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The embattled Christians of Nigeria: can 2021 get worse?

It was an occasion for joy and celebration when the threat of terrorist attack and Covid could be forgotten for a little while. Christians gathered in the village of Kukum Daji in Nigeria to rejoice in the marriage of a young couple and pray for their happiness at the start of their new life together.

At around midnight, the laughter stopped and the screaming began. Heavily armed Fulani militants roared into the festivities on motorbikes, gunning down guests at random. By the time the terrorists sped off into the night, 21 Christians were dead and another 28 lay injured.

“It is as if the lives of Christians no longer matter,” said Pastor Stephen Baba Panya, president of the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA), as he lamented the attack in July, just one of many in a relentless wave of atrocities that has taken place this year in the Christian-majority south of Kaduna State. The north of the state is mainly Muslim.

For Christians living in the North and Middle Belt of Nigeria, persecution is rife and relentless, and life itself is precarious. Since 2015, extremist violence has killed at least 8,400 Christians. The exact death toll is unknown and the numbers may be much higher than this, as many cases go unreported. One village head from the Middle Belt told Barnabas Fund in 2020, “We are tired and we do not want to bother others about our tragedies. We seem always to be reporting deaths and attacks, and people are weary of our reports.”

Metro Voice has partnered with the organization Barnabas Aid and its partner Barnabas Fund.  Their goal is raise awareness of the plight of persecuted believers and to strengthen Christian individuals, churches and their communities by providing material and spiritual support in response to needs identified by local Christian leaders.

Through our partnership with Barnabas Aid, we are able to bring you stories of the persecuted church around the world. The personal stories of those living it.

The geography of Nigerian violence

Kaduna State lies in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt” where Christians and Muslims are in roughly equal numbers. Anti-Christian violence in this part of the country dates back to the 1980s, when large-scale riots became a regular occurrence, almost always initiated by Muslims and targeting Christians.

Meanwhile further north, where Muslims form a large majority, there was little violence but increasing radicalization of the Muslim population. In 1999, Zamfara State, soon followed by eleven other states, declared that it would implement parts of sharia (Islamic law) in their state law. The South of is mainly Christian, and many of the Christians living in the North come from southern tribes, so are viewed with hostility for being “non-indigenes”, as well as being despised for their faith. There are also many Christian converts from Islam, especially from the large Hausa and Fulani tribes.

Boko Haram terror grips north-east Nigeria and spills into Western Sahel

In the early twenty-first century, the source and nature of anti-Christian violence in Nigeria changed. Mob violence by ordinary Muslims, deliberately goaded into fury, in the Middle Belt gave way to terrorist raids by jihadi extremists in the North. The now infamous Boko Haram group was formed in 2002. A change of leadership in 2009 or 2010 resulted in greatly increased violence under the new leader, Abubakar Shekau, as Boko Haram launched murderous terror raids in Bauchi, Borno and Yobe states.

READ: Nigerian activists run schools to counter Boko Haram radicalism

Shekau’s extreme brutality was not acceptable to some of his followers and the group split (see box on page 9).

Boko Haram is now active across the Western Sahel, with a web of links to other Islamist terror groups, its violent insurgency having spilled over into Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Far North Cameroon.

Attacks by Boko Haram and its off-shoot, ISWAP, continue unabated in northern Nigeria. In August 2020, heavily armed ISWAP militants took hundreds hostage in a raid on the mainly-Christian Kukawa town. The 1,200 residents had only recently returned to their home town in Borno State, after spending two years displaced in camps.

Video footage of a teenage Boko Haram militant shooting Christian student Ropvil Dalep was posted by the terrorist group on 20 January 2020

Cruel spike in jihadi violence during Covid crisis

In 2020, Boko Haram took cruel advantage of absent security during the Covid-19 crisis to attack vulnerable Christian communities, which were locked down and left as sitting targets while governments focused police and military resources on the pandemic.

In July, Nigerian pastor, Joel Billi, called for urgent action to be taken to halt the relentless Boko Haram killings, abductions and rapes in the north. The Christian leader, who is head of one of the region’s largest Christian denominations, Church of the Brethren in Nigeria (EYN), said that more than 8,370 church members and eight pastors had been killed, with countless more abducted during the insurgency, and some 700,000 displaced … “EYN had four District Church Councils prior to the insurgency in Gwoza Local Government Area of Borno State [of] which none is existing today,” he said.

Pages of burnt Bible strewn across the floor of a ruined church after a Boko Haram raid in Garkida village in Adawama State

Mounting slaughter of Christians by Fulani militants

Meanwhile, in the Middle Belt, the twenty-first century began with low level occasional anti-Christian violence by Muslim members of the Fulani tribe. By 2017 there were increasingly frequent attacks, usually at night. The Fulani violence spiked horrifically this year, particularly in Kaduna and Plateau states, where hundreds of Christians lost their lives in an escalating campaign of ethno-religious cleansing. Thousands of believers were displaced, as they fled their burning villages in terror. The government seems unable or unwilling to stop the violence.

A deadly alliance between Boko Haram and Fulani militia has formed since 2015, making available sophisticated weaponry to Fulani militants. Fulani cattle rustling and land grabbing has also been linked as a major source of funding for Boko Haram, for whom the Fulani are reported to be fighting a “proxy war”.

“As I lay there, I heard my daughter say she is dying”

“The Fulani came in and were shooting. They killed two of my children,” said Christian widow Bilkisu. Using machetes, the militants hacked to death another five of Bilkisu’s relatives including a mother and her baby daughter and a mother and her two sons.

“I heard them light the match and set the house on fire. We were lucky. It was more of smoke, which I was able to survive,” she added.

The raid on the widow’s farming community of Chibob was one of several in three days of vicious attacks by Fulani militants on villages in the predominantly-Christian Gora ward of Kaduna State in July. At least 22 Christians were killed and more than 2,000 displaced in the raids.

“Before I was shot, I saw the Fulani man who is my neighbor, he even identified me. I surrendered to him on my knees,” Bilkisu explained. Her assailants then shot her in the chest and back simultaneously and she fell to the floor. “As I lay there, I heard my daughter say she is dying.”

A community in Kaduna State holds a funeral for 17 Christian villagers murdered in an attack by Fulani militants in May 2020. Scenes like these have become familiar as Fulani attacks surge in Nigeria’s Middle Belt

Anti-Christian motive for Fulani militant violence repeatedly denied

As local witnesses of attacks have stated, Muslim farms are left untouched while, just a few kilometres away, Christian farmland is routinely raided and looted. Fulani militants have also targeted pastors and church buildings with no connection to grazing land and uttered the traditional jihadi war-cry: “Allahu Akbar” during their attacks.

President Muhammadu Buhari – himself a Muslim Fulani –claims that the root cause of the issue lies merely in clashing interests of uncoordinated nomadic Fulani cattle herdsmen, driven southward by changing climate conditions in the Sahel to compete with settled farmers for grazing land.

Military personnel stand idly by during curfew as defenseless Christians massacred

A 24-hour curfew was supposedly introduced by Kaduna State authorities on 26 July to contain the surge in violence. It was, around the time of writing, being strictly enforced by military and security personnel, leaving Christian residents trapped in their homes, facing hunger, lack of medical care and even arrest if they attempted to tend to their crops. Yet, Fulani militia seemed able to continue to move freely.

Witnesses explained how military and security forces stood idly by during the curfew as at least 33 believers were killed on two consecutive days in August in Fulani militant attacks on five Christian communities in Zangon Kataf Local Government Area, southern Kaduna State.
In the first attack, on 5 August, Fulani militants arrived on trucks, passing unhindered through military checkpoints despite the curfew, to attack Apiashyim and Kibori villages, killing eleven Christians. Despite being aware attacks were underway, security personnel arrived only after it was over.

Food aid and essential supplies provided by Barnabas Fund arrive in the Hura village, Plateau State, where nine Christians were murdered in an attack by Fulani militants during lockdown in April. At the time of the assault, the village was sheltering hundreds of Christians who had survived onslaughts in nearby villages.

Hardship and hunger on rise amid violence

A local church leader said child malnutrition was on the rise because of the curfew: “Parents cannot go out and look for food for their starving children. The sick are trapped at home. No one wants to risk the brutality of the military that are enforcing the curfew. Even if the curfew is lifted, freely grazing cattle herded by armed Fulani men have eaten up and trampled over thousands of hectares of grain farms, yam farms, [and] sugar cane crops among others.”

Put end to “pernicious genocide” in Kaduna State plead Christian leaders

In desperation, the Southern Kaduna People’s Union (SOKAPU) sent a letter in August to the International Criminal Court in the Hague asking for action against the “pernicious genocide” in northern Nigeria. The Christian leaders’ statement highlighted that around 50,000 Christians have been displaced from rural communities in Kaduna because of the violence.

The letter appealed to the international community and “men and women of conscience all over the world” to come to the aid of Christians facing “what looks like a government-sponsored genocide” in southern Kaduna State.

Nigerian Christians are not holding their breath. They are waiting to see what 2021 will bring.