Nigeria’s Middle Belt region has witnessed an increase in attacks on Christian villages in recent weeks amid uncertainty following the disputed outcome of the February 25 presidential election. The uptick in violence suggests Christian fears that a Muslim electoral win would embolden jihadists were not misplaced.
Buildings were left burning after the May 16 2023 attacks in Mangu. screenshot from ECCVN video
Bola Tinubu of the ruling APC party was declared the winner of the presidential vote. A Muslim, he has selected a co-religionist as his deputy, overturning an unwritten rule that a Muslim president should appoint a Christian vice-president and a Christian president a Muslim vice-president. The opposition are contesting the result.
Statistics from Intersociety reveal that 380 Christians were killed by Fulani herdsmen in Benue State from January 1 to April 10, 2023. The figures show an increase in the frequency and severity of attacks in March and early April. They include 135 killed in the space of just five days in April (the state governor, Samuel Ortom, has confirmed 134 Christian deaths in this period).
Multiple attacks on Christian communities have also been recorded in Southern Kaduna and in Plateau State.
In Plateau, a youth coalition raised the alarm following a spate of attacks in Mangu, Bokkos, Barkin Ladi, Riyom, Jos South and Bassa local government areas in which over 30 died in the last two weeks of April. Four consecutive days of attacks in Mangu from May 16 left over 120 Christian villagers dead, media reported.
In Kaduna, 40 worshipers were abducted from a church service on May 7.
And in Nasarawa, 38 people including a church pastor were killed in overnight attacks on several communities in Karu local government area on May 11.
The NGO Emancipation Centre for Crisis Victims in Nigeria (ECCVN), which collates information on attacks in Plateau State, reported at the end of April that the scale of militia attacks was increasing and showed no signs of abating.
“In my opinion, the presidential elections were a major trigger in the increasing onslaughts,” Solomon Dalyop, a front-line activist and barrister working for ECCVN, told CSI.
“It’s obvious that the increasing attacks are informed by the Muslim-Muslim ticket of the president and vice president-elect, which was desired by the bandits and Fulani militias.”
In the run-up to the elections, Christians were concerned at the prospect of a straight Muslim electoral ticket proving victorious.
“Already Christians are being killed even though two Muslims are not running Nigeria. Imagine how bad it will be if we have two Muslims in power?” said Rev. Bayo Oladeji, a spokesman for the Christian Association of Nigeria, in January.
“It was the height of political irresponsibility and socio-religious insensitivity for the ruling party, the APC, to make that their political strategy,” agrees Franklyne Ogbunwezeh, a senior researcher on Nigeria at CSI. He points out that the country’s 100 million Christians have lived for decades with the fear of an agenda to Islamize Nigeria.
“Trends showing an increase in the attacks were already observable in the build-up to the elections. The Muslim-Muslim ticket, as CAN warned, may well end up becoming the straw that broke the camel´s back.”
Dalyop and Ogbunwezeh both believe the increase in attacks is also down to the militants’ desire to capture as much land as possible before the transition of power from Buhari to Tinubu, scheduled for May 29.
Dalyop says there may be uncertainty on the part of the attackers and their sponsors as to whether the new administration will allow terrorism to thrive.
According to Ogbunwezeh, the Fulani militants were able to count on the tacit support of the government of Muhammadu Buhari, a fellow Fulani and northerner, for their campaign to wipe out the Christians of the Middle Belt. Under the government of Tinubu, a southern Muslim, they fear a loss of the impunity they enjoyed under Buhari.
“They are in haste to gain as much territory, consolidate as much land, displace as many Christian natives, and ethnically cleanse as much space as possible of its native Christian inhabitants before a new government takes office,“ commented Ogbunwezeh.
“Most northern Nigerian Muslims consider southern Nigerian Muslims as second-class Muslims, hence there exists a trust deficit between both parties,” he said.
“The powerbrokers in the Buhari camp who are viewed by many Nigerians as being behind this Fulani campaign of ethnic cleansing were not supportive of Tinubu in the last elections, even though he represented the APC. Instead, they supported Atiku Abubakar, a northern Fulani Muslim from the opposition PDP. “
What the future holds for Nigeria’s Middle Belt Christian community depends to a large extent on the political will of the new president to fight terrorism, says Ogbunwezeh.
“Without a credible leadership that believes in Nigeria, respects the international human rights protocols, which Nigeria is a signatory to, and respects the rule of law in prosecuting crimes and criminals, fundamentalist Muslims of all shades and hues will always believe that Nigeria belongs to them alone and that killing Christians is a legitimate way of furthering their religious agenda.”