ABUJA, Nigeria (BP) — Muhammadu Buhari was inaugurated as president of Nigeria today (May 29) in Abuja, at a time when violent Fulani herdsmen he once supported appear to be joining with Boko Haram to kill Christian farmers and capture their farmland.
The international community will watch to see whether Buhari is true to his word of being a “born-again democratic” transformed from a 1980s military dictator, Adeniyi Ojutiku told Baptist Press. Ojutiku is a Southern Baptist in Raleigh, N.C., who leads the Lift up Now Christian grassroots outreach to his homeland Nigeria.
“He claims he’s a new convert to democracy, so the whole world is expectant that he truly is committed to his claims. But we don’t know; we have yet to see,” Ojutiku said. “A few years back, he went to one of the governors in the south … and he was making a case for the Fulani herdsmen being permitted to roam freely in states that don’t belong to them. He had been a champion of the Fulani herdsmen’s free range of the entire territory of Nigeria. He had been their leading advocate.”
Fulani herdsmen, Muslim cattlemen who have for decades been at odds with Christian farmers in northeastern Nigeria over land and grazing rights, are accused of killing at least 70 Christians in Plateau State in two attacks this past month, according to Morning Star News, and are also accused of joining forces with Boko Haram.
Fulani herdsmen have shouted “Allahu Akbar (Allah is the greatest),” while attacking Christian villages, and have admitted being members of Boko Haram during police interrogations, according to Nigerian security forces.
“They are working together, definitely, no doubt about it. I know that for sure, but they started as two different groups,” Ojutiku told Baptist Press. “The Fulani herdsmen had always had conflicts with the traditional agrarian farmers over the use of land and the rights to pasture and all that. That has always been a standard problem for many, many, many years. But the conflicts were minimal. Now the conflicts are more; it’s more harm than it used to be.”
Both Boko Haram and the Fulani herdsmen benefit from killing Christians, Ojutiku said.
“There’s a confluence of interest between the Fulani herdsmen and Boko Haram,” Ojutiku said. For the Fulani, “it’s not immediately based on the expansion of the caliphate (Islamic state), but it’s secondarily based on it. The Muslims are trying to use the Fulani herdsmen to completely Islamize the southern region, because now they have reasons to traverse the land and go as far south as possible. They use them, the Fulani herdsmen, to capture territories.”
Boko Haram insurgents have killed at least 13,000 Christians and moderate Muslims in the past five years in Nigeria, and driven more than 1.5 million from their homes, according to news reports; while Fulani herdsmen killed at least 3,000 Christian farmers between 2010 and 2013, Human Rights Watch reported.
“[Fulani herdsmen] are very violent,” Ojutiku said. “When they go to land areas that don’t belong to them, very far south, even as far as the coastal areas, they rape the women; they do all sorts of atrocities against the people, especially the female gender.”
With tight security, President Buhari pledged at his inauguration to continue the fight against Boko Haram and to root out any corruption within Nigeria’s military forces accused of having aided the insurgents, the Associated Press reported. He also noted an international climate of goodwill toward Nigeria.
“Nigeria has a window of opportunity to fulfill our mission as our great nation,” he said.
Buhari, in his role as commander in chief of Nigeria’s armed forces, pledged to fight “until Boko Haram is completely subdued,” AP reported. “I belong to everybody and I belong to nobody. I intend to serve as president to all Nigerians.”
Nigerians applauded and danced in the streets upon his inauguration, reportedly singing “Sai baba, sai Buhari,” meaning “Only father, only Buhari.” The 72-year-old overwhelmingly defeated then incumbent Goodluck Jonathan in March elections that had been delayed from February 14, after Boko Haram jeopardized successful elections by establishing caliphates in towns covering some 20,000 square miles. Neighboring countries of Chad, Cameroon and Niger joined forces with Nigeria to recapture the towns, allowing mostly peaceful elections.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, among inaugural guests, tweeted “Congratulations to @MBuhari & the Nigerian people. A privilege to be here to celebrate #Nigeria’s historic & peaceful democratic transition.”