Long Read: Violence in Nigeria’s ‘Middle Belt’ States: Ethnic and Religious Dimensions

19 March 2021


Introduction to Ethnic and Religious Violence in Nigeria. 

Nigeria is a deeply complex society divided along many tribal, political, linguistic, ethnic, geographical and class lines. Sadly, although the communities have lived side by side for centuries, there are also significant tensions between the country’s two major religious groups: Islam and Christianity, which represent 53.5% and 45.9% of the population respectively (although these figures are often contested in Nigeria). The country is geographically divided. The population of the Northern States is majority Muslim and the population of the Southern States is majority Christian, [1] while the centre has roughly equal numbers of both adherents. The religious tensions have historical roots going back to colonial times under the British and the creation of the Nigerian state in 1960.

Violent Islamist groups in Nigeria are some of the deadliest jihadist groups operating in the world today, and have made a resurgence in recent years, spreading across the Lake Chad basin in countries bordering Nigeria, and across Northern Nigeria and into the Middle Belt states. The violence in northern and central regions of Nigeria and across the Sahel region is complicated by the different groups that make up the perpetrators. The two primary groups associated with the violence are Boko Haram and armed members of the Fulani ethnic group.


Violent Islamist groups operate across the Middle Belt (shaded) and North of Nigeria.


Boko Haram

Boko Haram emerged in 2002 as a Salafi jihadist movement under the leadership of Mohammed Yusuf. With links initially to Al-Qaeda and later to ISIS, the group opposes what it views as the Westernisation of Nigeria, in which it includes Christianity. Its name means ‘western education is forbidden’, and it aims to create an Islamic state throughout the country. Following two failed small scale uprisings in 2003 and 2004, a brief stint by the founder-leader in Borno state’s Shari’a Commission, and rising tensions between adherents and the security services, the group launched simultaneous  violent attacks in four states during 2009. After their leader, Yusuf, was captured and executed extrajudicially while in custody, Abubakar Shekau assumed leadership. Under his leadership, Boko Haram became one of the most gruesome and deadliest terrorist groups in the world. The abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok in 2014 triggered an international outcry and the escalation of efforts to oust the movement militarily. While territory occupied by the group was taken back ahead of the 2015 elections, the situation deteriorated progressively thereafter, amidst accusations of a failure by the Nigerian government to adequately address the situation, and Boko Haram has now extended its attacks to Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

In March 2015, Boko Haram formally declared its allegiance to Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and renamed itself ‘Islamic State in West Africa Province’, (ISWAP). A split in the group gave birth to the Nur/Al-Barnawi faction, which gained the support of the defunct IS caliphate. Both groups have been responsible for multiple attacks on civilian, military and humanitarian figures (Muslims and Christians) and for frequent murders and kidnappings. In July 2020, ISWAP executed five aid workers as a warning to “all those being used by infidels to convert Muslims to Christianity.”[2]

The group has claimed responsibility for deadly attacks in Nigeria and its neighbouring countries, resulting in thousands of casualties and deaths. According to the Assessment Capacities Project Report of 2015, 9,000,000 people have been affected directly, and 24,500,000 people affected indirectly, by Boko Haram attacks.

Despite the new Nigerian administration claiming in December 2015 that Boko Haram had been “technically defeated,” the group remains active in the north of the country and continues to carry out attacks on Christian and Muslim places of worship and markets, and to abduct civilians. In 2018, Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader, announced that the group was in “good health” and that the Nigerian troops were incapable of defeating it. Attacks continue to take place multiple times a month, either by suicide bombers or in other deadly forms. In early December groups in northwest Nigeria with allegiances to the Shekau faction abducted over 300 schoolboys. They have since been freed, following payment of a ransom.

It is estimated that over the last decade, attacks from Boko Haram and its offshoot, Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) have displaced two million and killed more than 30,000. A third of all casualties in the first half of 2018 were a result of suicide bombings.


