Nigerian prelate pleads for dialogue in wake of wave of killings

BISHOP IGNATIUS Kaigama, archbishop of Jos, capital of the Plateau State, located in the heart of the Middle Belt in Nigeria, addressed the growing crisis in his country, as Fulani herdsmen—a nomadic and mostly Moslem people, this year alone have killed many hundreds of farmers, who are predominantly Christian. Archbishop Kaigama, the former president of the Nigerian bishops’ conference argues that careful dialogue holds the key to lasting peace.

Aid to the Church in Need supports the suffering and persecuted Church around the world, including in Nigeria, where Christian farmers are being attacked by Muslim herdsmen
Destruction in Kaduna State

Could you explain what has changed in this conflict that has been going on for a few years?

The question of the herdsmen, who are mainly Fulani, and that of the farmers has become very complicated. Farmers cultivate their land using manual methods. When crops grow, they complain that the Fulani cows come and eat them. This situation is very worrying for them, as it deprives them of their main means of subsistence and generates strong tensions between the two communities

In retaliation, farmers attack the cows. Cows are worth more than anything to the Fulani. Also, if you kill a cow, if you attack them, the herdsmen will retaliate by attacking everything that belongs to you. Sometimes they go so far as to burn houses, kill families, and destroy crops. This is a very serious problem that we see especially in the northern part of Nigeria.

Has it gotten worse?

Herdsmen and farmers have always had conflicts, but not on this scale. Recently, herdsmen have developed a kind of new audacity to invade and destroy farmers’ crops. They do so with such impetuosity that farmers are forced to react. In the past, there were problems between the two groups, but they were not that frequent.

What could be the reason for this escalation?

One of the reasons could be that because the president of the country, Muhammadu Buhari, is himself a Fulani, the herdsmen think that they have an ally, and therefore, that they can do what they want and get away with it. Otherwise, people cannot explain why there has been such a sudden increase in destruction.

And even the president of our country recognizes that the Fulani we knew before only carried sticks and cutlasses to cut leaves to feed their animals. Now, those who destroy people’s crops are carrying sophisticated weapons. We do not know where they get these weapons; it is rather worrying because people are dying, people are being killed, all because of these conflicts between herdsmen and farmers.

Do you have any idea where the new weapons come from?

President Buhari claims that they are a remnant of the Gaddafi era in Libya; that they have found their way to Nigeria and that is how people were able to get their hands on them. People can get weapons illegally if they have money. Herders can sell cows and acquire these sophisticated weapons. This is a reality because in good times they would be much richer than farmers anyway. Farmers can acquire such weapons too.

So, there are a lot of factors in play: the foreign weapons that circulate, the fact that they are able to buy them, or that they are manufactured locally or imported. In reality, we do not know who the suppliers are.

You have been one of the pioneers of interreligious and interethnic dialogue in the capital of the Plateau State—site of a wave of recent killings—where you founded the Center for Dialogue, Reconciliation and Peace 2011. Is there an opportunity for dialogue?

Aid to the Church in Need supports the suffering and persecuted Church around the world, including in Nigeria, where Christian farmers are being attacked by Muslim herdsmen
Archbishop Kaigama

I can share the story of multidimensional peace efforts in Nigeria, using our Dialogue Reconciliation and Peace (DREP) Centre in Jos as an example. DREP is an initiative of the Catholic Archdiocese of Jos meant to offer a neutral place where reconciliation of aggrieved parties can take place; there is also the Interfaith Vocational Training Center in Bokkos, where Muslim youths and Christian youths are trained for two years in vocational skills and helped to appreciate the civilized culture of dialogue as an alternative to the hostile confrontation at the slightest feeling of provocation. Recently, we were at meetings in the DREP Centre in Jos with the Fulani and Irigwe ethnic groups to strategize on how to avert further killings. We even agreed to hold an interfaith prayer session in AuguSupport the Suffering Churchst.

That the killings have resumed was a tremendous shock to me. The flagrant and despicable taking of human lives and the continued destruction of homes and means of livelihood is a disgrace to humanity and a shameful projection of a negative image of Nigerians. But even in the midst of violence caused either by Boko Haram, militant herdsmen or yet to be identified “foreign invaders,” I believe peace is very possible as we are determined to sustain the culture of civilized conduct and peace.

What is your message in this very difficult moment?

Not enough has been done to challenge the herdsmen killings. That could either be because of a so-called “hidden agenda” or simply the absence of courage, determination, patriotism and political will. Cattle, as important as they are, cannot be valued over human beings. That does not mean that cows should be wounded, stolen or killed. Our president should come out clearly, categorically and courageously to explain to his kinsmen why dialogue is the best solution.

—Maria Lozano & Mario Bard