Nigeria: Fulanis kill nearly 200 Christians

Yet another attack by Muslim Fulani bandits has left Christians in Nigeria displaced and in despair, and their government is not responding.

Over the Christmas holiday, terrorists caused death and destruction in the Christian communities of Bokkos, Barkin Ladi, and Mangu in Plateau State,central Nigeria. Close to 170 people are confirmed dead, and the death toll is likely to rise. Father Andrew Dewan is the director of communications of the Pankshin Diocese, where the attacks took place. He spoke to Aid to the Church in Need about the coordinated attacks on 26 villages that began on December 23rd and only ended on December 26th.

Initial reports say that about 170 people were killed in this latest violent episode. Can you confirm these numbers?

I can. So far, there are 164 or 167 deaths, but the number is definitely going to rise, because there are many people in hospitals, injured to varying degrees.

Are the victims all Christian, or were the attacks indiscriminate?

These unprovoked attacks were well-coordinated and deliberate, specifically targeting Christian communities. I can confirm that the victims are 100 percent Christian.

You speak of well-coordinated attacks. How did the terrorists operate?

This violence began at night, in the rural community of Mushu. About 18 people were killed and several others were injured.

Just as people were trying to come to terms with what had happed at Mushu, Tudun Mazat was attacked. The attackers stormed the community in the evening, while most people were eating their dinner, and those who had finished were visiting friends. Before people could raise the alarm, the bandits were already upon them. People were summarily shot and killed, and houses, harvested corn, churches, and clinics were all set ablaze. I had gone to this same community for Christmas Mass that morning. And from Tudun Mazat, the Fulani terrorists descended on Maiyanga, killing 13. Around 20 other communities were attacked that night.

Do you know the identity and motives of the attackers?

Survivors and eyewitnesses categorically declared that they were Fulani militia, or mercenaries. In communities where the Christians live side by side with Fulanis, not one Fulani person was affected, and no Fulani houses were burned, so there is no doubt that the attackers were Fulanis. 

As for the motive, I am not sure, but it may be connected with attacks that took place in the neighboring area, Mangu. The Fulanis attacked the communities there, and they expected Christians in the neighboring communities to allow them access, but they refused. I think they came back to attack because of that.

These attacks have a long history. The Fulani pastoralists, or herders, are originally from the Sahel region, the northern corridor of Africa, and there was grazing land for the herders, but which is desert now. So, there has been a southward movement by the Fulanis and their cattle to greener pastures in the Middle Belt area, where attacks have continuously taken place. To gain unfettered access to these grazing fields, they would have to dispossess the natives, who are Christians. 

It is a competition for land. The natives will sometimes prevent the Fulanis, if they clearly see that they are out to attack the communities. And the Fulanis, because of this resistance, attack them. I think that is what happened in this instance. 

Did the fact that it was Christmastime also contribute, or was that a coincidence?

For those who believe that this conflict is not religious, this latest attack proves that it is clearly a religious conflict. The fact that it took place at Christmas — and featured the deliberate targeting of Christians in a mixed community, where Muslims were not attacked — clearly bears all the hallmarks of a religious conflict. I know that not everybody likes to admit that, but for me, having been on the ground, observing and writing about this, it bears the hallmarks of a religious conflict. 

The attacks were deliberate and also symbolic because of the timing. There had been rumors in the mainstream and social media that Fulanis were going to attack, and that the aim was to inflict pain and maximum destruction on the Christians. A lot of us had dismissed it, but the attention of the security forces was drawn, though, as always, nothing was done until the tragedy occurred. 

Victims of these attacks  in Nigeria often complain about a lack of response from security forces. Do you have the same complaint?

I do. I have read reports that suggest that the military and the security forces are complicit in this, because if they were really up to their game, they should have picked up intelligence, because, as I said, there had been rumors, including the times they were going to attack. That should have put security on red alert, but, as is often the case, they were caught unaware.

What have the political leaders done?

We are dealing with absentee leaders. Our leaders don’t live in the community, so they don’t understand the problems that are hurting the people. We are getting to the point where if something drastic is not done to deal with this gathering storm, the possibility of people taking the law into their own hands is quite high. 

Many people must be turning to you for solace and spiritual support. How important is your role for the community now?

It is quite challenging at this time, because we are dealing with a huge deluge of Internally Displaced People. Christians from the villages are streaming into city centers for shelter, food, and clothing, at a time when the weather is very cold, comparable to the weather in Europe at this time. Due to the lack of an official response, the churches are often left to respond to such emergencies. Hundreds of IDPs are seen in the Church compounds, and the churches have to provide food, clothing, and financial resources. The situation at hand is, indeed, dire.

Although some Christians who are disillusioned by these unprovoked attacks are now tempted to return to African Traditional Religions, the vast majority draw inspiration from the Scriptures and the life of the early Church.

—Filipe d’Avillez