Nigeria has been rocked by yet more attacks against the country’s sizeable Christian population. Africa’s most populous country – split nearly 50-50 between Christians (concentrated in the south) and Muslims (concentrated in the north, where Sharia law is widely implemented) – saw gunmen attack a Catholic Mass earlier this month, killing over fifty worshippers. That attack, at St Francis Catholic Church in Owo town, Ondo state in south-western Nigeria, was blamed by some officials on Fulani herdsmen while others pointed to the Islamic State West Africa Province.
Following the earlier attack against Catholics – who constitute around one-quarter of Nigeria’s Christians – a fresh attack took place this past Sunday in the north-central state of Kaduna, resulting in a further three deaths. Worshippers were attacked at Ungwan Fada, Ungwan Turawa and Ungwan Makama in Kajuru local government area. In Rubu village, gunmen attacked worshippers in the Maranatha Baptist Church and St. Moses Catholic Church. There were also reports of kidnappings and lootings in an area where Christians and Muslims are both concentrated.
Different motivations have been offered for the attacks. At the time of the attack in Ondo state, lawmakers blamed the Fulani, some of whom have been responsible for scores of deaths in Nigeria’s Middle Belt (where part of Kaduna state is located). The Fulani are a Muslim ethnic group dispersed across several countries. Since the victims of Fulani attacks have invariably been Christian farmers, it has been hard not to see a sectarian component given that tensions between Christians and Muslims have been high in Nigeria for years, and around 15,000 people have died in the Middle Belt since 2009.
Of Africa’s 40-odd-million Fulani – 13 million of whom live in Nigeria – at least one-quarter are nomadic. The Fulani’s traditional grazing land however has been hit by desertification, displacing many southwards. In turn, many Christians have moved north into burgeoning farmlands. This meeting in the middle – coupled with competition over land and water – has catalysed conflict, which an ethnoreligious division has further compounded. Still, the fact some Fulani have also attacked Muslim farmers suggests religion is only one part of a much bigger picture.
Nevertheless, Fulani attackers have been responsible for a great number of atrocities and most directed towards Christians, while attacks have also been carried out by Islamist groups like Boko Haram, which have been arming some Fulani herdsmen to further terrorise Christian communities. Nigeria remains heavily divided between its two major religious communities, as well as among its various ethnic groups, often competing for resources in a country facing explosive population growth. With a total fertility rate of 5.2, the country of 216 million is expected to hit 400 million by 2050.
A sectarian factor in surging violence seems impossible to ignore, while attacks against Catholics and other Christians could even lead to Nigeria’s balkanisation. The Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), for instance, aims to establish an independent state of Biafra in south-eastern Nigeria, drawing upon memories of an independent Biafra in the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-70, and relying upon largely Christian Igbo support. In late 2020, IPOB formed an armed wing – the Eastern Security Network (ESN) – to protect Igbo from Fulani herders. The government ascribes a 344 per cent increase in killings in south-east Nigeria to ESN, with attacks focused on security personnel.
In addition, many ethnic Yoruba have called for the creation of a breakaway state known as the Oduduwa Republic, albeit this attracts considerably less support than Igbo separatism. For both Igbo and Yoruba however, Fulani attacks on farmers are a huge driver of separatist support. Meanwhile the Ijaw, located primarily in the south Niger Delta, resent the fact that most of Nigeria’s oil wealth goes elsewhere in the country, while they claim the oil sector has damaged fishing and farmlands.
In most instances, ethnoreligious tension is not the sole factor in separatist stirrings within Nigeria but intermixed with resource competition and weak security to create a combustible situation. Religion is clearly a contributory factor to much of the recent violence, but the fact that so many kidnappings have taken place suggests a financial motive exists alongside any religious one. Still, continued attacks against Christians will exacerbate existing sectarianism. Coupled with a rapidly growing population, conditions could get much worse before they get any better, potentially leading to a long-term outflow of people, economic instability and perhaps even disintegration of the country itself.
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