Fathers Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha among 19 killed by Fulani Herdsmen. (Photo: Facebook)
Fathers Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha were among over a dozen killed in a recent attack attributed to the herdsmen. (Photo: Facebook)

Following the shooting dead of two Catholic priests and over a dozen parishioners at a church in Nigeria’s Middle Belt last month, the BBC has visited the village and spoken to survivors.

Fr. Joseph Gor and Fr. Felix Tyolaha were killed during the morning Mass at St. Ignatius Catholic Church, in the village of Mbalom, Benue State, on 24 April.

Residents of Mbalom attributed the killings to Fulani herdsmen, whose attacks are believed to have claimed more lives than Boko Haram. One villager said he heard them speaking in the Fulani language, but the BBC said there was “no solid evidence” herdsmen carried out the attack.

The attackers stole money, valuables and Communion wine, and burnt some shops, but left most of the village untouched, “suggesting the attackers did not aim to take over land and deter villagers from coming back”, the BBC said. “They also did not return with cattle, as might have been expected.”

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari called the attack “vile and Satanic” and said it was an attempt to stoke religious conflict between Christians and Muslims. The attack was also condemned by the Christian Association of Nigeria and Muslim Rights Concern, while the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria urged President Buhari to step down for failing to protect Christians. US President Donald Trump then appeared to refer to the massacre when he spoke to Buhari in a meeting six days later. “We cannot allow Christians to be murdered,” Trump said.

The Nigerian government and secular analysts have long portrayed the killings as a bloody dispute over farming land, as the Sahara desert spreads south. But others say the fact that thousands of Christians have been killed suggests a more sinister agenda and that the failure to acknowledge this dimension has left Christians vulnerable to further attacks.

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

Boko Haram not yet defeated

Meanwhile, the fight against Boko Haram goes on. According to the UN special envoy for West Africa and the Sahel, it will take years to “completely eliminate” the group.

Muhammad Ibn Chambas was speaking during a Lake Chad regional summit in Maiduguri, capital of Borno State, on Tuesday, 8 May.

Chambas’s comments contrasted with the statements by the Nigerian government and military insisting that Boko Haram has been “technically” defeated.

Just last week, suicide bombing attacks in Adamawa State claimed 86 lives. “As long as they are not totally defeated, obviously they are present in some areas,” Chambas said.

Meanwhile, a Catholic priest was abducted on Monday, 7 May, in the capital Abuja. Fr. Michael Kwanashie’s abductors have reportedly demanded 15 million Nigerian naira (about US$42,000) for his release.