Six years ago the kidnapping of 276, mainly Christian, schoolgirls by Islamist group Boko Haram in Chibok, Nigeria resulted in international condemnation. #BringBackOurGirls trended on Twitter and even Michelle Obama, then First Lady, posted an image of herself with the hashtag. For a brief period in 2014, an awareness of Christian suffering in Nigeria was heightened worldwide.
Last week, the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for international freedom of religion or belief published a report on its findings of Christian persecution in Nigeria. Their plight may no longer be at the forefront of our minds here in the West, but it has nevertheless been meticulously captured here. The report includes the testimony (in graphic detail) of numerous Nigerian survivors of violence over the past decade. It makes for grim reading, and it’s difficult to fathom the barbarity described.
One victim is Rebecca Sharibu – the mother of schoolgirl Leah Sharibu who was kidnapped by Boko Haram two years ago and remains in their captivity. According to the APPG there are thousands of girls like her, and ‘millions of others who suffer… unspeakably.’
Boko Haram are not the only threat facing Nigerian Christians. APPG chair Jim Shannon points out that ‘attacks by armed groups of Fulani herdsmen have resulted in the killing, maiming, dispossession and eviction of thousands of Christians.’
At times, the scale and horror of the atrocities being perpetrated in Nigeria is truly staggering. Amnesty International estimates that up to October 2018 approximately 3,641 people may have been killed, 406 injured and 5,000 homes burnt down in clashes between predominantly ethnic Muslim Fulani herders and Christian farmers . The Christian Association of Nigeria say that in six months in 2018, over 6,000 people were killed. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced due to the conflict. In April, more than 300 Fulani herders reportedly attacked Christians in the village of Hukke, near Jos. Several people were reportedly killed and 23 homes set on fire. A survivor said: ‘I saw the Fulani as they came towards me, they started shooting, I fell and they passed over me into my house and killed my two sons, they then went straight to the pastors house and shot and killed him, they set some houses on fire and left.’ Often there is a retaliatory response to Fulani violence by young men compelled to become vigilantes – men who’ve lost faith in the authorities to protect them and their families from murder and mayhem in the name of Allah.
Although much of the world’s media has remained silent on Christian persecution since the Chibok kidnappings, some brave British parliamentarians and journalists have travelled to Nigeria and spoken to survivors in an effort to shine a light on ongoing persecution.
On a 2016 visit to a war-ravaged village of Jong in central Nigeria, Baroness Cox narrowly missed an ambush by Fulani gunmen with AK-47s herself. Meanwhile, Douglas Murray captured the nightmarish fate of Christian villages in northern Nigeria here in the Spectator.
Despite being less well known in the West compared to the gun-toting jihadists of Boko Haram, the Fulani violence has claimed thousands of lives in Nigeria, and ravaged a much wider geographical territory, stretching across more states. There are various theories about why this is all happening, including competition for land due to desertification caused by climate change. But it is clear that religious ideology features prominently in the conflict. Islamists – including the Boko Haram splinter group known as Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) – have been responsible for the destruction of churches and many Fulani herdsman appear to have adopted similar tactics and targeted Christians and symbols of Christian identity. Christian pastors and community heads are singled out, and herders are reported to have shouted, ‘Allahu Akbar’ and ‘wipe out the infidels’ when launching attacks. The level of violence poses important questions, not least whether what is happening in Nigeria can be described as an ‘unfolding genocide’.
Veteran Catholic parliamentarian and APPG Vice-Chair, Lord Alton told me,
“‘Climate change didn’t behead eleven Christians at Christmas, destroy churches and schools, abduct, torture, rape, and forcibly convert women and girls like Leah Sharibu. Peaceable Muslims who have embraced diversity and plurality are victims of this ideology too. The UK and Nigeria are signatories to the 1948 Convention on Genocide – which lays a duty to prevent genocides from occurring. This timely and welcome report from parliamentarians warns that in Northern Nigeria a genocide has long been in the making.’
There has been (and will continue to be) an important debate around all the underlying reasons behind the violence, and there are several potential factors – beyond religious ideology, Islamic revivalism, and its associated territorial expansion. Competition for resources, poor land management by the Nigerian government, climate change, exponential population growth and insecurity all play their part.
Often the Nigerian government’s response in the farmer-herder conflict has been inadequate and has allowed violence to emerge and escalate. The report says that ‘there is the belief that the lack of political will or capacity to address conflict is one of the main drivers of violence’ and has made a series of recommendations to help ameliorate the tumult. But the Nigerian government has been swift to rebut the contents of the report. A presidential spokesperson said the religious farmer-herder tension is a longstanding battle for arable land between farmers and herders, and Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has been taking steps to ensure security in the North regardless of religious beliefs.
Crossbench peer and APPG Co-Chair Baroness Cox says that:
“‘It comes as no surprise that the Nigerian Government would wish to divert attention away from accusations of potential complicity. Yet our serious concerns remain: President Buhari must take swift and effective action to protect all citizens; to call to account those who have perpetrated such horrendous atrocities; and to ensure that adequate humanitarian aid is available – as a matter of urgency – for those suffering the tragic loss of family members and the destruction of their homes and farmland.’
The British government must do all in its power to work with its Nigerian counterparts to tackle the violence, before it’s too late.