Feb. 6, the country will work to end Fulani-related violence in several Middle Belt states, focusing especially on Benue, Taraba and Nasarawa where violence has been most active, Major General David Ahmadu told the Daily Nigerian.
“The exercise has become more expedient due to the upsurge in cases of banditry, kidnapping and cattle rustling in Kaduna and Niger states as well as herdsmen/farmers’ clashes and attacks on communities … by armed militias,” the Daily Nigerian quoted Ahmadu. “These security challenges have continued unabatedly in these states despite the efforts by other security agencies to curb them.”
The military initiative also will include humanitarian efforts such as medical services, Ahmadu said. Raids, cordon-and-search operations, anti-kidnapping drills, roadblocks and checkpoints and “show of force” operations are planned.
The Global Terrorism Index described a militant group of Fulani herdsmen as terrorist as early as 2015, but Nigeria has refused to declare the herdsmen as terrorists, instead describing them as criminals.
(Please see BP’s earlier report from the Middle Belt.)