The assailants have advanced on villages, homes, farms, and churches, in some cases reportedly shouting “Allahu Akbar.” This has created doubts among Church leaders and analysts as to whether this is indeed a conflict over resources and grazing lands, or whether there were religious motivations as well.
On August 8, Fr. Paul Offu, the priest in charge of St. James the Greater Parish in Ugbawka, Enugu State, became the latest church leader to die at the hands of a gunman suspected to be a Fulani herdsman. He was the third Catholic priest to die in the violence of the past five months.
His death ignited protests in Enugu, with priests and nuns marching to government offices to demand action.
“What manner of country is this…where some people are untouchable?” said Bishop Paulinus Ezeokafor of the Diocese of Awka after the killing of Father Offu. “What we are witnessing today is simply coordinated attacks of certain individuals and groups. Why should it always be a Catholic [who is attacked]?”
On March 20, Father Clement Ugwo, parish priest at St. Mark Catholic Church, Obinofia Ndiuno, was kidnapped, it is suspected by Fulani herdsmen. His decomposing body was found in a bush a week later.
In April 2018, two priests were among 15 people killed in an attack in Ayar-Mbalom Church in Benue. Father Joseph Gor and Father Felix Tyolaha served at St. Ignatius Catholic Church and were killed during an early morning Mass.
“The incidents in the southeast, and Enugu in particular, are not very clear,” said Father John Bakeni, secretary of the Maiduguri Catholic diocese. “One needs to know the details and the killers have not been found. To blame it on Boko Haram will be difficult. The Fulani herders’ clash [with farmers] is a mystery yet to be unraveled.”
With the killings, Cardinal John Onaiyekan, the archbishop of Abuja, sounded a warning to the Fulani herdsmen, saying that they should be worried about the growing perception that their community is “something evil.”
Early this year, Cardinal Onaiyekan warned that the killings could not be allowed to go on, as this was giving Nigeria a bad name. He stressed the situation was avoidable and the people must admit it was unacceptable; the cardinal hinted at revenge as a motive in the attacks.
Amid the killings, international human rights NGO the Jubilee Campaign, which advocates for religious minorities across the world, has submitted research and data to the International Criminal Court, stating that the standards of genocide have been met in the northeastern Nigeria killings.
The new report by the Jubilee Campaign released in July details at least 52 killings by the Fulani in the region between January and June 2019. At the same time, the Nigerian-based rights group the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law said more than 2,400 Christians were killed by herdsmen in 2018.
With the seemingly endless killing, the notion that this is a mere farmer-herder conflict is gradually becoming unbelievable. Analysts say the attacks are premeditated and appear to be targeting Christian villages, homes, and churches.
There is a widely-held view that the government is helpless on the matter, or that it is disinterested. Meanwhile, community, political, and church leaders are alarmed by what they consider the abandonment of the country to criminals.
“Herdsmen-farmer crises and menace started with government treating the issue with a cuddling glove instead of a hammer,” former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo said in a letter to President Mahammadu Buhari in mid-July. “It has festered and spread. Today, it has developed into banditry, kidnapping, armed robbery, and killings all over the country.”
Obasanjo warned the spontaneous or planned attacks by the Fulanis could develop into a massacre or Rwanda-type of genocide. The violence has been intensifying, and now there are concerns that it may spread beyond the border, to affect northern West Africa and even spread to other parts of the world.
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