Violence against Christians in Nigeria “can pave the way for genocide,” a group of U.K. parliamentarians warned this week in a new report analyzing the impact of violence carried out by Boko Haram extremists and Fulani militias throughout the West African country.
The U.K. All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both houses of parliament, released its new report “Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide?” on Monday.
As Nigeria continues to struggle with the Boko Haram insurgency and the existence of its splinter group, Islamic State West African Province, APPG members are concerned about reports of escalating violence characterized as a “farmer-herder conflict” even though a disproportionate number of killings are being carried out by militant Fulani herdsmen against predominantly Christian farming communities in the country's fertile Middle Belt region.
International rights advocates have contended that the standard for genocide has been reached in Nigeria as estimates have suggested that thousands of Christians have been killed in the Middle Belt as a traditional arbitration process between farmers and herders over damaged crops has broken down in recent years.
Violence in both the Middle Belt and northeast Nigeria (where Boko Haram and ISWAP commit atrocities) has led to the mass displacement of millions as entire communities have been forced to flee in fear for their lives in the wake of massacres.
“Among all the injustices for the U.K. to help correct in the near future, the widespread and growing persecution of Christians should be top of the list,” Member of Parliament Jim Shannon said in a statement. “Thus, as the U.K. faces the challenge of lockdown and mass quarantine for the first time in living memory, I ask you to please spare a thought for those Christians who face not only a pandemic but also threats of violence and persecution that we can’t imagine.”
The report urges the government of Nigeria and the international community to implement recommendations to help save the lives of Nigerian citizens, such as comprehensive investigations and prosecutions.
“As Nigerian Government Ministers have publicly and rightly admitted, Christians are being ruthlessly targeted, specifically because of their Faith,” the report states. “Undoubtedly though, peaceable Muslims, through collateral violence, can also become victims of this cruel Islamist religious ideology. It is a destructive and divisive ideology which readily mutates into crimes against humanity and can pave the way for genocide.”
“We must not hesitate in saying so,” the report adds. “Unfortunately, Boko Haram are not the only threat that Nigerian Christians face. Attacks by armed groups of Fulani herdsmen have resulted in the killing, maiming, dispossession and eviction of thousands of Christians. It is difficult for us in the West to sometimes even imagine this kind of suffering, so it is important that we recognize the stories of survivors.”
The report examines multiple drivers of increased violence carried out by Fulani militias against farming communities and the periodic retaliatory violence. Factors analyzed include “resource competition, religious sectarianism [most Fulani herders are Muslim], poor land management by the Nigerian Government, population growth, climate change and insecurity.”
“Rapid population growth, climate change and desertification have decreased the water available for land and grazing and put pressure on resources,” the report states, citing a United Nations estimate that about 80% of the Sahel’s farmland is degraded and “the land available to pastoralists is shrinking.”
This means that grain and food production is forcing pastoralists “into a desperate search for fertile pasture.”
“As herders travel further distances in search of water and land for grazing, they come into conflict with local farmers, who accuse the herders of encroaching onto their land and damaging their crops,” the report adds. “The increased conflict has strained the capacity of traditional leaders to reduce tensions and resolve conflict amicably. This has contributed to the breakdown of historical dispute settlement mechanisms and conflict turning to violence.”
While there are economic factors at play, the report also states that the escalation of violence “must also be seen in the context of the growing power and influence of Islamist extremism across the Sahel.”
“Multiple groups, such as the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), a splinter of Boko Haram and an affiliate of the weakened Daesh caliphate in Iraq and Syria, continue to extend their networks in Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Burkina Faso,” the report explains. “While not necessarily sharing an identical vision, some Fulani herders have adopted a comparable strategy to Boko Haram and ISWAP and demonstrated a clear intent to target Christians and symbols of Christian identity such as churches.”
The APPG received numerous reports about Christian pastors and community heads being targeted.
“During many of the attacks, herders are reported by survivors to have shouted ‘Allah u Akbar,’ ‘destroy the infidels’ and ‘wipe out the infidels,’” the report alleges.
“Hundreds of churches have been destroyed, including over 500 churches in Benue State. As the Bishop of Truro concluded in his report for the U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, ‘the religious dimension is a significantly exacerbating factor’ in clashes between farmers and herders and ‘targeted violence against Christian communities in the context of worship suggests that religion plays a key part.’”
