Cattle rustling and disputes over land provide a pretext to the violence across the Middle Belt, which has claimed hundreds of lives and caused lots of damage. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

When Ibrahim Maisaje, a pastor of an ECWA (Evangelical Church Winning All) church in Panwasa Mada village, went to his farm with his family on 26 June, he was full of joy and expectation.

It was mid-season, the crops had grown well and the harvest season was looking promising. But what started as a quiet, normal day, suddenly turned into a nightmare as Maisaje’s wife noticed cattle eating their crops.

Panwasa Mada is in the central Nigerian state of Nasarawa, part of Nigeria’s Middle Belt, which is the main food source for the country. The inhabitants are mainly farmers, who earn their living through agriculture. Its green pastures also attract Fulani herdsmen and their cattle. Pressed from the north by the advancing Sahara Desert, the Fulanis push ever farther across West Africa into land owned by Christian farmers, causing inevitable clashes.

“When I got to the spot to see things for myself, I could see the considerable damage done to the crops,” Maisaje told World Watch Monitor. “Instantly I went to confront the owner, a Fulani man of about 20 years old.

“As he saw me, his face changed and he became stubborn. I did all I could to hear from him about the damage done to my crops by his cattle, but he refused to accept any wrongdoing.

“I went to take his machete as proof of what he had done, only to find him raising his machete to cut me. Thank God, I was able to protect my head with my left hand, but I suffered a very deep cut, which left blood gushing out of my hand.”

The two men struggled against each other and eventually Maisaje managed to overpower the Fulani man and take his machete from him.

When his family, working about 500 metres away, rushed to the scene, they saw him bleeding and began shouting. Some farmers working nearby also rushed to the scene. Maisaje was then taken to the nearest clinic for treatment.

Two Fulani herdsmen, the attacker and his brother (the owner of the cattle), were arrested and handed over to the civil defence office.

The next day (27 June), Maisaje and the two herdsmen appeared before civil defence officers to settle the matter.

“The father to the two boys accepted the damages and pleaded with me for settlement between me and him,” Maisaje told World Watch Monitor. “It took the grace of God upon me to forgive the Fulani man for what his children had done to me and my crops.”

The civil defence officers charged the Fulanis for Maisaje’s medical expenses and other costs. Maisaje and the Fulanis then signed an agreement that they would live peaceful together, under the aegis of the civil defence office. The document included the agreement that the Fulani herdsmen would not cause any further damage to Maisaje’s crops.

This incident is not an isolated case, Rev Abel Dauji, the Regional Secretary of ECWA, told World Watch Monitor. A year ago, on 30 June 2016, another pastor with ECWA, was hacked to death by armed Fulani herdsmen as he collected wood from his farm in Obi. Rev Joseph Kurah who is also and the regional chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Nasarawa State, left behind a wife and seven children.

Cattle rustling and disputes over land provide a pretext to the violence across the Middle Belt, which has so far claimed hundreds of lives and caused lots of damages. Many experts now believe that this Middle Belt violence has been responsible for more deaths than Boko Haram.

Local and federal authorities are not doing enough to settle the issue, says Rev Dauji. Most of the authorities are Muslims, like most Fulanis. Moreover, some of the authorities are cattle owners who live elsewhere but pay Fulanis to look after their cattle.

Rev Dauji says other states should follow the example of Benue, where a law has forced cattle owners to keep their animals within a ranch. Rev Dauji says this initiative has prevented cattle from roaming into other people’s land and thereby causing damage to other people’s farms and crops.

Rev Dauji says local initiatives also exist, aimed at promoting peaceful co-existence between farmers and herdsmen, but most of the time those who are looking after the cattle are young people and are not aware of the law or any form of agreement.

“We encourage our church leaders and members not to recourse to violence and to strive for a peaceful settlement in these issues,” Rev Dauji said. “Pastor Ibrahim Maisaje acted according to our guidelines. Despite being injured and the damages he sustained, he courageously forgave the herdsmen”.

Rev Dauji said this was a powerful testimony. “The Fulani community leaders acknowledged that. They said: ‘We have never seen things like that. You are truly a man of God’. By doing so, it helps to prevent further tensions, which could lead to further damages and eventually the loss of innocent lives.”