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Christmas Massacres Challenge Secular Explanations of Nigeria Conflict

Religious animosity mixed with farmer-herder tensions continue to plague Christians in beleaguered Middle Belt region.
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Christmas Massacres Challenge Secular Explanations of Nigeria Conflict
Image: Kim Masara /AFPTV / AFP / Getty Images
Families in Maiyanga bury in a mass grave relatives killed in deadly Christmas attacks conducted by armed groups in Nigeria's central Plateau State, on December 27, 2023.

At least 140 Nigerian Christians were killed over the Christmas holiday.

Attacks on 26 villages in Plateau State began December 23, led by suspected extremists among Fulani Muslim herdsman against Christian farming communities. Some media reports cite nearly 200 dead, with many missing as local residents fled from gunmen into the bush.

Grace Godwin was preparing Christmas Eve dinner when her husband burst in with news from the neighboring village, ordering her and the children into the fields. Rebecca Maska similarly took cover but was shot and bled for three hours until help arrived, while her son had his hand chopped off with a machete before escaping. Magit Macham dragged his wounded brother to safety and hid overnight until the attackers moved on.

“These attacks have been recurring,” Macham told Reuters, having returned home from the regional capital of Jos to celebrate Christmas. “They want to drive us out of our ancestral land.”

For years, violence has plagued the West African nation’s Middle Belt, where a predominantly Muslim north intersects with a predominantly Christian south. Land rights issues are also contested, as seminomadic cattle herders press against settled agrarian hamlets in Africa’s most populous nation.

The Christmas massacres were the worst attacks since 2018. A local publication tallied an additional 201 deaths in Plateau State in the first half of 2023. Across the Middle Belt, at least 2,600 people were killed in 2021, according to the most recent data by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.

The Northern Governors’ Forum called the attacks “reprehensible and heinous.” It was further condemned by the national Muslim organization Jama’atu Nasril Islam, which called the attacks “barbaric” but within the context of a “cycle of violence.”

The chairman of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association, however, blamed the “whole problem” on an alleged incident of cattle rustling in which three Fulani cow breeders were killed. But the report was downplayed by the head of a multi-security task force in Plateau State, who linked it to an initial incident of cows grazing in a potato field.

Chased away by farmers, the parties agreed to negotiate a settlement, he said.

“I know we have been having a series of problems with the herders in the area,” stated Mahanan Matawal, a local official. “[But] even if cattle were rustled somewhere different from our communities, we should not be blamed for the atrocities.”

Some analysis has linked tensions to climate change, and Maria Lozano, a representative for Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic relief group, stated there were many factors in the ongoing strife. But the timing of this specific attack had “religious undertones.”

Polycarp Lubo, chairman for the Plateau chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), said the assailants sent letters to the villages warning them they “will not celebrate Christmas, but run away with their rice.” He expressed surprise that security was not able to act on such advanced warning.

Gideon Para-Mallam, chairman of the Para-Mallam Peace Foundation, expressed exasperation with secular explanations.

“A terrible genocide is taking place in Plateau State, but it is being window-dressed to look like a clash between farmers and herders,” he stated. “Sadly, false and misleading narratives are created while rivers of blood continue to flow.”

Calling the attack a deliberate land grab meant to eliminate the Christian population, the former Lausanne Movement regional director said that 5,000 people were displaced and eight churches burned down. Two clerics were killed, including Baptist pastor Solomon Gushe and nine members of his family.

Open Doors ranks Nigeria No. 6 on its annual World Watch List of countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. In 2022, it tallied 5,014 Nigerian believers killed because of their faith. And since 2009, Intersociety, a Nigerian nongovernmental organization, stated that at least 52,000 Christians and 34,000 moderate Muslims have been killed by jihadist forces. Additionally, 18,000 churches and 2,200 Christian schools have been burned down.

Last year, dozens were killed in church on Pentecost Sunday.

Para-Mallam hopes the Plateau State atrocity will be a “turning point,” and stated the military response prevented the death toll from reaching the thousands. Even so, security policy must shift from damage control to proactive prevention of conflict.

Catholic bishop Mathew Hassan Kukah appealed to Nigerian president Bola Tinubu, who was sworn in last May.

“You have what you prayed for, what you dreamt of, what you longed for,” Kukah stated. “Now is harvest time. … Under your watch, we must end the ugly instrumentalization of religious, ethnic, or regional identities.”

Tinubu immediately ordered provision of humanitarian aid to the area and vowed that “these envoys of death, pain, and sorrow will not escape justice.”

Amnesty International’s branch in Nigeria, however, called for an independent investigation, stating that Tinubu’s promises to combat insecurity have so far proved empty. Such “brazen failures,” it accused, “are gradually becoming the norm.”

And according to some analysis, the security response has further enflamed violence. In unrelated action in Nigeria’s northwest region, soldiers are accused of burning down the houses and villages of terrorist fighters. But as soon as the army leaves the area, emboldened fighters take revenge on innocent residents.

An additional 16 people were killed on Christmas in the northern Sokoto State.

The northwest Kaduna State, however, witnessed a holiday event that illustrates both the difficulty of military deterrence and a challenged religious harmony. Earlier in December, over 100 Muslims were killed, when the army mistakenly targeted their village in a bombing campaign against terrorists.

On Christmas, they celebrated with Christians in the neighborhood church.

CAN president Daniel Okoh lamented more than the loss of life.

“We mourn with the families, friends, and communities who tragically lost their loved ones,” he stated. “[This] is not only a criminal act, but also a direct assault on our shared values of peace, unity, and mutual respect.”

No group claimed responsibility for the attacks.

“This indeed has been a gory Christmas for us,” said Plateau State governor Caleb Mutfwang. “Until we cut off the supply in terms of sponsorship, we may never be able to see the end of this.”

[ This article is also available in español. ]

January/February
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