Fulani herdsman in Mpape, near Nigerian capital Abuja, Nov 2014
Fulani herdsman in Mpape, near Nigerian capital Abuja, Nov 2014 (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

The whole world has heard of the Chibok abduction: the 276 girls, predominantly Christians, kidnapped by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria in April 2014. There are 220 still missing. But the publicity surrounding this serves to hide a more widespread persecution of Christians in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria. Nigeria lies on the Christian/Muslim fault-line across Africa; it passes through the middle of the country, meaning there are inherent tensions over land and identity in this area. A general election on 28 March might turn the tide of violence, much of it – though not all – targeting Christians. It is, however, unlikely to help, according to a new report.

Migration and Violent Conflict in Divided Societies: Non-Boko Haram Violence against Christians in the Middle Belt Region of Nigeria examines the background to the violence in the Middle Belt Region. Drawing on field investigations between January and June 2014, including interviews with victims of violence and refugees, it reveals a more complex picture than simple migrant incursion, the usual interpretation.

The human race is by nature mobile. If the community needs to move, it will. A settled community will wish incomers to integrate and conform to their culture and tradition; the migrant community will want to keep its own identity. For millennia this has led to conflict in different parts of the world.

In Northern Nigeria, it cannot be disputed that the droughts are worsening and the fertile Middle Belt region offers attractive grazing grounds to beleaguered pastoralists from the north. The Hausa-Fulani herdsmen, predominantly Muslims, have gradually moved into the Middle Belt region and there are a growing number of well documented instances of violence against indigenous, predominantly Christian farmers. These in-comers are burning farms, raping women and attacking houses and churches.

The authors of the report argue that this is not an advanced form of jostling over territory. Rather, they say, it is part of a political strategy that is inspired by the Islamic doctrine of darul Islam. Darul Islam translates as ‘the house of Islam’ and describes the obligation to bring the non-Islamic under the rule of Islam. It is an ideology that pitches the migrant Hausa-Fulani herdsmen from the North against the indigenous Christian population of the Middle Belt region. The migrants, the authors say, are determined not only to keep their own traditions and culture, but also to make them dominant: the battlegrounds are religious, political, economic and social.

The report focuses on four states in the Middle Belt region: Kaduna, Benue, Taraba and Nasarawa. The stories coming out of all four tell a consistent tale of harassment, discrimination and outright persecution.

Attacks caused mass internal displacement

In Taraba State, for example, Hausa-Fulani attacks on Christian communities have caused mass internal displacement. Thousands of indigenous farmers have scrambled to the state capital of Jalingo for safety. The authors cite specific cases of the murder of women and children in the villages, destruction of farms and the burning of homes and churches. Their information comes from extensive interviews with victims of violence in the region. Most residents fear that their forced migration into the towns will be permanent, and that there is no hope of returning to their land or way of life. As the rural communities flee, so Muslims, some of whom are not even Nigerians, take over the land, say the authors.

The social effects are far reaching and food security is an increasing concern. There are documented instances of herdsmen letting their cattle eat the crops of indigenous farmers. The conflict prevents crops being grown and harvested. Displacement also interrupts the education of children and often removes their access to medical facilities that a settled existence provides.

Internally Displaced People in Makurdi, the Benue state capital, April 2014
Internally Displaced People in Makurdi, the Benue state capital, April 2014 (Photo: NCSAN)

Local media are silent over such events, say the authors, and international media are selective in their reporting. Local governments do not want to acknowledge that there is a problem and make no provision for the displaced. The camps are set up by the displaced themselves, in churches and schools. If official action were taken it would draw the attention of the world to the plight of this already large and growing body of displaced people. Moreover, while government at every level remains silent, the atrocities committed by the Hausa-Fulani can continue unchallenged.

The report says that state governments are allocating lands for grazing, an official process that will result in traditional lands being taken from Christian communities and given to Muslim herdsmen.

Christians forced to convert for political office

The Hausa Fulani ruling classes have imposed the Hausa language in the Middle Belt region and the authors say there is a clear pro-Islam bias in the political system. Christians are forced to convert to Islam to gain political office. The report gives as an example Alhaji Yahya Kwande, a prominent Christian from Plateau state who saw conversion to Islam, in order to fight the system from within, as the only viable course of action.

Some of the indigenous emirs have had to convert from Christianity to Islam. The present Emir of Ganye, in Southern Adamawa state, was a Catholic but had to convert to Islam in order to become Emir, even though most of the people in his chiefdom are Christians.

According to the authors, the underlying principle here is Cuius region, eius religio (whose realm, his religion): in other words, whoever wields power can dictate which religion is dominant. The government in the region is backed by Muslims, so where Christians win an election, it is likely they will not be appointed to office and that Muslim runners-up will gain office in their place.

The same can be seen in the election of tribal chiefs. The report details the case of

Agwatashi in the Obi local government area of Nasarawa state. The traditional ruler died and six of the seven king-makers voted for Peter Ashiki, who is a Christian. Umar Abubakar Apeshi, a Muslim, received one vote. However, the government of Nasarawa state under the leadership of Muslim governor Aliyu Akwe Doma still crowned the Umar as the Osoho of Olusoho – Agwatashi. Similarly, when the Oseshi of Aloshi, Solomon Obiokpa died, his son who was the heir to the throne, was denied his birthright – for no reason other than his faith.

Internal divisions encouraged by colonial powers

The seeds for the current situation were sown pre-independence when internal divisions were encouraged by the colonial powers. Then in 1999, when Nigeria returned to multi-party democracy after a period of military rule, Ahmed Sani, the former Zamfara state governor declared a Sharia state, which he was able to do thanks to a loophole in the constitution. By 2000, 12 out of 19 northern states had declared Sharia law.

Boko Haram emerged in the north of Nigeria in 2002 and, the authors say, has the avowed intention of eradicating Christianity from the Middle Belt region. Their chosen method is violence. In May 2014, for instance, two explosions in the market at Jos killed 118 people, who were mostly Christians. Such aggression, say the authors, paves the way well for the continuing incursion of Hausa-Fulani Muslim herdsmen and their ongoing campaign to uproot and eliminate Christian communities. A campaign that is well funded and well resourced, they report – with sophisticated weapons such as AK-47s.

Migration and Violent Conflict in Divided Societies concludes that the prevailing atmosphere of anti-Christian violence is supported by an expansionist Islamic policy and the complicity of government. Migration of herdsmen in search of fresh grazing grounds does not adequately account for the current situation. The question is whether the indigenous people of the Middle Belt can find a way of unifying and then resisting the onslaught. The imminent election clearly offers no ‘quick fix’ hope in a region where the pro-Islamist bias in government is so ingrained.

(Commissioned by the World Watch Research Unit of Open Doors International, a charity which works to support persecuted Christians around the world)