A genocide expert and former Congressman Frank Wolf have warned that violence being committed against Christians in Nigeria and the U.S. government’s “failed” response to it could lead to another genocide like the ones that occurred in Rwanda and Darfur.
Wolf, a longtime Republican representative from Virginia who is the namesake of the International Religious Freedom Act passed by Congress in 2016, joined Genocide Watch’s Greg Stanton, Nigerian bishops and other religious freedom advocates on a Zoom call with reporters last week hosted by the advocacy group In Defense of Christians.
“When the world and the U.S. ignored genocide in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of people died. History, I believe, is repeating itself,” Wolf contended. “Almost daily reports show increasing violence and death in Nigeria. An implosion of Nigeria will destabilize the surrounding countries and send millions of refugees into Europe and beyond.”
The conversation comes as estimates show that thousands have been killed and millions displaced since 2015 due to attacks carried out by predominantly Muslim Fulani militias against predominantly Christian farming communities in the Middle Belt of Nigeria as well as Islamic extremist attacks carried out by Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province in northeast Nigeria.
Advocates have for years called on the international community to recognize the ongoing violence in Nigeria as a “genocide.” Genocide Watch, a nonprofit formed in 1999 that seeks to raise awareness and influence public policy regarding acts of genocide, estimates that as many as 27,000 people have been killed by extremists or Fulani jihadis in the last decade.
According to Genocide Watch, the violence carried out by Fulani militias and Islamic terrorists in Nigeria combine to make “the deadliest genocidal massacres committed by any terrorists since 2010.”
“Boko Haram has committed genocide in Nigeria, has killed over 27,000 Nigerians, more than ISIS killed in Iraq and Syria combined,” Wolf stressed during his opening remarks. “The Fulani militants are committing genocidal massacres against Nigerian Christians.”
While some international organizations have in the last year warned the International Criminal Court about the genocidal implications in Nigeria, Stanton, the Genocide Watch founder, told those on the call that Genocide Watch has labeled the pattern of Fulani jihadi violence in Nigeria a “genocide” since 2012. He said that Genocide Watch raised alarms about the genocidal implications of Boko Haram long before 2012.
“What is preventing the world from facing this huge problem?” Stanton asked. “The first problem that we face [with] the Fulani militias is the dominant current narrative, which is denial.”
“Denial is a part of every genocide. It starts in the beginning and it usually goes way after. What we got here [in Nigeria], the traditional narrative is the herder-farmer conflict. That was exactly the narrative, by the way, in Rwanda, before the genocide there.”
Stanton explained that the U.S. ambassador to Rwanda at the time thought of the violence committed against the Tutsis in the early 1990s as a “civil war and conflict.” Ultimately, hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were killed by ethnic Hutu extremists in just three months in 1994 as toxic rhetoric spread through the country incited Hutu radicals to attack their Tutsi neighbors.
“The result was, [the ambassador] was unable to see that this was also a genocide, not facing the fact that actually most genocides occur during civil wars or international wars,” Stanton said. “So we went along hoping the Arusha Accords would hold and so on in 1993. Finally, the denial ended up in April of 1994 with one of the worst genocides in history.”
Stanton warned that a similar dynamic is taking place in Nigeria.
“Our own embassy is still denying that this is genocide, that the Fulani militias are committing genocide,” he said. “So have human rights groups. Human Rights Watch, for instance, thinks of it that way. The International Crisis Group thinks of it that way. These are very distinguished organizations and I have great respect for them. But they are dominated by what I would call conflict-prevention narrative.”
“In essential terms, the U.S. embassy’s policies on this violence have been what I call conflict resolution policies. They try to get the groups together and they try to have sort of ‘Kumbaya’ moments in which people talk to each other and everybody is hunky-dory and they get along.”
Stanton argued that the problem with those types of policies is that they “do not reach the terrorist groups.”
“They also don’t reach the army and the police and others who need to be really conscious of this huge problem in their country,” he said. “I think that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem that comes from this dominant false narrative of the Fulani jihadists.”
A predominant narrative of the violence in the Middle Belt is that they are “farmer-herder clashes” resulting from the fact that desertification in northern Nigeria is driving nomadic herding communities south in search of scarce land resources.
A report released last week by a group of lawmakers in the United Kingdom suggests that Christian farming communities appear to be the main victims of the violence in the Middle Belt although some reprisals by vigilante groups have targeted Fulani communities.
“These killings are specifically in Christian villages. So when we say it is genocide against Christians, governments of the world don't want to hear that, including Nigeria's government,” Benjamin Kwashi, the Anglican Archbishop of Jos, said on the call. “They have always explained it away as farmers-and-herders clashes. There is no doubt that in history, communities have always had their clashes. The Fulani who we know have always had their clashes with local people. They are usually settled. But this is different because these killers are well armed.”
“They shoot, they slaughter and burn down houses and businesses and destoy barns where food storage has been kept. These are calculated systematic, intentional killings of people and driving them away from their land.”
Kwashi said that there are some lands in the Plateau state and Kaduna state where indigenous people are not able to go back to their farms without being killed by Fulani extremists.
“The difficulty that I have is that these people have not been brought to justice,” Kwashi said. “How can we say that this is not intentional in the attempt to wipe out these villages who are majority Christians?”
Stanton argued that the Fulani militants “leave the Muslim village nearby completely alone.”
“Every single person of the 7,600 Christians that have been killed in Nigeria since 2015 by Fulani militias has been Christian,” Stanton claimed. “That’s genocide. It is the intentional destruction, in whole or in part, of a religious group.”
Stanton stressed that Christian villagers and farmers “have no conflict with Fulanis.”
“The Fulanis now arrive with truckloads, maybe 100 of their fighters. They simply massacre a Christian village,” he added.
Wolf agreed with Stanton’s assessment of the U.S. embassy’s approach.
“I want to say this clearly, the current policies and actions of the American Embassy in Nigeria have failed,” he said. “I believe we need a special envoy for Nigeria, in the Lake Chad region, a person who can coordinate the U.S. response to the crisis by various aid agencies of our government, who can work with the allies in France and England and other NATO countries.”
Stanton said that one way to overcome the dominant narrative is by conducting a full-scale international investigation that would result in an authoritative report.
“As we did with Darfur, however, we realized that even after an investigation by our own government that it wasn’t enough to convince the [United Nations],” Stanton said. “They put together their own commission of inquiry, which came out with a report that said that there was not enough evidence of intent to say that Sudan was committing genocide against the people of Darfur, which was nonsense.”
“By the time the commission was formed, there were already 50,000 Darfuris who had been murdered with the help of the Sudanese government with bombings and so forth. That, unfortunately, is what is happening in Nigeria today. The central government, the federal government, essentially is acting as a bystander. It is not pursuing actively.”
Wolf warned that “every day there is a delay in appointing a special envoy means more people will die.
“When the appointment is made, Secretary Pompeo should stand next to the appointee to show that he or she has the support of the secretary and the administration,” Wolf said. “I believe the failure to act means thousands more will die in Nigeria and there will be serious repercussions in Africa and beyond.”
A special envoy for Nigeria and the Lake Chad region “can essentially overrule the denialism of our ambassador," Stanton stressed.
“They can really organize an effort to do something about these massacres and genocide,” he said.