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 fear what they see as an attempted Islamisation of the region and many observers are describing the attacks as genocide.
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
The 2019 Global Terrorism Index (published annually by global think tank the Institute for Economics and Peace) ranks Nigeria third in the world for the impact of terrorism in 2018, after Afghanistan and Iraq. GTI’s report states: “This marks the first year since the inception of the index that sub-Saharan Africa recorded more deaths than its neighbouring region [Middle East and North Africa]. The primary driver of the increase in terrorism in the region was a rise in terrorist activity in Nigeria, which was attributed to Fulani extremists.” It goes on to report that in 2018, “Terror-related incidents increased 37 per cent… due to a substantial escalation of violence by Fulani extremists.”
GTI notes that there was a 75 per cent rise in attacks attributed to Fulani extremists (with over 84 per cent of armed Fulani attacks targeting civilians) and that “deaths attributed to extremist Fulani elements increased by 261 per cent in a single year”. It records that in 2018, “Fulani extremists were responsible for the majority of terror-related deaths in Nigeria at 1,158 fatalities.”
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 2019/INcontext International)