Fulani Assailants

According to Search for Common Ground (SfCG): “The Fulani are the primary pastoralist group in Africa and have roots in West Africa as far back as 900 A.D. The largest Fulani populations reside in Nigeria, where they make up a considerable portion of the population, with over 18 million people and 270 clans. For centuries, Fulani herders have lived in relative harmony with settled farming communities. These two groups have historically benefited from symbiotic partnerships to keep cropland fertile and cattle well nourished. Herders seasonally migrated their cattle in search of lush grass, available water sources, and profitable markets for their cattle, often near villages and farms. In turn, the cattle provided critical dung fertilizer that nourished the soil for crop production, leading to high yields. Farmers and herders both benefitted in the exchange of grain for dairy and crop residue for manure.”[3]

In speaking of the Fulani therefore, we must be careful to emphasise the distinction between the Fulani in general (a diverse group of millions of people with hundreds of clans) and the sub-group of individuals of Fulani ethnicity who carry out attacks. The term ‘Fulani militia’ is used to describe this sub-group. It should also be recognised that whilst about 90% of Fulani are estimated to be herders, many have become urbanised and are part of Nigerian civil society. Neither are all Fulani extremists.

A combination of political, economic and environmental factors is contributing to the increasing tensions between the nomadic Fulani herdsmen, predominately Muslim, and sedentary agrarian farmers, predominately Christian, of north-central and southern Nigeria.

Poor government regulation of land, increased urbanisation, expansion of commercially cultivated areas and corporate mining activities has all increased the pressure on land. On top of this, climate change exacerbates the situation. As the rate of desertification and risk of extreme weather conditions in the Sahel (Africa’s Middle Belt) and northern regions increases, competition for pastoral land and water has intensified between the two groups. The decrease in available grazing land has caused the Fulani herdsmen, originally from northern Nigeria, to migrate southwards in search of land and water, encroaching on the farmers’ land. Thus, intensifying the land-related conflict.

However, ethnic and religious tensions are also a major contributing factor to the conflict and the sectarian identity of the respective tribal groups and the radical Islamist ideology embraced by many of the Fulani has dramatically increased the religious motivation to the violence as is evidenced by the scale and brutality of sectarian attacks. Islamist extremism is growing across the Sahel. Christian farming communities are being targeted by groups of Islamist Fulani herdsmen. The Fulani extremists have attacked, maimed, killed and evicted thousands of farmers. Indeed, the International Crisis Group estimates that over 300,000 people have been displaced and well over 10,000 lives lost during the last decade.

In 2018, the Global Terrorism Index named Fulani militants as the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world. Despite Boko Haram’s attacks gaining more Western media attention, the death toll from Fulani militia attacks at 13,000, was six times higher than that of Boko Haram’s between January and June 2018. More than 4,000 people have been killed in the last two years alone.

The Nigerian government has so far failed to respond adequately to this growing violence and protect communities by bringing perpetuators to justice.

The international community is also failing to act. The representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to Nigeria, said that in 20 years of working as a humanitarian she had “never seen such a level of destruction,” after visiting an area attacked by Fulani militia in 2016. Yet the international community is still failing to treat the situation with the seriousness it deserves, allowing the situation to continue.

The conflict has caused huge economic damage to Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy. According to Mercy Corps, a UK-based humanitarian organisation, it has cost Nigeria more than £10bn in the three years to 2015. It has stalled economic growth and development by preventing trade and deterring investment. Furthermore, the conflict presents an additional security challenge for the Nigerian government, which is already stretched by the Boko Haram insurgency.


Violence in the Middle Belt States

International political discourse is often reluctant to admit that the extreme violence in the Middle Belt and other states has the same sectarian dimension as in the north and east of the country, claiming that land and environmental issues are the primary drivers. However, the conclusion of a February 2021 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, after listing a range of brutal attacks committed in 2020 both in the northern and Middle Belt states, notes:

Violent Islamist groups continue to pose a significant threat to religious freedom of civilians living in northern Nigeria and throughout the Lake Chad Basin. Boko Haram, ISWAP, and Ansaru have all demonstrated the capacity and intent to conduct attacks on individuals based on religion. Boko Haram and ISWAP have also imposed their interpretation of Islam onto others in their areas of control. Regional approaches continue to put pressure on violent jihadist groups operating in this region, primarily through military operations. However, militant Islamist groups in Nigeria demonstrate remarkable staying power and threaten to co-opt and “Islamize” other violent conflicts in Nigeria and throughout the region. Thus, these groups will likely continue to pose threats to religious freedom in Nigeria and elsewhere in the future if efforts do not adapt to address the challenges facing the current approach.[4]

