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It is a night seared in Hajaratu’s memory. Radicalised Fulani herdsmen announced their arrival at her village in Nigeria with the sound of gunshots. Hajaratu ran into her house to wake up her children who were sound asleep.
“I flung my little daughter on my back, quickly strapping her with a cloth,” says Hajaratu. “We all ran out, scattering in different directions.”
By this time, bullets were hitting the walls of her house.
“As I came to a river, I fell and got stuck in the mud,” she says. “I left my shoes there, trying to escape. The shoes are still there today.”
Although she had no idea how to swim, the river was her only escape route. As gunshots cracked in the air behind her, she waded into the rushing water with her baby daughter crying on her back.
Hajaratu says: “I reached the deep part of the river where I got submerged and began to drown. My daughter cried as I struggled to the surface.”
Losing her footing, Hajaratu was pulled under with the current. At one moment she thought she was going to drown but somehow, she made it to the bank.
Gasping for air on the muddy shoreline in the dark, she discovered her daughter was gone. The river had taken her, along with her cloth wrapper.
“I began to cry uncontrollably,” says Hajaratu.
It was days before Hajaratu was reunited with her other children in a camp for people displaced by the ongoing violence in Nigeria. In the north of the country attacks like these are a regular occurrence and take place with impunity.
Nigeria could have been number one on Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List if we only measured persecution of Christians on the extent of violence. Our research showed that Nigeria was the most violent country for persecuted Christians. Although most of this brutality is in the north of the country – it is spreading south. The jihadist terrorist group, Boko Haram, ISWAP or Islamic State in West Africa Province, radicalised Fulani herdsmen and armed bandits are all behind the attacks.
Each group perpetuates fear in different geographical areas: Boko Haram, and its splinter group ISWAP, operate in the north-east; Fulani militants across what’s known as the Middle Belt of Nigeria – in Plateau, Benue, as well as Kaduna State, and armed bandits in the north-west.
Such violence sees people killed, abducted, raped as well as losing their property, land and means of livelihood. Recently we’ve seen several large-scale abductions of children from schools in Kankara, Kagara, Jangebe, and Kaduna. These kidnapping made headlines internationally, but abductions happen all the time – they are just so common that they don’t necessarily make it into the world media.
Insecurity has become a huge issue in Nigeria. People don’t feel safe, and the government is failing to protect them. There is no doubt that Muslims also suffer in the spreading violence, but Christians are disproportionately affected. What they are experiencing is an existential threat if this trend of attacks continues.
Fulani herders who have been radicalised are well organised. They are killing and displacing Christians and taking over their farmland. They will raid villages and attack the Christian homes but spare the homes of nearby Muslims, they will attack a village and burn down the church but leave the mosque. Little has been done to stop this violence against Christians.
Nigerian people want protection just like you and I do. They want to feel safe. However, they don’t feel safe at home at night. They don’t feel safe on the road when they travel, they don’t feel safe going to church or even going to school. In certain areas, going to church can be a one-way ticket – they may be attacked and killed or kidnapped on the way back.
Muhammadu Buhari was elected in 2015 with the promise to eradicate Boko Haram and bring back law and order. But violence has increased under his presidency. This increased violence is set against a background of climate change, environmental degradation, and population growth. It has pushed the nomadic Fulani herdsmen with their cattle southwards into the central and southern parts of Nigeria.
But there is also past context to consider. In the history of the Fulani people there have been waves of radicalisation combining the conquering of land with expansion of Islam. In recent decades the Fulani have again grown increasingly militant due to the influx of radical Islamic preaching by missionaries from Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Christians see these attacks as a continuation of jihad, seeking an Islamic state throughout Nigeria. There is also a growing culture of intolerance in northern Nigeria towards Christian communities, fuelled and exacerbated by politicians. They are using Islam for political gain to be elected at local and federal levels. They all use strategies to rally people around religion. Poor and illiterate people who have little hope of improving their economic situation are exploited using religious rhetoric in the impoverished northern regions of the country.
Ethnicity and religion play a significant role in Nigerian politics. Politicians try to mobilise support directly and indirectly by appealing to ethnic and religious sentiments. Among the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Hausa and Fulani in the north are predominantly Muslims, the Igbo in the south-east are mainly Christians, while the Yoruba in the south-west have both a significant Muslim and Christian population. Another cause for concern for the Christian population is that since 1999 Sharia law has been imposed in 12 northern states.
The Nigerian government needs to do more to protect its citizens. The international community needs to look at how best to support persecuted Christians. The time has come to reconsider how UK aid is used in Nigeria. Local churches and other faith-based organisations on the ground are the places people are most likely to turn to when they are in need – not only for prayer but for medicine, shelter, and protection.
Thousands have been displaced and are now living in churches, schools and other premises. Open Doors partners support hundreds of on-the-ground responses like this. Churches are generally the first responders in times of crisis, and they are trusted as an integrated and integral part of the community. It is time that this work is acknowledged and supported more widely.
by Illia Djadi, Open Doors senior analyst on freedom of religion and belief in sub-Saharan Africa.
Although all blog posts are reviewed by an editorial team, our blog authors all write in a personal capacity and the views expressed are not necessarily those of HART.