While all eyes are on Nigeria’s north-eastern regions where the radical group Boko Haram is at last being challenged by multi-national military forces, violence targeting Christian communities in the group of states across the centre of Nigeria, known as the Middle Belt, has increased dramatically. This comes ahead of Presidential elections on 28 March.
In the early hours of 15 March in a village in Benue state, close to the Cameroon border, 100 people, including women and children, were slaughtered by Fulani herdsmen who broke into homes and started shooting while their victims slept.
A witness who escaped the killings said ‘we were still sleeping when they entered our village and started shooting sporadically in all directions killing every human and animal in sight’.
Worst attack by herdsmen in four years
The Fulani destroyed crops and set houses ablaze in what was described by a local priest as the worst attack by the herdsmen in four years.
Presidential candidate General Muhammadu Buhari, himself an ethnic Fulani, condemned the attack as ‘killings in cold blood’.
Many Fulani are known to have strong links with regional Islamist movements. They are largely a nomadic tribe, who spread across national boundaries and are found in countries from Senegal to Sudan.
Since 2011 hundreds of lives have been lost during raids or because of targeted killings by Fulani, with many victims from Christian communities.
Zangang is one of several communities in the mainly Christian-populated southern part of Kaduna state, in the northern Middle Belt, that has come under persistent attacks.
About 300 kilometres from Kaduna, the state capital, Zangang, is one of the ancestral homes of the mainly Christian Atakad ethnic group, which locals say is falling in to the hands of the Fulani invaders who have continued to ravage communities in southern Kaduna.
The killing of the traditional ruler of Zangang, Yohanna Daniel Shinkut on January 3, 2015 has raised fresh concerns about killings in the southern part of Kaduna state since 2011.
Widow of the late chief, Elizabeth Shinkut, told World Watch Monitor that her husband was targeted for elimination by the Fulanis about three years ago, adding that he narrowly escaped the first attempt on his life in 2013.
“The problem started in 2013, when the Fulani started sending letters to our communities that they were coming to attack us. My husband immediately started mobilising members of the community to be on their guard.
“Since that first attack on him in 2013, my husband never knew peace again.
“They burnt our house last year and we are yet to fully recover from that incident, and now they got him this time around.
“He went to Kafanchan [a southern town in Kaduna State] to pick up a battery for the car. About three hours later I saw his missed call on my phone; I couldn’t call back immediately because I had no credit on my phone.
“But after a short while I heard gun shots. I ran so fast I fell and hurt myself. I managed to get up and ran to where I could load my phone.”
Her attempts to call her husband several times on his phone were not successful. He did not answer and the phone seemed to have been switched off. That’s how she and other relatives made the discovery that he’d been killed.
‘His body was riddled with bullets’
“We got to the car and saw his lifeless body inside,” Mrs Shinkut continued.. “His hands were still on the steering wheel. The car was riddled with bullets from all sides. His body was riddled with bullets.
“As we were pushing the car home with the corpse, the Fulani opened fire at us. [Nigerian] soldiers responded by firing back at them, and we ran to the bush.
‘‘We are a peaceful people. We don’t know what we have done to these people. We have been praying to God to touch their hearts and stop these killings and destruction.”
Every family in the community has a story about how their loved ones were killed, how their homes were destroyed and how they escaped being killed.
Mrs Shinkut added that the murder of her husband had left her and her six children in a precarious situation as all the children were still in school.
Mrs. Kauna Julius Adamu is another among hundreds of women who are victims of attacks by Fulanis.
“My husband was working in a bakery in Jos, Plateau State. He was coming home to see our baby, but was ambushed on the way and killed. They removed his eyes and tongue,” she said.
Another victim is Daniel Wurip, 56. He and his family of eight were made homeless and without any means of earning a living following the sacking of their village by the herdsmen.
“We lost everything in the attack and relocated to my relation in Fadan Attakar where we have been staying,” he said.
Fulani weapons ‘can only be supplied by the military’
Enock Andong, a community leader in Fadan Attakar, explained that the attacks normally go unchallenged, whether taking place in the night or the day. He added that the Fulanis have sophisticated weapons that can only be supplied by the military.
He said although the security agencies have been trying their best, the hilly terrain of the area had been a challenge to the special military task force deployed to the Southern part of Kaduna state since the post-election violence in 2011.
According to him, the Fulanis were based in the Kaduna village of Ganaruwa, which is next to of the Christian Atakad people in Zangang.
“The Fulanis come from Ganaruwa, kill our people, burn our houses and run back. They have destroyed all economic activity in our communities as people have run away from their homes.
“There is also impending hunger because victims of the attacks no longer go to their farms as it is not safe.”
Churches levelled to the ground
He said hundreds of children were missing out on their education following the destruction of their schools. Churches in the affected villages too have been levelled to the ground.
“The Fulanis have either burnt or occupied their houses, and have turned farmlands into grazing areas,” Andong said, adding that the only way to address the problem was through collaboration between the authorities in Kaduna and Plateau states.
A former councillor representing Zangkang ward and the deputy National President of Atakar Community Development Association, ACDA, Ignatius Raymond, disclosed in an interview in Fadan Attakar that 480, including mostly women and children, have been killed since the attacks started in 2011.
He added that a total of 3,090 houses were burnt down and over 10,000 people made homeless, while 13 churches and six schools were also burnt down.
Raymond traced the root of the attacks to the killing of two of Attakar people by the Fulani in 2011, recalling that on March 30, 2013, the Fulanis came and ransacked two villages on the hills, Mafang and Zangang, killing 33 people.
The ruler of the Attakar people, Tobias Nkom Wada, said he was deeply concerned about the killings going on in his domain.
While condemning the killings and the wanton destruction of his people’s property, he wondered why the Fulani have decided to be waging war against his people.
However he recalled that in 2012, thieves killed one of his subjects and made away with his herd of cows.
“They killed him and removed some parts of his body. We were able to arrest a Fulani man who was one of the thieves and handed him over to the police. The police took him to Kaduna but we have not heard anything more about the case.
“In March 2013, all the Fulanis suddenly moved out of our communities on the hills quietly, with their cows and families. We didn’t know why they were leaving. The following day, we discovered one of our own was killed again. The Fulanis became suspected of the killing.
“Precisely, this, I can tell you, is what brought about the bad relationship between my people and the Fulanis and they started firing on people and burning houses up till today” he said in a telephone interview.
He added that, through ongoing talks, a concerted effort was being made to bring an end to the killings.