In March 2020, an independent Crisis Information website (, noted that “violence between herders and farmers has continued for decades in Nigeria’s Middle Belt states of Taraba, Benue, Kaduna, Plateau, Nasarawa, and Adamawa.” Violence has commonly arisen over land issues, water resources, grazing space, and the demands on agricultural land by population growth, but the report admits that violence has also “been rooted in religious and ethnic motivations.”[5]

As a UK based charity, the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) works with local partners in Nigeria in the northern and Middle Belt states. During regular visits to the region, staff have heard countless accounts from victims of brutal sectarian violence, mostly against Christian communities, and have visited affected areas. HART’s 2018 Visit report notes that in Nasarawa State alone in the central plateau, in the first six months of 2018, 314 villages were attacked, 404 people were killed, over 24,000 homes and 539 churches destroyed, and over 242,000 persons were displaced. In Plateau State, between mid-2015 and mid-2018, 54 communities were destroyed and another 123 came under sustained attack. The number of deaths in Plateau State in 2018 were estimated at 2,000. On 4 July 2018, the Nigerian House of Representatives declared killings in Plateau State to be a genocide.

HART Partner, the Mai Adiko Peace Project in Jos, Plateau State, aims to build peace by bringing together members of the Christian and Muslim.

The following are just some of the testimonies of people whom members of the HART staff met in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria in November 2018:

They shot Sarah’s husband and children and so she begged them to kill her too, but they refused, saying that they wanted her to cry and bear the pain.” Deaconess Susan Essam, Jos.

My sister was raped and her wrists cut off before she was shot through the heart. They took my brother, his wife and all their six children, tied and slaughtered them like animals.” Margaret, Ngar village.

We heard gunshots. 18 people were killed and their bodies were set alight… They burnt homes. An old man who couldn’t run was killed.” Chundung, Kurra.

They came around 7pm and left just before midnight. More than 200 of them in black cloth – well armed. Yesterday we lost another 19 of our people.” Church Warden at St Timothy Church in Jos.

They were hacking and killing people, making sure that those that were shot were finished off…They wore red to conceal blood splashes on their clothes as they butchered their victims.” Lydia, Ningon village.

I called my brother but there was no reply. The next morning I found out that he, his wife and four others were shot, butchered and burnt.” Helen, Gana-Ropp.

“They were going from house to house, looting and taking away anything they found valuable and then setting the houses on fire.” Helen, Ex-Land village.

We are not safe in our homes. I am raising an alarm – if the government will listen. Lord in your mercy.” Archbishop Ben Kwashi, Jos.

As Médecins Sans Frontières reported in 2020: “Nigeria’s ‘Middle Belt’ states, Adamawa, Benue, Kaduna, Plateau, Nasarawa and Taraba, host the largest numbers of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the country, outside of the northeast region. Most people have been uprooted by the so-called ‘farmer-herdsmen’ conflict.”[6] At least 160,000 displaced people are scattered across Benue state, according to 2019 estimates, and these figures do not include the many thousands who have been further displaced in 2020.

In 2018, the Crisis Group identified three reasons for the escalation of violence: the growth of ethnic militias who were bearing illegally acquired weapons; the failure of the federal government to prosecute perpetrators or heed warnings of attacks; and the introduction of anti-grazing laws in some states, resulting in clashes between farmers and herders in neighbouring states.[7]

In February 2019, World Watch Monitor noted the increase of attacks by Fulani herders against Christians in the Middle Belt and the consequent displacement of thousands of people. The central region is significant since it represents the boundary between the more Muslim north and the mostly Christian south, and has therefore become an increasingly significant locus of ethnic and religious violence.[8]

World Watch Monitor states that in recent years the conflict between mostly Fulani herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers in Nigeria’s Middle Belt has become the country’s gravest security challenge.[9]

Violence attributed to Fulani militants is believed to have claimed six times more lives than Boko Haram in recent years. In 2016, it was claimed that the herdsmen had been responsible for 60,000 deaths since 2001.

