Nigeria's president plays down violence against Christians in Christmas message

Men march along the truck carrying the coffins of people killed by the Fulani herdsmen, in Makurdi, Nigeria January 11, 2018.REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Nigeria's president gave only a weak nod to the Christian communities being devastated by brutal attacks in his Christmas message to the nation.

Despite thousands being killed by Boko Haram and Fulani herdsmen in recent years, President Muhammadu Buhari played down the violence as he called on Nigerians to rebuild community relationships. 

'We cannot bring back the lives lost to floods, unfortunate fire disasters, road accidents, farmers/herders clashes and insurgency. But we can put back smiles on the faces of the grieving, the displaced and the troubled, if we show a little love and recommit ourselves to building relationships with those outside our ethnic, religious and socio-political divides,' he said

The Christmas message is unlikely to appease Nigeria's Christian leaders who accuse the authorities of turning a blind eye to the violent attacks being carried out on their communities. 

In a meeting with President Buhari last month, pastors accused the Nigerian military of being complicit in the attacks on Christians.

In a report handed to the president, the Rev Dacholom Datiri, president of the Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN), said that in Plateau state alone, 646 Christians had been killed between March and October this year

'The narrative has been that these people are killed by unknown gunmen, or suspected herdsmen, or that there have been farmer-herders clashes,' Datiri said.

'All these are deceptive narratives deliberately framed to conceal the truth and continue to perpetrate the evil.'

In addition to AK-47s, he said that sophisticated weapons like rocket-propelled grenades were being used to attack Christians. 

'After the attacks, it is the Fulani herders that settle and graze their cattle on the farms of the victims,' Datiri said in the report.

'The proficiency and mode of operation in all of these attacks, as testified by the surviving victims, leaves us in no doubt of the complicity of the military being used as hired mercenaries by the Fulani militias.

'On this, we are disappointed, and sadly so, that the government has not delivered on her constitutional responsibility of protecting lives and property.'

Open Doors ranks Nigeria 14th in the world for persecution against Christians. In its country report, the persecution watchdog says corruption has made the Nigerian government 'ill-equipped' to protect Christians from violent attack.

'Much of the Christian persecution in Nigeria is the result of radical Islamic teaching and activity,' it says.

'Islam is the dominant religion in the north of the country, while Christianity is dominant in the south. Ongoing rivalries between ethnic groups contribute to the persecution of Christians who are caught in the crossfire.

'Meanwhile, radical groups, such as Boko Haram and Muslim Fulani herdsmen, heavily persecute believers in the northern and Middle Belt regions.

'Criminal groups engaged in human and drug trafficking also contribute to the persecution, and corruption at all levels of government only adds to the danger for believers.'

The Catholic Bishop of Gboko Diocese, William Amove Avenya, who has previously warned of a genocide, said last week that despite recurring attacks by armed herdsmen, 'no one is doing anything about it.'

'Fulani tribesmen, armed to the teeth, are murdering pregnant women and children, and destroying our smallholdings,' he told Aid to the Church in Need.

'This is a time bomb that threatens to ignite the whole region,' he said. 'We need to ask who is behind this.'

Last week, the Archbishop of Jos, Benjamin Kwashi, appealed to US President Donald Trump to send an envoy to Nigeria to pressure the government into taking action to stop the violence. He suspects that the attackers are being trained by Al-Qaeda or ISIS. 

'If you look at the geography of the killings from the beginning of Boko Haram, and even before that, you would have noticed that the killings are systematic,' he said.

'They are deliberative, they are calculated and those carrying them out are well trained. Everyone knows that they are trained either by Al-Qaeda or ISIS. Everyone knows that they are well armed, they kill soldiers, they kill police. They overrun villages ... in the most inhuman ways.'

He added: 'We need an envoy whose heart and voice will carry the weight necessary to stop the killings. We are [appealing] to the kind-heartedness of the Americans, the energy, the care, and the concern for justice.'

The 2018 Global Terrorism Index has ranked Nigeria third in the world for terrorist attacks and warns that the Fulani have overtaken Boko Haram in the number of deaths. 

(Photo: 2018 Global Terrorism Index)

The report said this year had seen a 'dramatic increase' in violence involving Fulani extremists, even as the number of deaths at the hands of Boko Haram continues to fall.

'Nigeria's counterterrorism response in combatting Boko Haram has been interrupted by the emergence of other extremist groups, most notably the Fulani extremists,' the report said. 

It puts the number of deaths by Fulani herdsmen between January and September 2018 at 1,700, far higher than the 327 attributed to them across Nigeria and Mali in the whole of 2017. 

'Fulani herders are primarily Muslim while the southern farmers are predominantly Christian, which adds a religious dimension to the conflict over resources,' the report states.

'Christian farmers in the south perceive the influx of Muslim herders as an Islamisation of the country at a time when Boko Haram's presence in the country is still strong.  

'Violence is perpetrated by both sides who engage in mass village raids and burnings. 78 per cent of the deaths attributed to Fulani extremists since 2010 have been carried out as armed assaults.'