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Hope amid Nigeria’s violence

Christians in central Nigeria face ongoing attacks from Fulani militias and Islamic terrorists

Schoolchildren play near a burned-out church in Marish, Nigeria. Photo by Lazham Gaina

Hope amid Nigeria’s violence
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Gunshots broke the evening’s calm as Bulus Ali Magaji walked out of his home to buy a recharge card for his phone. The head of Kwatas village knew instantly that whatever was happening was worse than a robbery: the gunshots rattle continuously.

Magaji ran back into his home to hide and alerted the deputy police commissioner. But the destruction was over before security forces could get there some 40 minutes later. Armed attackers had mostly targeted a beer parlor in this central Nigerian town of about 3,000 people. When the shooting was over, they had killed 14 villagers and wounded at least five others.

One villager who died was the single mother of 20-year-old Patience Aganbi and her four siblings. She had also stepped out before the attack began to buy a recharge card but never returned. Her family found her body outside the compound the next morning. Aganbi said extended family and other community members provided food and other items after their mother’s death.

By the time I visited Kwatas weeks later, a cool, dry breeze blew across the eerily silent village. In a corner past the community’s rows of maize ridges, a heap of sand peaked above dry ground. Small stones lined in the shape of a cross marked it as a sacred spot: That’s where Kwatas residents and those from several neighboring villages buried 21 people killed in Fulani militants’ attacks on Jan. 26 and 27.

I met Magaji sitting on a couch inside his single-story official residence, exhaustion evident on his face. “People have been suffering,” he said.

Magaji and other community leaders have worked to restore some sense of normalcy across the communities, but the imprint of the violence remains visible in the gravesite and mass destruction of churches and other properties. In Kwatas, young children sat in circles playing with plastic bottles and sand. Women spread out clean laundry on long, dry, cactuses. All had fled the town for weeks after the attack, seeking safety, but returned by the time I visited.

Magaji said the attack was unprovoked: The community had no prior issue with any Fulani herdsmen. The Fulani community residing within the village left with their cows and property after the attack. The villagers who have returned fear another attack. “We find it difficult to sleep at all because any gunshot or anything, people would start running,” Magaji said.

Attacks by armed groups of Fulani herdsmen have resulted in the killing, maiming, and forced dislocation of thousands of Christians in Nigeria, striking at the West African nation’s central states. In many areas, the cattle-­herding Fulanis are Muslims, while the farmers are predominantly Christians. The violence increasingly resembles attacks that Islamic extremists direct. Such melees killed more than 1,000 Christians last year alone and displaced 300,000 Christians, according to a June report issued by members of the United Kingdom’s Parliament. The report questioned whether the violence is leading to an “unfolding genocide” in the heart of Africa’s most populous country.

Violence has continued into the summer, even as the country locked down because of the coronavirus. In May, a series of attacks in the predominantly Christian Kajuru community in Plateau state left at least 20 people dead. The same month, Anglican Rev. Canon Bayo James Famonure and his family survived a late-night attack from suspected herdsmen at his home.

Patience Aganbi (right) with some of her siblings.

Patience Aganbi (right) with some of her siblings. Lazham Gaina

SOME FULANI COMMUNITIES have lived in villages together with farmers for years. But tensions have escalated between the farmers and the nomadic herders, who migrate seasonally in search of pasture for their cattle. Changing environmental conditions have left more herders on the move, and weak law enforcement in rural areas allows clashes to spiral into more violence.

Meanwhile, terrorist groups Boko Haram and the Islamic State West African Province have continued attacks unabated in the northeast. The U.S. Office of International Religious Freedom this year recommended the State Department include Nigeria on its list of countries of particular concern, typically a prelude to economic and other sanctions.

Regional security analysts note that extremist groups have also started to key into the unrest and radicalize some of the herders. According to the latest Global Terrorism Index, armed herders were responsible for the majority of terror-related deaths in Nigeria in 2018: 1,158 people.

Bulus Ali Magaji, Kwatas village chief.

Bulus Ali Magaji, Kwatas village chief. Lazham Gaina

I SAW THE CARNAGE FIRSTHAND during a trip earlier this year to some of the affected villages in Bokkos county in Nigeria’s Plateau state. The drive from Kwatas to the village of Marish took about 40 minutes across the flatlands of the plateau and unmarked roadways. A security checkpoint welcomed people into Marish: A police truck sat at one corner, and several large rocks stretched across most of the dirt road to slow traffic.

After the attack in Kwatas, Magaji said, the armed herdsmen targeted the neighboring village of Chenget the same night, where they killed one person. The next day, he received multiple calls from Marish saying hundreds of Fulani extremists were descending down a hill and into the village in broad daylight.

“They were in mass number wearing black clothes carrying heavy arms,” he said. “They were shouting, ‘Allahu akbar [Allah is great].’”

Magaji contacted security forces: “All they could say was that they did not have fuel inside their motorcycles, no fuel in their cars. And they delayed further for more than 40 minutes, trying to sort themselves before taking off for Marish.”

