7 Things to Know About Deadly Fulani Persecution in Northern Nigeria

April 3, 2018 by Lindy Lowry in Africa

In Nigeria (#9 on the 2021 World Watch List), the Muslim extremist group Boko Haram has become synonymous with violence against Christians. But in northern Nigeria’s Middle Belt area, the latest threat to Christian communities may arguably be even worse than Boko Haram: the Hausa-Fulani Muslim Herdsman. Clashes with militants among the predominantly Muslim group have claimed thousands of Christian lives as they raze entire villages and brutally kill and rape. To help you pray insightfully and know how to come alongside our brothers and sisters, we’ve broken down this tragic and complex situation into seven specific areas:

1. The Fulani are an unreached Muslim people group.

Just over 38 million people belong to the larger Fulani cluster of ethnic groups found in pockets across 19 Central and West African countries. They speak a variety of languages including Hausa, English, French and Arabic and are the world’s largest nomadic group roaming this large area in search of grazing for their cattle.

With less than 1 percent of professing Christians among them, they are yet unreached with the gospel. Almost 100 percent follow Islam, although there are varying degrees of dedication to Islam.

The video below offers a helpful and thorough understanding of Fulani violence and the depth of persecution in Nigeria:

2. They are in conflict with grain farmers in Northern Nigeria’s strategic Middle Belt.

The Middle Belt is part of Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria. Unlike the far northern states dominated by Hausa-Fulani Muslims, the Middle Belt hosts a diversity of peoples and cultures. It is a melting pot of ethnoreligious groups that have coexisted for decades. It is also the center of Christian presence in the North.

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Many regard this area as the breadbasket of northern Nigeria because most of the villagers there are grain farmers who grow food for the whole country. As climate change and environmental factors force these militant herdsmen south in search of grazing land for their cattle, they come into contact and conflict with the large pockets of Christians in Nigeria’s Middle Belt.

Typically, the militants find a reason to be angry at a particular village and involve the local Muslim population in the area–inciting them to raze entire Christian villages the militant herdsmen then use as grazing land.

3. Although socio-economic factors drive the conflict, a religious motive is clear.

As once-fertile land becomes desert (resulting from drought), the Fulani continue to gradually move southward, using up already scarce resources like food and water. These herders have migrated away from drought-stricken neighboring West African countries (especially Niger) to the Middle Belt virtually unchecked.

But there is more to the conflict than these socio-economic factors. In the attacks, Christians are indiscriminately targeted and Muslims are mostly spared. Open Doors research found that:

  • 88 percent of Fulani attack victims in Nigeria’s Benue State were Christians.
  • In Taraba State, 70 percent of victims were Christians.
  • In Nasarawa State, 75 percent of the victims were Christians.

The history of the Fulani people includes waves of radicalization combining the conquering of land with their religion. The Fulani played a role in the jihad (holy war) of Fulani revolutionary Usman dan Fodio (1804-1815), who conquered parts of the Middle Belt and incorporated them into a new Muslim state, the Sokoto caliphate, that lasted until 1903. In recent decades, the Fulani have again grown increasingly radical due to the influx of extremist Islamic preaching by missionaries from Saudi Arabia and Iran. The attacks can be seen as a continuation of jihad seeking an Islamic state throughout Nigeria.

The Catholic bishops of Kaduna–an area that has suffered many attacks in recent years (see top photo)–recently issued a statement, saying, “The Fulani want to subjugate Christians, disintegrate the country, weaken the gospel and destroy the social and economic life of the people. There is a hidden agenda targeted at the Christian majority of southern Kaduna. This jihad is well-funded, well-planned and executed by agents of destabilization.”

According to the expansionist principle of Dar al Islam (house of Islam), everything belongs to Allah directly and to his followers indirectly, including the land where the Fulani want to let their cattle graze.

They believe it is right for them to take those resources by force from infidels and apostates,” explains former Open Doors’ West Africa researcher Arne Mulders.

Displaced villagers in northern Nigeria who were forced to flee their homes.

4. The violent and brutal attacks continue to increase.

The U.S. Department of Defense’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies estimated that by January this year, more than 60,000 people had died since 2001 in pastoralist-related violence in Nigeria alone. Thousands have been injured in the attacks, and hundreds of women have been kidnapped. Fulani militants have destroyed countless homes and churches and seized large swathes of land and property.

