In the rural village of Agatu, in north central Nigeria, someone had successfully installed a solar panel in his home before the arsonists lit their fires. It was late February when suspected Muslim Fulani herdsmen razed scores of villages in central Nigeria's most Christian state. The contrast between one community modestly reaching for modern advancement, and another relying on medieval practices, could not be sharper.
The northern Fulani tribe herds their cattle, traversing the length of a country the size of Texas, as their fathers have done for centuries – on foot. The only discernible change in this age-long practice is that many have traded their nomadic staffs for AK47s. As vectors of a jihad two centuries ago that shaped contemporary Islam in Nigeria, it is uncertain if the automatic rifles are for tending cows or a necessary jihadi upgrade.
The Idoma people of Agatu till the land, as did their forbears for aeons. But schools have dotted the landscape, clinics and churches too, as they have embraced Christianity and Western education, turning away centuries before from Fulani Islamic jihad. Huts have turned to houses, and far more young people drift to cities to live and work than remain at home to farm.
Fulani attacks 'worse than Boko Haram'
Yet Benue state in Nigeria's middle belt, where Agatu is located, is the nation's undisputed "Food Basket." It provides food to both the north and the more educationally advanced south. But now it is the latest battleground in what former US ambassador John Campbell termed a looming “religious war”, and a situation the US Commission for international Religious Freedom warned had claimed as many lives as Boko Haram terrorists had killed in one period under review.
"Religiously-related violence has led to more deaths in northern Nigeria than have Boko Haram attacks, said commission Chairwoman Katrina Lantos Swett in April 2013, following attacks by Fulani herdsmen.
The parallels with Boko Haram – the world’s deadliest terror group – go further. Like Boko Haram, the Fulani are Muslim. Similarly, their victims are overwhelmingly Christians and non-Muslims. They cry “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is the greatest) during their attacks, and they leave atrocities in their wake.
During a tour of the region by journalists and humanitarian agencies following the February violence, Benue state govenor Samuel Ortom said the impact of the herdsmen’s attack was probably “worse than Boko Haram” in the northeast. “When Boko Haram captures a town, they kill some people, recruit some people and occupy the town. But the herdsmen spare no-one. My own house was burnt. Kids haven’t been to school in two years.”
A tour of Benue’s state capital, Makurdi, shows exactly that – churches, homes, clinics destroyed from Fulani attacks in 2014. The Makurdi local-government chairman said a few students still congregate in a burnt-out school building, but most moved away to a neighbouring hamlet that doesn’t have a school.
It was the same for the Guma local-government chairman. During a damage assessment, he was shocked to learn from religious leaders that they had lost 70 churches, as the Catholic Church reported in the news in 2014. The Secretary to the Catholic Bishop of Makurdi Diocese, Moses Mbachie, was quoted as saying then that “more than 70 churches” had been destroyed, and he described the situation as “very sad.”
But researchers at the Self-Worth Development Initiative, a local Makurdi NGO, say the public doesn’t realise just how bad the devastation has been. Their research revealed that nine Local Government Areas in the state had been impacted in the 2014 attacks – 80 per cent of the Agatu Local Government Area, and for the Guma Local Government Area, 10 out of 10 wards. More than 50,000 people were displaced from Agatu, which represented about 10 per cent of the 430,000 people affected by attacks between 2011 and 2014 in Benue.
These figures describe a humanitarian crisis akin to Boko Haram’s insurgency in the northeast. The striking hostility of the attackers toward churches, schools, homes and farms is another indication that the terror group and the nomads share similar methods and even a common ideology – except that the Fulani take no prisoners.
A problematic crisis
But here is how the nomads are different, and possibly more problematic. They are a tribe and not a terror group. This means they can’t simply be outlawed and treated as a terrorist organisation. This also means government response has been muted compared to its declared war on Boko Haram.
The Fulani attacks are also more brutal. Where Boko Haram would sort through victims to separate Muslims from Christians, women from men and children from adults, most often killing the latter and sparing the former, the nomads hack and burn babies, slash the bellies of pregnant women and generally leave a less methodical and more gruesome aftermath. Boko Haram seizes and occupies towns to administer them. The Fulani destroy communities and their cattle graze on the farms of those displaced or killed.
Similarly, the Fulani operate in plain sight. They have a public organisation, the Miyette Allah association, that routinely issues press statements rationalising their attacks and even filing lawsuits in court. Generally, the theme of their defense is that their cattle were rustled. Justifying the present Agatu massacre, they claim 10,000 cows were killed by the locals. Yet, members of the first assessment mission said they saw no dead cows at all, and no-one has been arrested for that crime. Boko Haram, by contrast, remains a non-juridical entity, does not have a public presence, and does not participate in litigation.
Nor does Boko Haram have the free reign that the Fulani have to travel all over Nigeria, and across West Africa. The herdsmen are found in several African countries, including some of those to which the Boko Haram insurgency has spread, and are able to move freely across national borders with their cattle and arms.
