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Nigeria: Is there a genocide against Christians?

CHURCH ATTACK
STEFAN HEUNIS / AFP
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In Africa's most populous country, an authentic ethnic cleansing is being perpetrated.

In a press statement published last June 29—the day of the feast of the apostles and martyrs Sts. Peter and Paul—the Catholic bishops of Nigeria once again asked President Muhammadu Buhari to step aside if he cannot guarantee peace and stability in the country, which with more than 190 million inhabitants [1] is the most populous country in all of Africa.

In the text, which was signed by the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN) and by the organization’s secretary, the Most. Rev. Augustine Akubeze, Archbishop of Benin City, and Most Rev. Camillus Umoh, Bishop of Ikot Ekpene, respectively, the Church asks the President to “save this country from further pain and avoidable chaos, anarchy, and doom.”

The bishops also note the fact that their last appeal, “like all the others before, has been completely ignored by those whose primary responsibility it is to protect the lives and property of Nigerians.”

Indeed, last April 26 in a press statement entitled “When will this barbarism end?,” the CBCN had already suggested  that Buhari present his resignation if he cannot get the situation under control. “If the President cannot keep our country safe, then he automatically loses the trust of the citizens,” the bishops said.

Fulani herdsmen

What makes the CBCN question the country’s highest authority—Buhari will seek reelection in the presidential elections next year—is the leader’s unwillingness to act to put an end to violence against the Christian community of Nigeria on the part of Fulani shepherds, a majority Islamic nomadic ethnic group (also know as the Peul, Fula, or Fulbe), most of whom are herdsmen.

The Fulani have been the protagonists in recent years of numerous attacks against Christians and/or sedentary populations, especially since the authorities of Benue State, in eastern Nigeria, introduced last September the Anti-Open Grazing Law, which aims to protect fields and crops destroyed when the herds pass through. For the Fulani, however, the law threatens their traditional lifestyle and their principal source of sustenance.

Benue State, also nicknamed the “food basket,” is located in what is called the Middle Belt in the center of Nigeria, which separates the primarily Islamic north from the majority Christian south.

The conflict that sets the Fulani against the sedentary population “is now more deadly than the Boko Haram jihadist insurgency that has ravaged Nigeria’s northeast and is becoming a key issue in the upcoming 2019 presidential polls,” according to the Nigerian edition of the newspaper The Guardian.

A long list of attacks

The list of attacks (and, in some cases, reprisals) on the part of members of the Fulani ethnic group against Christian communities has become extensive. According to information from the Stefanos Foundation (an organization that helps persecuted Christians in Nigeria and in the rest of the world), a series of attacks on Saturday, June 23 and Sunday, June 24, 2018, have resulted in at least 233 deaths and more than 11,000 displaced people in the central state of Plateau, which for years has been the venue of bloody clashes along ethnic or religious lines. According to the site FirstAfrica News, “over 40 villages have now been completely deserted in the Barkin Ladi and Riyom Local Government Area as result of continuous attacks.”

An early morning attack last April 24 against a Catholic church in the village of Mbalom, in Benue State, has provoked terror in the population; at least 18 people, including two priests, Joseph Gor and Felix Tyolaha, were killed. The nearly 30 attackers also razed more than 60 houses.

“As human beings, we are overwhelmed with sorrow, and many of us won’t recover from the shock for a long time,” explained Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, archbishop of Abuja, whose words, spoken during the homily for the funeral celebrated last May 22 in Ayati (Benue) were quoted by Fides.

“Now is not the time to count the number of deaths, but killing people in their churches or mosques is an offense against God,” the cardinal said. Onaiyekan has exhorted his fellow citizens to unite against anarchy and not to politicize the events, according to the site Today.ng.

According to information from Amnesty International, from January 1 to June 27, 2018, the violence has caused at least 1,823 deaths in Nigeria, more than twice the number in 2017 (894 victims). “We are gravely concerned about the rising spate of killings across the country, especially the communal clashes between farmers and herders and attacks by bandits across at least 17 states,” declared the Director Amnesty International Nigeria, Osai Ojigho.

Ethnic-religious cleansing

Behind the attacks in the southern part of Kaduna State, located in northwestern Nigeria, there hides an “Islamic aganda to drive the indigenous Christian communities out of Southern Kaduna, to ensure that Hausa-Fulani Muslims occupy the area and dominate all religious, political and socio-economic issues,” according to a study published by the Christian missionary agency Open Doors.

The report denounces the “widespread impunity” granted the perpetrators of these crimes. “To date, Hausa-Fulani Muslim herdsmen have never been arrested, prosecuted and punished in Southern Kaduna, and victims have not been adequately compensated,” observes Open Doors.

In addition, the study goes on to say, the “government has failed to sustain inter-community engagement and dialogue as a necessary process to attaining peace and stability. If the government remains biased, there is every likelihood that the conflict will continue and that Christians will be forced to leave the area and relocate — an example of ‘religious cleansing’ (i.e. ethnic cleansing based on religious affiliation).”

Although it doesn’t rule out other motives, including environmental degradation and climate change—sufficiently illustrated by the agony of Lake Chad, the area of which has drastically diminished (by 90 percent in less than half a century) [2]—in an earlier study, Open Doors had already proposed the thesis of a planned persecution of Christians in Benue State.

Genocide

That fact that there might be a strategy or plan behind the violence inspires some people to use the term “genocide.” What is happening in Plateau State and in other states in Nigeria is “pure genocide,” writes the Christian Post, reporting on a press release published on June 29 by the heads of various denominations of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Plateau State.

“We reject the narrative that the attacks on Christian communities across the country as ‘farmers/herdsmen clash,'” says the declaration, which speaks of “false propaganda” and “deceit” by the government. “There is no doubt that the sole purpose of these attacks is aimed at ethnic cleansing, land grabbing and forceful ejection of the Christian natives from their ancestral land and heritage,” the document continues, denouncing in turn the impunity enjoyed by the Fulani herdsmen.

Indeed, while a court in Adamawa State condemned five young Christians to death for having attacked three herdsmen, one of whom was killed, up until now the armed herdsmen—some even with AK-47 assault rifles, also known as Kalashnikovs—are left undisturbed.

In a Twitter message, the former Minister of Aviation, Femi Fani-Kayode, expressed his incredulity at the sentence, and asked if “Nigeria is an apartheid state where the herdsmen are above the law.” According to the Daily Post, Fani-Kayode also commented that “no Fulani herdsman has been reprimanded or jailed for killing more than 5,300 Christians in 2018.”

Although Buhari and his vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, visited Plateau State after the recent attacks, the question remains whether the president, who is ethnically Fulani, is willing to go beyond what the declaration of the CAN denominational leaders defines as a pure “cosmetics”.

Without a doubt, Nigeria is at a watershed moment. “Please don’t make the same mistake as was made with the genocide in Rwanda. It happened under our noses, but no one stopped it. And we know well how that ended,” said the bishop of Gboko in Benue State, Bishop William Amove Avenya, to Aid to the Church in Need “We are convinced that what is happening is an ethnic cleansing of Christians,” he said.

*

1] To have an idea: with more than 190 million inhabitants, the population of Nigeria is more than half that of the United States of America (which has a population of approximately 325 million people). From a European perspective, the Nigerian population surpasses that of Germany (82.2 million), Italy (60.6 million), and Spain (46.6 million) put together. The entire European Union has a little more than 500 million inhabitants.

2] See https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-43500314

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