Open Doors’ research further shows that Fulani violence increased in the run-up to Nigeria’s 2015 presidential elections and has persisted since Nigeria President Buhari, himself a Fulani, became president. We estimate that the group has killed as many as 6,500 people in southern Kaduna, Plateau, Nasarawa, Benue and Taraba states between 2013 and 2015 alone. [July 2018 update: A statement from the Christian Association of Nigeria reports that in the first half of 2018, more than 6,000 Christians have been killed and maimed in the ongoing violence, including attacks in July on at least a dozen villages near Jos that killed more than 200 people and has displaced at least 1,300.]

5. Nigerian Christians say the government is failing them.

Christians are frustrated by the lack of governmental intervention and concern over the violence and property loss.  A spate of leaders has issued statements calling out the government for neglect, complicit behavior and even intentional backing of the militant herdsmen.

  • In March, the Christian Elders Forum said, “We are dismayed by the inaction of the federal government to the carnage and destruction caused by the Fulani herdsmen against legitimate native landowners and farmers across the country. … For years, the Fulani herdsmen have been murdering innocent Nigerians with impunity. …The response of the government to the menace of the Fulani herdsmen has to date been tepid and indifferent.”
  • Joseph Bagobiri, bishop of Kafanchan in Southern Kaduna, added: “In most of these attacks, the military stands aloof and watches while our people are being massacred. …In the Godogodo and Pasakori attacks, for example, the military merely watched and supervised the burning of our homes. When the youth mobilized to repel the attackers, the soldiers deliberately blocked them from entering the town.” These claims were confirmed by eyewitness reports Open Doors gathered following the attacks.
  • The Rev. Atta Barkindo, a scholar and writer focusing on Nigerian issues, wrote in a World Watch Monitor report: “The intervention of the Nigerian government has been slow and haphazard. No attempt was made to address key issues. No herdsmen were held accountable for the atrocities already committed; there was no discussion of prosecution for perpetrators, nor of compensation, nor provision of security for victims. Many communities were left displaced and fearful, without any security.”
  • In a 2016 report for the World Watch Research unit of Open Doors, Yonas Dembele, a senior United Nations human-rights official, said, “A government cannot solve a problem that it has not recognized and is not paying attention to. The neglect of the situation has meant that the attacks by the Fulani militia are becoming more deadly and sophisticated. …There seems to be little intelligence and information gathered by the [Nigerian] government to understand the source of the problem and how it has evolved and if there is more to the conflict than meets the eye. More importantly, the persistent failure of the government to secure its borders, to control the flow of weapons and its failure to provide protection to the communities that are being systematically wiped out is a colossal failure that is having very tragic consequences. There also seems to be a lack of urgency in the government’s response to the situation.”

6. Christians Say Nigerian government has not effectively addressed Fulani violence.

The spike in violence by Fulani militants has become increasingly political ahead of presidential elections in February 2019. Critics of President Muhammadu Buhari, who is Fulani, accuse him of failing to get tough with the herdsmen.

During a mass burial for 73 people killed in a January 2018 attack on the rural communities of Benue, feelings ran high on the streets where thousands of people, many wearing black, waved wreaths as coffins on lorries passed by.

Some mourners held banners featuring pictures of victims and the words: “President act now: your people are killing us.”

While Buhari is quick to react to tragic situations in faraway regions,  here in his home the President is yet to stem the herdsmen attacks. His silence comes with many direct and indirect implications, most of which threaten Nigeria’s unity and breed instability. He is seen as biased because he continues to talk tough on the secessionists and militants in southern Nigeria. However, the Fulani herdsmen from his own ethnic division are “spared.”

Open Doors research experts wrote: “The administration of President Buhari has been very slow to recognize the severity of the problem and come up with a plan to address it. While President Buhari had made it a priority for the Nigerian armed forces to defeat Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and demanded that this be accomplished in a relatively short period of time, he has paid little attention in comparison to the situation in the Middle Belt.”

7. A little help goes a long way.

Although the realities of this violent situation can be overwhelming, Open Doors has repeatedly seen how the Lord sovereignly uses the Body of Christ to bring hope and remind Christians on the front lines that they are not forgotten.

“My house was totally burned down in the Fulani crisis, says Mary Lumumba. “I have been going from house to house begging for a bowl of corn to feed my children, but today you have given me 100 kilograms of maize all to myself. God indeed is faithful. May God bless every pocket that gave to see that we are being helped.”

Open Doors and our on-the-ground partners in Nigeria are coming alongside Christians targeted by Fulani and Boko Haram militants to help support believers as they return home to their decimated villages. Open Doors is providing services like medical clinics, boreholes (for clean water) and schools, as well as crisis relief for those forced to flee their communities. We’re also training churches to help them equip Christians to respond to persecution and stand strong in their faith through discipleship training. 

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