Attacks from Fulani herders against Christians in the Middle Belt have been on the increase, displacing thousands of people. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Attacks from Fulani herders against Christians in the Middle Belt have been on the increase and the conflict has become the country’s gravest security challenge.

The use of dangerous rhetoric and religious polarisation has contributed to the escalation and can spark further violence, particularly in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, ahead of the presidential elections this Saturday, says a new report.

Central Nigeria is seen as one of the most influential constituencies in Saturday’s elections “because of its role as a swing region where the more Muslim north and the mostly Christian south converge and as a significant and continuous site of deadly sectarian conflict”, according to the report “Central Nigeria: Overcoming Dangerous Speech and Endemic Religious Divides” that was published last week by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

In recent years the conflict between mostly Fulani herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers over land and cattle in Nigeria’s Middle Belt has become the country’s gravest security challenge.

As reported by World Watch Monitor, attacks by herder militia occur with such frequency and apparent organisation that the characterisation as “local disputes over land and cattle” no longer seems adequate.

Violence attributed to Fulani militants is believed to have claimed six times more lives than Boko Haram in recent years. In 2016, it was claimed that the herdsmen had been responsible for 60,000 deaths since 2001.

The roots of the conflict are complex with “many intersecting issues polarizing society” involving economic, ethnic and religious tensions but “dangerous speech and polarizing narratives around religion have fuelled violence, discrimination, and segregation between Muslims and Christians for decades”, according to USCIRF’s report.

It also highlights the role of hate speech and false information. “Prominent Nigerian religious and political leaders in 2018 continued using polarizing rhetoric that amplifies fear and suggests the inevitability of further violence…. Political leaders in Nigeria are increasingly using social media to communicate directly with the population,” said the report.

Since 2009 USCIRF has recommended that the US State Department designate Nigeria as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998. This would give the US government to “many opportunities and non-punitive measures” to “promote respect for freedom of religion or belief in Nigeria and to reduce polarization and conflict between religious groups”, suggests the report.