While Christians appear to be the main victims of the violence in the Middle Belt, the report explains that attacks by Fulani herders have “led to periodic retaliatory violence, as farming communities conclude that they can no longer rely on the authorities for protection or justice.”
“Some local vigilantes, led by youths, take matters into their own hands by going on violent reprisals against Muslims who they believe are backed by the Government,” the report states. “Such retaliatory violence cannot be condoned. However, their reprisals must be seen in the context of an urgent need for the authorities to enforce the rule of law to protect all its citizens.”
In the report, Baroness Caroline Cox asserts that the “asymmetry and escalation of attacks by well-armed Fulani militia upon these predominately Christian communities are stark and must be acknowledged.”
“Such atrocities cannot be attributed just to desertification, climate change or competition for resources, as [the U.K.] Government have claimed,” Cox asserted.
Vice-Chair of the APPG Fiona Bruce added that the targeted attacks against churches and “heightening religious tensions” indicate that “religious identity plays a role in the farmer-herder conflict.”
“Some local observers have gone so far as to describe the rising attacks as a campaign of ethno-religious cleansing,” Lord David Alton of Liverpool said in the report.
“Armed with sophisticated weaponry, including AK-47s and, in at least one case, a rocket launcher and rocket-propelled grenades, the Fulani militia have murdered more men, women and children in 2015, 2016 and 2017 than even Boko Haram, destroying, overrunning and seizing property and land, and displacing tens of thousands of people. This is organized and systematic.”
The report notes that Fulani herders have also been victimized as “criminality” has played a role in some village raids, cattle rustling, and abductions. The increase in criminality and rural banditry has coincided with the rising prices of cattle.
The lawmakers warn that due to the rising criminality, “people displaced from their communities and robbed of their livelihoods are more likely to become criminals themselves in order to survive.”
“Evidence received by the APPG suggests that the ready availability and low price of firearms in Nigeria has played a role in escalating violence,” the report notes.
“The ongoing instability in Libya has led to a huge increase in the number of firearms flowing into the country. Combined with the huge supply of weapons left over from civil wars in Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, as well as the domestic Nigerian arms manufacturing industry, this means that firearms are readily available in Nigeria and have fallen dramatically in price in recent years.”
The report was critical of the Nigerian government, calling out its “inability to provide security or justice to farmer or herder communities.”
“Failure to prosecute past perpetrators of violence, or heed early warnings of impending attacks has facilitated the rise of armed militia which often form along ethno-religious lines to protect community interests,” the report states.
“The inability of the Nigerian Federal and State Governments to protect Christian farmers, and the lack of political will to respond adequately to warnings or to bring perpetrators of violence to justice, has fostered feelings of victimization and persecution.”
The APPG agrees with Amnesty International’s conclusion that “failure to protect communities, as well as cases of direct military harassment or violence, combined with an unwillingness to instigate legitimate investigations into allegations of wrongdoing, ‘demonstrate, at least, willful negligence; at worst, complicity’ on the behalf of some in the Nigerian security forces.”
Last week, a spokesperson for the Nigerian presidency refuted claims that genocide is being committed against Christians in Nigeria, claiming the efforts by U.K. lawmakers and rights groups in the U.S. are part of a misleading campaign funded by a separatist group that wants to sew division and lack trust in the government.
Advocates in the U.S. who've raised concerns about the genocidal implications of violence in Nigeria denied the government’s accusation that they are somehow affiliated with the Indigenous People of Biafra, an organization that Nigeria recognizes as a terrorist organization.
“If the Nigerian Government is blind to the issue of religious persecution in the country, it is clear that the issue will not be addressed,” wrote Ewelina U. Ochab, co-founder of the Coalition for Genocide Response.
“However, the international community cannot be blind to the reports of atrocities and must ask important questions. How will the Nigerian Government explain the mass killings in Nigeria as recorded by several international organizations? What is the Nigerian Government doing to ensure that the acts are investigated and the perpetrators prosecuted?”
In 2018, the Nigerian House of Representatives declared killings in the Middle Belt state of Plateau to be a "genocide."
Last December, the U.S. government included Nigeria for the first time on its special watch list of countries that engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom.