The roots of current violence in Nigeria’s central states, often referred to as the Middle Belt, go back over a decade, with coordinated violence which claimed the lives of over 400 people first reported in Plateau State in March, 2010. Violence increased exponentially in 2015, spreading to states across the Middle Belt, including to Kaduna state where international observers have increasingly raised concerns that the conflict bears the hallmarks of an unfolding genocide.

Historically, conflict in the region has centred on competition for resources between predominantly Muslim herders belonging to the Fulani ethnic group, and local farmers, who are predominantly Christian. Fatalities were occasionally documented, with those responsible using sticks, stones, machetes, and at worst, hunting guns. 

Nigeria Zangon Kataf IDPs

People displaced from their homes by violence in an undated image in Zangon Kataf, Nigeria. PICTURE: CSW

In recent years however, one party to this conflict has armed itself with increasingly sophisticated weaponry. Current attacks by assailants of Fulani ethnicity now occur with such frequency, organisation and asymmetry that previous descriptions of the violence as ‘farmer-herder clashes’ are no longer appropriate.

Crucially, the conflict has taken on a significant religious element. Fulani assailants have increasingly used religion and ethnicity as their primary rallying point for recruitment into what is often referred to as the Fulani militia, and churches and church leaders are often particularly targeted, especially during traditional Christian celebrations.

"In recent years one party to this conflict has armed itself with increasingly sophisticated weaponry. Current attacks by assailants of Fulani ethnicity now occur with such frequency, organisation and asymmetry that previous descriptions of the violence as ‘farmer-herder clashes’ are no longer appropriate."

Over the Christmas period, CSW document renewed violence in the state. In one example on 21st December, more than 100 well-armed men launched an attack on the Gwazunu community in the Chikun Local Government Authority (LGA), where they abducted Reverend Thomas James of Godiya Baptist Church Gwazunu. The men went on to attack a neighbouring community, killing eight people and injuring four others.

While the Fulani militia have particularly targeted non-Muslim and Christian communities over the years, Hausa Muslims in the north-west, including in northern Kaduna, have also faced violence from armed bandits who are also of Fulani ethnicity. On 3rd January, gunmen rode motorcycles into Kaya village in Giwa LGA in Kaduna state and launched an attack which claimed 14 lives. The attack took place at around 7:30pm while worshippers were in local mosques observing Isha prayer (one of the five mandatory Islamic prayers). An unknown number of people were injured, and several homes and cars were set on fire.

On the same day, Fulani militia targeted commuters in Chikun LGA with an attack at Zankoro which resulted in the deaths of nine people, including three infants, and the abduction of eleven more.

2020 saw a particularly concerning uptick in violence in the region, with CSW receiving reports on an almost daily basis of horrific violence that resulted in hundreds of deaths, and the displacement of thousands more. Sadly, with these recent attacks, which are just a few examples of a host of similar incidents reported since December, it appears that this violence is showing no signs of slowing down in 2021. 

Aside from some relatively limited, and seemingly ineffective, peace initiatives, the Nigerian Government has taken insufficient action to address the violence, instead focusing its efforts on harassing civil society organisations, individuals, activists, and ordinary members of the public who have raised concerns. 

A D V E R T I S E M E N T


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A similar story is true for violence targeting of civilians elsewhere in the country, particularly in the northwest where both factions of the Boko Haram terrorist group continue to target both Christian and Muslim communities. Abductions are observed with alarming regularity, particularly on major highways, in Christian communities, and even in areas where there is a significant security presence. Often the terrorists subsequently release videos depicting the execution of abducted Christians. 

Again, this violence saw a concerning uptick from December to January, such as on 3rd January, when fighters belonging to the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) abducted some 50 people from the Maiduguri-Damaturu Road. Furthermore, a video released on 29th December showed the executions of five Christian men who were abducted by ISWAP during a Christmas eve attack on Garkida Town in Adamawa state.

"When presented with such a saddening picture, and with the violence showing no signs of slowing down on either front, it is difficult to know how to respond. One thing we can do is to take heart from the inspiring faith of Christians in Nigeria and join them in praying that 2021 would be a year of breakthrough."

When presented with such a saddening picture, and with the violence showing no signs of slowing down on either front, it is difficult to know how to respond. One thing we can do is to take heart from the inspiring faith of Christians in Nigeria and join them in praying that 2021 would be a year of breakthrough.

We must pray specifically for those working for change in the country. CSW’s Nigeria office is based in Kaduna, and even as they witness atrocities on a near-daily basis, they continue to bravely stand up and raise their voices on behalf of those who are unheard or ignored. 

Even as the shocking violence continues into 2021, we remain hopeful that through prayer and advocacy we will see change in the country, and an end to a crisis which is in urgent need of international intervention. Please join us in praying this verse from Isaiah 60:18 over the nation of Nigeria: “No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise.”

If you would like to encourage the team at CSW-Nigeria you can find their address in CSW’s Connect and Encourage resource where you can send your letters, prayers and words of support.

Ellis Heasley is public affairs officer at UK-based religious freedom advocacy CSW.