A week after the recent attacks began, on 29 February, President Muhammadu Buhari ordered an investigation. On 17 March, the Nigerian Christian Elders Forum, a subset of the Christian Association of Nigeria, said Buhari’s actions were not living up to his words.
On the same day, Members of the Benue parliamentary caucus in the House of Representatives issued a blunt statement: “We decry the lukewarm attitude of the Federal government towards this ‘jihad’ being waged against our people by the herdsmen.” The 11 lawmakers accused President Buhari of downplaying what they characterised as “a genocide that, typical of the Nigerian state, has been downplayed or ignored until it spirals out of control. After the Agatu mass massacre, a few headlines were recorded, a few sympathetic comments in high places but concrete moves to stop the killings have not been made.”
Available data show there have been 10 Fulani herdsmen attacks in Benue state alone, an average of almost one a month, since Buhari took office in March 2015. This has also been a consistent average for the last three years, including during the previous administration. (There have been 40 documented attacks in 35 months.)
TIMELINE OF FULANI ATTACKS ON BENUE STATE 2013 – 2016
Note: “LGA” is the acronym for Local Government Area, a subdivision of Nigerian state government.
1. April 23: 10 farmers killed in Mbasenge community, Guma LGA
2. May 7: 47 mourners killed in Agatu while burying 2 policemen killed in neighbouring Nassarawa town
3. May 14: 40 killed as over 200 herdsmen stormed Ekwo-Okpanchenyi, Agatu LGA
4. July 5: 20 killed following clashes between Tiv farmers and herdsmen in Nzorov, Guma LGA
5. July 28: 8 killed as herdsmen invaded 2 villages in Agatu LGA
6. Nov 7: 7 killed, 6,000+ displaced when attackers struck Ikpele & Okpopolo communities, Agatu LGA
7. Nov 9: 36 killed and 7 villages overrun in Agatu LGA
8. Nov 20: 22 killed and lots of properties destroyed in an attack in Guma LGA.
9. Jan 20: 5 soldiers and 7 civilians gunned down in an attack, in Agatu LGA
10. Jan 20: 3 killed in attack on Adeke village
11. 20-21 Feb: 35 killed, 80,000 displaced, 6 villages sacked following an attack in Gwer West LGA
12. Feb 24: 8 killed following an attack on a Tiv community along Naka road, Makurdi
13. March 6: 30 killed, 6 villages sacked in Katsina/Ala and Logo LGAs
14. March 12: 28 killed in a raid on Ukpam, in Guma LGA. Yam barns and farms burnt
15. March 10: the convoy of ex-Governor Suswam attacked at Umenger. He managed to escape
16. March 12: 22 slaughtered in an attack on Suswam's village, Logo LGA. The entire village sacked
17. March 23: 25 killed, over 50 injured following an attack in Gbajimba, Guma LGA
18. March 25: 7 killed following an attack on Agena village
19. March 29: 19 killed in attack on 4 villages in Agatu LGA
20. March 29: 15 killed in a suspected use of chemical weapons on Shengev community, in Gwer LGA
21. March 30: 19 killed in Agatu LGA
22. April 10: 6 killed and many properties destroyed as 100+ assailants stormed 4 villages in Logo LGA
23. April 15: 12 killed in attack on Obagaji, Headquarters of Agatu LGA
24. Sept 10: Scores dead when herdsmen attacked 5 villages in Ogbadibo LGA
25. Jan 27: 17 killed in attacks on Abugbe, Okoklo, Ogwule & Ocholoyan in Agatu LGA
26. Jan 30: 9 killed as 100+ assailants stormed 5 villages in Logo LGA
27. March 15: 90+ killed, including women and children, properties destroyed in Egba village, Agatu LGA
28. April 27: 28 killed in attack on 3 villages in Mbadwem, Guma LGA; houses and farmlands razed
29. May 11: 5 killed & 8 wounded as herdsmen invaded Ikyoawen community, Turan Kwande LGA
30. May 24: 100 killed in an attack on villages & refugee camps in Logo LGA
31. July 7: 1 killed and others injured following an attack on mourners in Imande Bebeshi, Kwande LGA
32. Nov 5: 12 killed, 25 others injured in Buruku LGA following an attack by suspected herdsmen
33. Feb 8: 10 killed and 300+ displaced in clash between herdsmen and farmers at Tor-Anyiin and Tor-Ataan in Buruku LGA
34. Feb 21-24: 500+ killed and 7,000 displaced in an attack on Agatu LGA, over 7 villages razed
35. Feb 29: 11 killed in Edugbeho, Agatu LGA, including a police inspector.
36. March 5: many properties burnt in Agatu as security forces prevented killings
37. March 9: 8 killed in attacks on Ngorukgan, Tse Chia, Deghkia and Nhumbe in Logo LGA
38. March 10: 2 killed in attack on Obagaji, Agatu LGA
39. March 11: Convoy of Senator David Mark attacked, but he managed to escape
40. March 13: 6 killed in an attack on Tarkaa LGA.
Adapted from Minority Report, then updated
Courtesy: World Watch Monitor
Publication date: March 29, 2016