Thousands of Christian lives lost in rising tide of murderous attacks, kidnappings and brutality by the three linked extremist terror groups in northern Nigeria
It was an occasion for joy and celebration, when the threat of terrorist attack and Covid could be forgotten for a little while. Christians gathered in the Nigerian village of Kukum Daji to rejoice in the marriage of a young couple and pray for their happiness at the start of their new life together.
At around midnight, the laughter stopped and the screaming began. Heavily armed Fulani militants roared into the festivities on motorbikes, gunning down guests at random. By the time the terrorists sped off into the night, 21 Christians were dead and another 28 lay injured.
“It is as if the lives of Christians no longer matter,” said Pastor Stephen Baba Panya, president of the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA), as he lamented the attack in July, just one of many in a relentless wave of atrocities that has taken place this year in the Christian-majority south of Kaduna State. The north of the state is mainly Muslim.
The geography of Nigerian violence
Kaduna State lies in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt” where Christians and Muslims are in roughly equal numbers. Anti-Christian violence in this part of the country dates back to the 1980s, when large-scale riots became a regular occurrence, almost always initiated by Muslims and targeting Christians.
Meanwhile further north, where Muslims form a large majority, there was little violence but increasing radicalisation of the Muslim population. In 1999, Zamfara State, soon followed by eleven other states, declared that it would implement parts of sharia (Islamic law) in their state law. The South of is mainly Christian, and many of the Christians living in the North come from southern tribes, so are viewed with hostility for being “non-indigenes”, as well as being despised for their faith. There are also many Christian converts from Islam, especially from the large Hausa and Fulani tribes.
Boko Haram terror grips north-east Nigeria and spills into Western Sahel
In the early twenty-first century the source and nature of anti-Christian violence in Nigeria changed. Mob violence by ordinary Muslims, deliberately goaded into fury, in the Middle Belt gave way to terrorist raids by jihadi extremists in the North. The now infamous Boko Haram group was formed in 2002. A change of leadership in 2009 or 2010 resulted in greatly increased violence under the new leader, Abubakar Shekau, as Boko Haram launched murderous terror raids in Bauchi, Borno and Yobe states.
Shekau’s extreme brutality was not acceptable to some of his followers and the group split (see box on page 9).
Boko Haram is now active across the Western Sahel, with a web of links to other Islamist terror groups, its violent insurgency having spilled over into Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Far North Cameroon.
Attacks by Boko Haram and its off-shoot, ISWAP, continue unabated in northern Nigeria. In August 2020, heavily armed ISWAP militants took hundreds hostage in a raid on the mainly-Christian Kukawa town. The 1,200 residents had only recently returned to their home town in Borno State, after spending two years displaced in camps.
Cruel spike in jihadi violence during Covid crisis
In 2020, Boko Haram took cruel advantage of absent security during the Covid-19 crisis to attack vulnerable Christian communities, which were locked down and left as sitting targets while governments focused police and military resources on the pandemic.
In July, Nigerian pastor, Joel Billi, called for urgent action to be taken to halt the relentless Boko Haram killings, abductions and rapes in the north. The Christian leader, who is head of one of the region’s largest Christian denominations, Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (EYN), said that more than 8,370 church members and eight pastors had been killed, with countless more abducted during the insurgency, and some 700,000 displaced ... “EYN had four District Church Councils prior to the insurgency in Gwoza Local Government Area of Borno State [of] which none is existing today,” he said.
Mounting slaughter of Christians by Fulani militants
Meanwhile, in the Middle Belt, the twenty-first century began with low level occasional anti-Christian violence by Muslim members of the Fulani tribe. By 2017 there were increasingly frequent attacks, usually at night. The Fulani violence spiked horrifically this year, particularly in Kaduna and Plateau states, where hundreds of Christians lost their lives in an escalating campaign of ethno-religious cleansing. Thousands of believers were displaced, as they fled their burning villages in terror. The government seems unable or unwilling to stop the violence.
A deadly alliance between Boko Haram and Fulani militia has formed since 2015, making available sophisticated weaponry to Fulani militants. Fulani cattle rustling and land grabbing has also been linked as a major source of funding for Boko Haram, for whom the Fulani are reported to be fighting a “proxy war”.
“As I lay there, I heard my daughter say she is dying”
“The Fulani came in and were shooting. They killed two of my children,” said Christian widow Bilkisu. Using machetes, the militants hacked to death another five of Bilkisu’s relatives including a mother and her baby daughter and a mother and her two sons.
“I heard them light the match and set the house on fire. We were lucky. It was more of smoke, which I was able to survive,” she added.
The raid on the widow’s farming community of Chibob was one of several in three days of vicious attacks by Fulani militants on villages in the predominantly-Christian Gora ward of Kaduna State in July. At least 22 Christians were killed and more than 2,000 displaced in the raids.
