The Fulani are an ethnic group of between 25 and 40 million people spread throughout West and Central Africa. About a third of the Fulani are pastoralists, making them the largest nomadic pastoral group in the world, and more than 90% of all Fulani are Muslims. Several West African leaders are ethnic Fulani, including Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari.
In recent years, Nigeria’s Middle Belt has experienced widespread violence as Fulani herdsmen increasingly use military-grade weapons to carry out attacks in a campaign that began as an attempt to drive largely Christian farmers off fertile grazing land. Thousands of Christians have been killed and their properties looted and burned, including hundreds of church buildings.
The Middle Belt is a volatile zone of convergence between the majority Muslim north and the majority Christian south. While tension has existed in the region for centuries between nomadic Fulani herders and settled farmers, violence has increased as climate change desertifies traditional Fulani grazing land in northern Nigeria, driving many herdsmen south into settled farmers’ land, where grazing cattle destroy the crops. Population increases are also putting a strain on resources, and some farmers have planted crops on herders’ traditional cattle routes and have carried out reprisal attacks and cattle rustling.
International media often report the violence as a conflict between herdsmen and farmers, using the phrase “Christian-Muslim clashes” to imply equal balance rather than a militant attempt by one group to drive another group from the land, but Fulani terrorists have moved far beyond the quest to find grazing land and are carrying out raids on entire villages – including massacres and house burning – and attacks on military forces. Witnesses report hearing the terrorists shout “Allahu Akbar” as they attack, and it is believed that they have links with other jihadist organisations, including Boko Haram. Christian farmers now fear what they see as an attempted Islamisation of the region.
Plateau State’s Christian Association of Nigeria chairman, Dr Soja Bewarang, says churches have lost many pastors and leaders in the attacks and that he is concerned about the future of Christianity in the state. In a statement released on behalf of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Dr Bewarang described the conflict as an “unholy act of systematic genocide… a deliberate attempt to destroy the cultural heritage of Plateau people”.
Escalation of violence
Fulani violence has escalated so much in recent years that in 2015 the Global Terrorism Index (a report published annually by global think tank the Institute for Economics and Peace) described the Fulani as the fourth-deadliest terrorist group in the world. (The group has since been overtaken in the rankings.)
The Global Terrorism Index stated that in 2018, deaths attributed to Fulani extremists were six times greater than deaths attributed to Boko Haram, noting: “In Nigeria in 2018, there has been a dramatic increase in violence involving Fulani extremists even as deaths committed by Boko Haram are falling.” It reported that from January to September 2018, Fulani extremists killed nearly 1,700 people, 89 per cent civilians.
The Nigerian government has attempted to limit the violence through anti-grazing policies and military deployment but has not found a solution that satisfies herders and farmers, and it has great difficulty governing the remote rural areas where Fulani militants are most active.
The issue of attackers’ impunity was addressed in a major report published by Amnesty International in 2018, titled “Harvest of Death: Three Years of Bloody Clashes Between Farmers and Herders in Nigeria”. Throughout many communities across several states, Amnesty International’s researchers heard reports of the security forces’ failure to protect people from deadly attacks, even when provided with information about impending attacks.
The report documents “the failure of the government in fulfilling its constitutional responsibility of protection of lives and property by refusing to investigate, arrest and prosecute perpetrators of attacks” and shows how “the government’s inaction fuels impunity, resulting in attacks and reprisal attacks, with at least 3,641 people killed between January 2016 and October 2018, 57% of them in 2018 alone”.
Amnesty International’s report concludes that “perpetrators of the crimes are getting away, encouraged by government’s glaring unwillingness to live up to its obligations”.
(Amnesty International/Barnabas Fund/Christian Association of Nigeria/Global Terrorism Index 2018/INcontext International)