Nigerian bishop fears for the worst from attacks by Fulani herdsmen

“PLEASE DON’T make the same mistake as was made with the genocide in Rwanda. It happened under our noses, but no one stopped it. And we know well how that ended.” These are the words of Bishop William Amove Avenya of the Diocese of Gboko, in Benue State, Nigeria, where Christians form the majority of the population.

Aid to the Church in Need supports the suffering Church around the world, including in Nigeria, where Christians are being attacked by Muslim Fulani herdsmen
A demonstration by Christians in Nigeria in wake of deadly attack by Fulani herdsmen last April

He is only the latest of the bishops of Nigeria’s Middle Belt to have raised his voice to denounce what is an increasingly worrying phenomenon—the attacks by Islamist Fulani herdsmen on Christians in the region. In recent days there have been new attacks in the area of Jos, the capital of Plateau State, killing more than100 people.

The Fulani Herdsmen have herded their flocks in parts of Nigeria’s Middle Belt for centuries and there have always been occasional clashes with local peasant farmers, the majority of whom are Christians today, and whose crops were frequently trampled and even destroyed by the herdsmen’s flocks. But whereas in the past these conflicts were generally either tribal in nature or driven by economics, today they appear to have become increasingly religion-based in character.

According to official data, there have been 492 victims since the beginning of the year in Benue State alone. “They are criminals and terrorists, but they do not do the same things in the majority Muslim areas,” Bishop Avenya charges, adding: “We are convinced that what is happening is an ethnic cleansing of Christians.”

Bishop Peter Iornzuul Adoboh of Katsina Ala Diocese (Benue State) and Bishop Matthew Ishaya Audu of Lafia diocese (Nassarawa State) believe that there is a “clear agenda of Islamizing the Nigerian Middle Belt,” a plan that is making use of the Fulani Herdsmen. “Their aim is to strike at the Christians,” explains Bishop Audu, “and the government is doing nothing to stop them, because President Buhari himself is a member of the Fulani tribe.”

Adding to the suspicions of complicity on the part of the government is not merely the inactivity of the federal police but also the fact that these Fulani Herdsmen are being armed with ever more sophisticated weaponry.

“At one time these pastoralists were armed only with sticks,” Bishop Avenya explains. “But now they are armed with AK-47’s—expensive weapons that they could not possibly afford. So who is supplying them? And besides, in these areas there are checkpoints every mile-and-a-half. Is it possible that armed men and their flocks of cattle could have somehow become invisible?”

On May 22, 2018, all the dioceses of Nigeria took part in a protest march, calling on the government to protect the Christians. Bishop Avenya insists: “Our faithful are being murdered or forced to live as refugees as a result of the violence. And the West continues to view the matter of the Fulani as merely an internal problem. Don’t do as you did in Rwanda; don’t wait for the genocide to happen before intervening!”

—Marta Petrosillo