08/07/2023 Nigeria (International Christian Concern) — Wracked by decades of violence, Nigeria is a country divided by deep fault lines in every direction. Ethnic heritage, geography, political party, economics, religious background—all serve as flashpoints for violence between communities.
The data unequivocally show that Nigeria’s Christian community bears a disproportionate share of the casualties and kidnappings making the country such a dangerous place to live. ICC analysis of over 25,000 incidents of violence across Nigeria from 1997-2022 found that, while most kidnappings do not target based on religion, Christians are three times more likely to be kidnapped than Muslims despite making up less than half the population.
Amid this general violence, one community of Christians is targeted even more than the rest. Speaking with sources on the ground, ICC has found that ethnic Fulani Christians face extreme discrimination and deadly violence not just from extremist elements within the majority Muslim Fulani community but from elements of the skeptical Christian-background community as well.
Considered traitors by the Fulani communities where they came from and spies by the Christian communities where they now live, these Fulani believers are particularly vulnerable in today’s fraught sociopolitical context.
Nigeria, whose modern borders were clumsily drawn by British colonists, is operated by a fractious political system that continues the divide-to-conquer pattern of its colonial past. Newly appointed President Bola Tinubu took office in May with the support of just 9.3% of eligible voters, a combination of poor voter turnout and the unprecedented success of third-party candidate Peter Obi.
Tinubu comes to power amid raging religious violence in many parts of Nigeria—especially in the central and northern regions of the country where terrorist and militant groups are waging an effective war against government forces and targeting peaceful communities.
With Tinubu’s victory and his surprise decision to choose a fellow Muslim as vice president, the presidential villa today represents only one religion—a first since the beginning of Nigeria’s latest attempt at democracy, the Fourth Republic, in 1999. His choice sparked harsh criticism among non-Muslim leaders who felt that the decision marginalized the interests of other religious groups.
Despite campaign promises to marginalize communities that did not vote for him, in his acceptance speech Tinubu promised to represent the interests of all Nigerians. Time will tell which promise Tinubu intends to keep.
Communal Violence in Nigeria
Much of the violence in Nigeria comes from sources that are large and organized, like Boko Haram and the associated Islamic State West Africa Province. The Nigerian military has also been accused of gross human rights violations against civilians, including the performance of tens of thousands of forced abortions and infanticides as reported recently by Reuters.
But even more deadly to civilians than Boko Haram and Islamic State are organic communal militias. Spread far more broadly than any single terror organization could be and spurred by deep-seated animosity for each other, warring civilian militias account for the majority of reported civilian deaths in Nigeria.
“Communal militias, largely operating in the North West and the Middle Belt regions,” reports the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), “were responsible for over 57% of total reported civilian fatalities recorded by ACLED in 2022.”
In the Middle Belt region, much of the violence is centered around conflicts between Muslim-background pastoralists and Christian-background farming communities driven, according to ACLED, “by long-standing disputes over land and resources and compounded by the proliferation of small weapons and widening social divisions.”
Identifying Vulnerable Communities
Much of the policy conversation around violence in Nigeria focuses on the perpetrators of the violence. Within that discussion, priority is given to larger, more easily studied groups like Boko Haram and Islamic State.
Attention on perpetrators is important and necessary, but another conversation must had at the same time—how to identify and protect particularly vulnerable communities. And to do that, policymakers must be willing to pay attention to the fault lines that drive the violence in the first place.
Though the north and central regions are together overwhelmingly made up of Muslims, reputable data consistently show that Christian communities face a disproportionate share of the violence. Religion, though, can be a political third rail in international policy conversations and often receives little or no mention.
Even ACLED’s analysis above demonstrates this tendency—it cites resource scarcity as the primary driver of the violence, crediting “social divisions” as a mere compounding factor. Resource scarcity is, indeed, a driving factor but need not exclude religion as another.
Nigeria’s Fulani Christians
Estimates of the Christian share of the Fulani population vary significantly, but sources generally agree that the number is not more than 1-2%. The Fulani are a Muslim-majority people group credited with bringing Islam to Nigeria. Most Fulani people live peaceably with their neighbors, many as merchants and business owners in addition to those who remain in the cattle herding tradition.
“Fulani who become believers,” a source living in the Middle Belt’s Kaduna State told ICC, “Face strong opposition from their home communities. They typically lose their wives, their children, their possessions, and their livelihood. Sometimes their lives are threatened, or they are even killed for apostasy.” Some Fulani believers are hunted by members of their own family and killed for their abandonment of Islam.
Fulani Christians, most of whom are first-generation Christians, are considered traitors by their home communities and forced to flee to Christian areas frequently targeted by religiously motivated terrorism.
Sadly, Fulani Christians often find the Christian areas just as inhospitable as the communities from which they fled. “People from ethnic groups which have long been Christianized regard Fulani believers with hostility, considering them inferior at best and spies at worst,” ICC’s source in Kaduna reports. According to her, hate speech and calls—even prayers—for violence against Fulani are common in many churches.
“I am not accepted as part of the family,” one Fulani Christian said, speaking to the complex intersection of religious and ethnic tensions at play in these communities. “[My church] actually talks about killing my blood brothers and sisters and prays to God to destroy them.”
Communal militias in Nigeria often block off roads, kidnapping or killing drivers and passengers who happen by. Though people of every ethnicity and religion use the roads, the perpetrators of these attacks often single out victims based on their ethnoreligious heritage. Christian Fulani are victims of roadblock attacks targeting Christians but also face danger from anti-Fulani roadblocks.
In one incident recounted to ICC, an ordained Fulani minister was traveling with several non-Fulani members of his church when they happened upon a roadblock. He was nearly killed but was saved by his congregants who managed to convince the attackers that he was, in fact, a Christian. In another incident revealed to ICC, a Fulani Bible school student came across a group of youths waving machetes and dismembered Fulani body parts. He only survived the encounter by showing his Bible school student ID. Other Fulani Christians have not been so fortunate.
These difficulties are corroborated by other sources as well, including Muslim-background Fulani Christians ICC has supported in the past through relief and development projects aimed at reducing the effects of their persecution. Some are even pastors, yet face threats from Christians and Muslims alike.
ICC works closely in many vulnerable religious minority communities, including for years in Plateau State’s Miango community. There, a Fulani Christian’s house, and possessions were burned in recent violence against the Christian-majority area. Called by an ICC source after the attack, he requested that the conversation not be held in the Fula language for fear that the Christians around him would hear and kill him. He was found murdered not long after. Authorities were unable to determine whether he was murdered by Muslim attackers or his Christian neighbors, but he was forced to live in fear of both because of his faith and ethnicity.
Addressing the Violence
The troubles facing Nigeria’s Fulani Christian population are serious and deeply baked into to the psyches of the respective communities. It is important, however, to remember that not all Muslim Fulanis are antagonistic to their Christian brethren. Some even risk their lives to protect them and non-Fulani Christians alike. In some areas, kind Fulani informants manage to warn Christian communities of impending attacks in many cases, saving countless lives even as they risk their own.
Similarly, some Fulani Christians have found welcome in traditional Christian communities. Fulani Christians pastor ethnically mixed congregations, and the national Christian Association of Nigeria has a Fulani-focused arm aimed at ministering to and representing the Fulani Christian community.
If Tinubu and the international community are serious about quelling the violence in Nigeria, one factor that must be addressed is religion. Though not the only factor at play, it is a major one and one that crucially cannot be ignored.
Whether through programs to counter religious extremism or through special efforts to provide security for vulnerable Christian communities in violence-torn areas, those vying for peace can only make significant strides towards peace by addressing the religious tensions at play in Nigeria.
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