By the time they arrived, at least five people had died.

“We saw the hand of God that saved us here, because … you expect to see this place more destroyed.”

Across the village, pieces of burned mattresses dotted the ground. In a vandalized pharmacy, charred tablets, injection packets, and pieces of cotton mixed with ash on the ground.

Inside the compound of the Church of Christ in Nations, three completely burned cars remained parked. The parsonage, which the church commissioned in September for its regional council chairman, stood without its roof. Broken glass and tiles spread all across the floor.

Rhoda Danjuma, the pastor’s wife, said she and some other villagers were heading to Kwatas to mourn with villagers there when they received word that it wasn’t safe to travel. That’s when the Fulani militants attacked.

The group went into a neighboring village to seek refuge. Several women and children from Marish also fled ahead of the attack.

The attackers destroyed much: new couches, new sets of mattresses, and about 60 bags of maize. Still, Danjuma felt God’s presence with the community: “We saw the hand of God that saved us here, because with [hundreds of attackers] you expect to see this place more destroyed.”

The small cluster of huts where a Fulani community resided just outside the village sat empty.

After the Jan. 27 attack, some of the youths who tried to defend their village blamed the carnage on the Fulanis and vandalized their huts in a reprisal attack. Mai Gambo Dachen, a community leader in Marish, said members of the Fulani community held him and another local official hostage for 10 days. They asked why the officials allowed the reprisal but eventually let them go.

Danjuma also believes some of the Fulani people in their community cooperated with the attackers. Villagers said they saw two Fulani shop owners in the city center point at specific houses for the attackers to burn down: “After the attack, they went together with the attackers.”

Rhoda Danjuma stands near a burned vehicle in the Church of Christ in Nations compound in Marish.

Rhoda Danjuma stands near a burned vehicle in the Church of Christ in Nations compound in Marish. Lazham Gaina

ABOUT AN HOUR’S DRIVE AWAY in the more bustling town of Bokkos, the county’s capital, Pastor K.B. Yunana of Christ Apostolic Church has seen the effects of the attacks in surrounding villages.

His denomination has a member church in Marish, but he opened his church’s doors to more people when many women and children fled into Bokkos for safety. About 30 people slept in the compound for days after the attack before more help arrived. “We don’t have [enough mattresses], so some of them will sleep on the mats and some of them will sleep on the floor,” he said.

Yunana is a regional official with the Christian Association of Nigeria and also helped organize immediate relief materials for communities after the attacks. When the fleeing Christians sought refuge, Yunana said church members prayed with them and encouraged them to pray also for their attackers. One of the difficulties they face, he said, is the lack of government action.

“When they come to kill people and no tangible arrest is made and the culprits are not dealt with, when people are not seeing that, it’s disheartening,” he explained. “They become very angry and upset.”

THE COUNTY’S VILLAGE OF RUBOI has witnessed that frustration firsthand. Only a 15-minute drive away from Marish, villagers in Ruboi saw the rising smoke and heard the gunfire during a Jan. 27 attack.

The men there also sent away women and children and waited for the onslaught.

Unlike the other villages, Ruboi farmers had complained of nomadic herders letting cattle graze on their fields. Gala­dima Kwakas, the village head, said he tried talking with one herder’s family and eventually took the case to the police, but authorities did nothing.

Kwakas said the herder threatened them before leaving the community: “He said that since we don’t know war, it’s now that we will see it.”

One day after the evening attack in Ruboi, the herdsmen returned to grazing on their farms. “There’s nothing we can do,” Kwakas said.

Only one person died in the violence, but the destruction was vast. The attackers burned down 30 buildings, including three churches and many homes.

Fidelia Hosea, who has lived in the community for 31 years, took me around her destroyed home. We walked through the room where her mattress once lay and into the opposite room, where the attackers also burned the 30 bags of maize she had stored to feed her family through the dry season.

Hosea spent the nights after the attack at her brother’s house, but her three children remained with their uncle in Jos, the state’s capital city. She sees it as the only option, given everything she lost: “Even the cloth that I’m wearing, it’s only people that helped us.”

Damage inside the parsonage of Kauna Baptist Church in Ruboi.

Damage inside the parsonage of Kauna Baptist Church in Ruboi. Lazham Gaina

VILLAGERS IN THESE COMMUNITIES want more intervention and protection from security officials, but they continue to search for signs of hope in the midst of their suffering.

Baptist Pastor Danladi Dakup Kumbe said some members of the Fulani community within Ruboi offered him shelter during the attack there. After the violence ended, he found the parsonage torched. Kumbe lost more than 200 books in the fire.

Inside the church, the ceiling creaked after parts of wooden beams burned in the fire. A partly burned guitar and piano rested on the wall outside the church. Yet every Sunday since the attack, Kumbe’s church and others in the village continued to worship.

As he rummaged through the destruction, Kumbe also found a small New Testament that remained unscathed. He said it represented a much-needed source of encouragement: “I know that God will intervene.”

Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD’s Africa reporter and deputy global desk chief. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University–Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria.



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