Fathers Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha among 19 killed in an attack by suspected Fulani herdsmen. (Photo: Facebook)

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari – criticised for his lukewarm attitude towards the Fulani herdsmen held responsible for numerous attacks in the country – has come under more pressure to take decisive action following the latest massacre at a Catholic church in the Middle Belt state of Benue.

On Tuesday (24 April) armed men believed to be Fulani herdsmen stormed a Catholic church in Ukpor-Mbalom community, in Gwer East Local Government Area, killing 19 people, including two priests.

According to local sources, the worshippers were gathered in their St. Ignatius Church at about 5.30am for their morning Mass when the assailants attacked. They left 19 lifeless bodies, including Fathers Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha. Several other people also sustained bullet wounds.

The assailants – about 30 armed men, according to police – also set fire to 60 properties, including farm barns.

Buhari condemned what he called a “despicable” and “evil” act, on Twitter.

“I extend my sincere condolences to the government and people of Benue State, the Mbalom community, and especially the Bishop, priests and members of the St Ignatius’ Catholic Church, whose premises was the unfortunate venue of the heinous killings by gunmen,” he wrote.

“This latest assault on innocent persons is particularly despicable. Violating a place of worship, killing priests and worshippers is not only vile, evil and satanic, it is clearly calculated to stoke up religious conflict and plunge our communities into endless bloodletting.”

Yesterday (25 April), Nigeria’s House of Representatives summoned Buhari over the killings. The assembly also passed a vote of no confidence in the country’s service chiefs for the armed forces and all the security advisers to the president. The lawmakers in the lower legislative chambers will suspend sitting for three days in solidarity with Nigerians over the killings.

‘Gunned down in cold blood’

A local source contacted by the Nigerian Vanguard newspaper described a scene of horror:

“The services had barely started and worshippers were still coming for the Mass, after which a burial ceremony would take place, when sounds of rapid gunshots rent the air.

“People started scampering and wailing: 19 persons, including Reverend Fathers Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha, who were holding the morning Mass, were gunned down in cold blood, while many sustained injuries, including bullet wounds.

“After attacking the church, the invaders descended on the community and razed over 60 houses, farmland, food barns, after carting away what the people had in their barns.

“As usual, after killing the helpless worshippers and razing the community, the attackers fled from the scene.”

Recurrent phenomenon

Attacks attributed to Fulani herdsmen have become recurrent in Benue in recent months. Since the introduction in November 2017 of a controversial law banning open grazing by herders in the state, attacks have been carried out on an almost daily basis.

In January, 80 people were killed and 80,000 forced to flee in a spate of violence in the state. The funerals on 11 January for 73 victims in Makurdi, Benue’s capital, were broadcast live. Among those killed were seven members of the Benue State Livestock Guards – a special paramilitary unit set up by the state governor to ensure the full implementation of the grazing law.

One of the deadliest attacks to have taken place in Nigeria in recent years took place in Benue on 21 February 2016, when over 500 villagers were massacred and over 7,000 displaced from 10 villages.

A timeline by the Nigerian Premium Times, in August 2016, revealed that attacks by Fulani herdsmen in Benue had claimed at least 1,269 lives, while out of the 23 local government areas in the state, the herdsmen had invaded and occupied 14.

According to Save Benue Nigeria, a coalition of local NGOs, more than 60 attacks have been carried out in Benue State alone since 2013, with thousands dead and tens of thousands more displaced.

In reaction to the latest massacre this week, the deputy governor of Benue, Benson Abuonu, said the state was “under siege”.

“We have been attacked from all corners and this is unacceptable,” he said, as reported by Vanguard. “What happened … is a calculated attack, well planned and executed.

“They must have taken their time; they hit their targets and they got what they desired to do.”

Anger and condemnation

The Catholic Church also denounced the attack. “In their classic style, they [the herdsmen] burn down homes, destroy food items and kill. The police seem to know nothing of the attacks which have been going on in other villages within Benue State since the Anti-Open-Grazing Law came into effect last year,” read a statement by Fr. Moses Iorapuu, the Director of Communications for the Catholic Diocese of Makurdi.

“Many people are asking why the international community has remained silent over the massacre of Benue citizens? The answer is simple: It has been the goal of the jihadists to conquer Benue and [the] Tiv people [an ethnic group], who resisted their advance into the Middle Belt since 1804; the people who rejected Islam and fought for the unification of Nigeria in the civil war of 1967 – 1970.”

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) denounced a “state of anomie [immorality]” and called on all churches nationwide to stage peaceful protests on Sunday (29 April) to say “No” to bloodshed in Nigeria.

“The failure of the government to raise an effective campaign against the killings by herdsmen is the reason they have continued to kill, while there is no visible plan to pacify the aggrieved,” read the statement CAN issued yesterday (25 April).

‘Working on solutions’

President Buhari had said that his government was “working on solutions” to the ongoing violence, during a meeting with Archbishop Justin Welby, as well as the Secretary General of the Anglican Communion, Nigerian Archbishop Dr. Josiah Idowu-Fearon, at Nigeria’s High Commission in London on 11 April.

He said the problem was “not religious, but sociological and economic”.

However he acknowledged that the weaponry carried by the Fulanis had become more sophisticated, and that education was needed so that people “can be free from religious manipulation”.

Who are the Fulani?

In 2015, the Global Terrorism Index described the Fulanis as the fourth-deadliest known terrorist group in the world.

Two years later, the 2017 Global Terrorism Index stated that Fulani herdsmen had undertaken more attacks and were responsible for more deaths in Nigeria in 2016 than Boko Haram. In 2016, it was claimed that the herdsmen had been responsible for 60,000 deaths since 2001.

President Buhari is due to meet with US President Donald Trump at the White House on Monday (30 April), when he is expected to discuss strategies for fighting terrorism.