One of our partners in Nigeria told us that in recent decades, some groups of Fulani herdsmen have become increasingly militant, and are influenced by Wahhabi extremist ideology and a desire to impose Islamic law across Nigeria. (This reflects an Islamist ideology that has been deliberately spread from Saudi Arabia across the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa). Attacks are mostly in Christian-dominated areas. In Benue state alone, over 100,000 children have been forced out of school and over 500 churches attacked since 2011. In overnight massacres by armed herdsmen in March 2010 at Dogo Nahawa, Ratsat and Zot, around 500 people died. Meanwhile, the committing of atrocities with impunity, and the government’s failure to deal with the on-going crisis, continues.


So what can we do about these Challenges?

During a visit to Nigeria in November 2019, local Nigerian partners and church leaders identified the following priorities for the international community to consider:

  • Religious persecution: While the underlying causes of violence are complex, attacks in the Middle Belt by Islamist Fulani militia are predominantly against Christian communities. It is too simplistic to label these atrocities as driven by desertification, climate change or competition for resources. Protracted attempts to address these (albeit important) long-term factors must be combined with initiatives to address the religious/sectarian dimensions.
  • International recognition: The situation is so severe that it fulfils the criteria of genocide and should be recognised as such, with the responsibility of the international community to respond accordingly. For countries such as the UK merely to “emphasise the importance of mediation and inter-faith dialogue” ignores the seriousness of the crisis and the scale of persecution.
  • Freedom of religion or belief: Freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom to change religion or belief, and freedom  – either alone or with others, and in public or private – to manifest and propagate one’s religion or belief in  worship, teaching and observance  are enshrined in article 38:1 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. However, the Nigerian Government has been accused of only occasionally investigating or prosecuting those responsible for violations of this constitutional right.
  • Immediate engagement: While the Nigerian administration has taken steps to counter the Boko Haram insurgency, it has not demonstrated the same commitment to tackle the escalating violence perpetrated by Fulani militia against rural farming communities. It is widely reported whenever youths in Jos have undertaken reprisal attacks against Muslims who they believe have Government sanction to attack their communities. Such reprisals cannot be condoned. Yet they must be seen in the context of an urgent need for the authorities to enforce the rule of law to protect all its citizens in an unbiased manner.
  • Assistance: Over £2 billion of UK bilateral aid was given to Nigeria between 2011 and 2018, an equivalent of £800,000 every day. The UK is also one of the largest donors to the World Food Programme’s emergency operation in north-east Nigeria. The UK must proactively assign  a commensurate proportion of its humanitarian assistance to Middle Belt states, ensuring it is disbursed in a non-discriminatory manner.
  • Reconstruction and involvement of local communities: The coordination of humanitarian assistance must involve local communities and local leaders, including clergy, imams, surveyors and medical professionals, to ensure funding is not diverted away from those suffering the loss of family members and the destruction of their homes and crops.
  • Resources: Many survivors now live in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, with an estimated 20,000 IDPs in Plateau, Benue and Taraba States alone. They are restricted in their opportunities to develop sustainable livelihoods and are at risk of severe abuse and exploitation, with very little or grossly inadequate state intervention. There is no guarantee that humanitarian aid will reach those most in need, meaning the Church is overstretched trying to provide assistance.[10]

These priorities remain no less relevant today. In fact, the situation has deteriorated since they were identified initially, with many more people killed, injured, kidnapped and displaced. There is therefore an increased urgency both for the Nigerian government and the international community to address them.


By Revd Dr Andrew Ashdown, HART Good Governance and Advocacy Development Manager.


[1] 2020. Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide?  An Inquiry by the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief.

[2] Feb 2021. United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Northern Nigeria Factsheet.

[3] Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide? APPG Report 2020.

[4]  Feb 2021. Conclusion US CIRF. Factsheet Northern Nigeria.


[6]  1 September 2020.

[7]  26 July 2018.

[8]  21 February 2019.  World Watch Monitor Report. Nigeria.

[9]  See article by Dr. Khataza Gondwe:

[10] November 2019.  HART Nigeria Visit Report.


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