“Before I was shot, I saw the Fulani man who is my neighbour, he even identified me. I surrendered to him on my knees,” Bilkisu explained. Her assailants then shot her in the chest and back simultaneously and she fell to the floor. “As I lay there, I heard my daughter say she is dying.”
Anti-Christian motive for Fulani militant violence repeatedly denied
As local witnesses of attacks have stated, Muslim farms are left untouched while, just a few kilometres away, Christian farmland is routinely raided and looted. Fulani militants have also targeted pastors and church buildings with no connection to grazing land and uttered the traditional jihadi war-cry: “Allahu Akbar” during their attacks.
President Muhammadu Buhari – himself a Muslim Fulani –claims that the root cause of the issue lies merely in clashing interests of uncoordinated nomadic Fulani cattle herdsmen, driven southward by changing climate conditions in the Sahel to compete with settled farmers for grazing land.
Brutalised Adara tribespeople reel in pain
Christians from the Adara tribe, one of Kaduna State’s largest ethnic groups who are about two-thirds Christian and 7% Muslim, have suffered kidnapping, robbery and murderous attacks mainly by militants from the Muslim-majority Hausa-Fulani people.
Since January this year, the Adara community endured at least 65 terrorist attacks, more than 110 killings, and 73 abductions of children and adults. Over 111 houses were razed, 32 whole villages destroyed and 20,000 persons displaced. The toll of Christian suffering is undoubtedly much worse because these figures reflect only the attacks we hear about; many go unreported.
dehumanised, terrified and traumatised community members are reeling in pain, ever wondering why this contrived anarchy is still being condoned by the powers that be,” said Awemi Maisamari, national president of the Adara Development Association.
“We have since realised that the usual silence of government, when most of these atrocities are being committed, actually means consent.”
Military personnel stand idly by during curfew as defenceless Christians massacred
A 24-hour curfew was supposedly introduced by Kaduna State authorities on 26 July to contain the surge in violence. It was, around the time of writing, being strictly enforced by military and security personnel, leaving Christian residents trapped in their homes, facing hunger, lack of medical care and even arrest if they attempted to tend to their crops. Yet, Fulani militia seemed able to continue to move freely.
Witnesses explained how military and security forces stood idly by during the curfew as at least 33 believers were killed on two consecutive days in August in Fulani militant attacks on five Christian communities in Zangon Kataf Local Government Area, southern Kaduna State.
In the first attack, on 5 August, Fulani militants arrived on trucks, passing unhindered through military checkpoints despite the curfew, to attack Apiashyim and Kibori villages, killing eleven Christians. Despite being aware attacks were underway, security personnel arrived only after it was over.
Hardship and hunger on rise amid violence
A local church leader said child malnutrition was on the rise because of the curfew: “Parents cannot go out and look for food for their starving children. The sick are trapped at home. No one wants to risk the brutality of the military that are enforcing the curfew. Even if the curfew is lifted, freely grazing cattle herded by armed Fulani men have eaten up and trampled over thousands of hectares of grain farms, yam farms, [and] sugar cane crops among others.”
Put end to “pernicious genocide” in Kaduna State plead Christian leaders
In desperation, the Southern Kaduna People’s Union (SOKAPU) sent a letter in August to the International Criminal Court in the Hague asking for action against the “pernicious genocide” in northern Nigeria. The Christian leaders’ statement highlighted that around 50,000 Christians have been displaced from rural communities in Kaduna because of the violence.
The letter appealed to the international community and “men and women of conscience all over the world” to come to the aid of Christians facing “what looks like a government sponsored genocide” in southern Kaduna State.
Northern Nigeria’s terror scourge: who’s who?
Boko Haram – (popular name
for the group who call
themselves Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad)
Boko Haram, loosely translated, means “Western education forbidden”. The terror group was formed in 2002 in Maiduguri, Borno State. The group initially blamed regional corruption on “Western influences” and sought to impose sharia. It has the stated aims of establishing an Islamic caliphate and the elimination of Christians in the region. Now active across the western Sahel, the well-armed and funded group is aligned with Islamic State and thought to be linked to other terror organisations including Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In terms of numbers killed, Boko Haram is one of the deadliest terrorist organisations in the world today.
ISWAP – Islamic State West Africa Province
The breakaway Islamist terror group with a popular following in the north. Led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the group split from Boko Haram in 2015, partly due to the extreme brutality of Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau, and is active in north-east Nigeria.
Fulani militants – Fulani militants, a third major terror group of well-armed extremists in northern Nigeria, operate mostly in the Middle Belt. The Fulani tribe are mainly Muslim and mainly nomadic cattle herdsmen. They mount frequent raids on settled farming communities of Christians. Not all Fulanis are Muslims and not all Fulani Muslims are militant. However, in recent years Fulani Muslim militant attacks have intensified to levels described as “genocidal”, particularly in Kaduna State. Fulani militia have been linked to Boko Haram who are thought to be providing arms and vehicles, and participating in coordinated attacks.