Within the last decade, conflict in Nigeria has internally displaced over 2.7 million people and produced nearly 300,000 refugees. The conflict is multifaceted, but Nigeria’s Middle Belt plays a prominent role. There, violence between majority Muslim, ethnically Fulani herdsman and majority Christian farmers of various ethnicities has reached unprecedented levels of frequency and brutality, with over 7,000 deaths since 2015.
The roots of the conflict lie in land-use disputes, but reasons for escalation are complex and varied. To begin, climate change and desertification have decreased the availability of water and suitable grazing land in northern Nigeria, forcing farmers and pastoralists south. Poor resource management by the Nigerian government and the encroachment of large-scale development projects onto grazing lands exacerbate this displacement. These factors, alongside rapid population growth, have intensified resource competition between the communities.
It is also important to view the Middle Belt conflict in the context of Islamic extremism across the Sahel. First, the terrorist organization Boko Haram causes insecurity in the northeast that pushes Fulani populations south even when the environment does not. Secondly, testimony after testimony recount how some Fulani herders have adopted tactics and styles similar to Boko Haram and other Islamic extremists, including using Islamic flags, dressing in military attire, and sending messages to warn communities prior to attacks, a practice that is part of the rules of Islamic jihad. Herders are also becoming increasingly well-armed as porous borders allow the spread of cheap weapons from other states. The increasing coordination, organization, and rampant brutality of these attacks point to the influence of jihadist extremism. However, not all Fulani herders are Fulani extremists, not all herder-farmer conflicts involve terrorism, and even those Fulani herders who do seem to adopt jihadist ideologies in their attacks do not constitute a single centralized terrorist group.
While some have denied the salience of religion in the conflict, its role is demonstrably significant. Testimonies of attacks specifically targeting Christian communities, Christian churches, and Christian leaders are not uncommon. At a press conference hosted by In Defense of Christians (IDC) last month, Benjamin Kwashi, an archbishop in the Anglican Church of Nigeria, noted, “These killings are specifically in Christian villages… Governments of the world don’t want to hear that, including Nigeria’s government, and they always explain it away as farmers and herders clashes.” While there are recorded instances of Christian farmers attacking Muslim Fulani herders and groups like Boko Haram attacking Muslims who do not follow their brand of Islam, empirical evidence shows that Christians are, by a wide margin, asymmetrically affected. Furthermore, historical division along religious lines influences how both groups see the situation, deepening mistrust and exacerbating violence.
Nigeria’s response to the Middle Belt conflict is remarkably poor. The government has proposed some solutions relating to land use reform and engaged in limited consultations with herding and farming communities to discuss solutions. But overall, the Middle Belt conflict does not draw appropriate attention or actions on the part of the government.
First, interest groups and public officials politicize differences between groups. This exacerbates feelings of persecution and correlates with increasing violence in the run-up to elections. Second, representation of Christian communities in senior governmental positions is not adequate. At the IDC press conference, Matthew Kukah Kukah, a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in Nigeria, shared, “We Christians naturally arrive to feel vulnerable because the president himself is a Muslim, [and] all the security chiefs in Nigeria are Muslim, from top to bottom—[this] has never happened in our history.” Third, the government does not properly provide for the security of its people. It deploys an insufficient number of police and army units to counter violence, and cases of security forces directly contributing to violence cloud the presence of even those who are there. Perhaps most worrying is the Nigerian government’s perceived lack of interest in providing justice to affected communities. Beyond failing to protect its citizens, the government fails to investigate and prosecute crimes adequately, if at all.
International Politicization of Narratives
Politicization of Nigeria’s Middle Belt conflict makes it difficult to address. Though data and scholarly research on the issue are lacking, many have made hasty and inflexible conclusions about the different aspects of the conflict. Some ignore religious influences or consider their involvement as mere coincidence. Others deny the reality of environmental and resource-based pressures. At the IDC press conference, Rev. Johnnie Moore, a commissioner on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, said, “Too many human rights organizations and too many governments are using this debate as an excuse for inaction. That is immoral, and it has to stop.” Moving forward, the international community must note that Nigeria is not comprised of monolithic communities and that this is not a homogenous conflict. Sustainable solutions will consider all possible causes and evidence.
For the Nigerian Government
The Nigerian government has at least two responsibilities in this conflict. First, it must provide for the security and protection of its people. This entails increasing the presence of security forces in the Middle Belt and improving security responses through properly equipped and well-trained police and military forces. True protection will also preventatively address drivers of the conflict. For example, the government should ensure that development projects do not encroach upon reserved grazing areas and work with neighboring countries to curb the weapon inflow. The government must also place a priority on religious freedom. This undermines religion-based violence and is integral to the larger goal of deescalating suspicion and tensions between Christians and Muslims.
Second, the government must uphold justice in the land. The requirement to uphold justice is a basic requirement of all governments and a necessary precondition for peace and order. The Nigerian government must pursue justice by investigating, arresting, and prosecuting the conflict’s perpetrators. It must also pursue justice by uplifting the oppressed—facilitating the return of people to their homes, providing support for the displaced, and helping to replace destroyed community infrastructure.
While such recommendations may not be easy for the Nigerian government, they are in its favor. Impunity and inaction undermine not just democracy and freedom, but also the rule of law and political order, which are critical to maintaining the authority and legitimacy of the state.
For the International Community
The international community can do numerous things to help. First, Nigeria needs comprehensive research, data collection, and documentation of atrocities to develop a more accurate picture of the conflict and inform solutions. International academics, think tanks, and non-profit organizations can help meet this need.
Second, state governments can partner with Nigeria to help it build the institutions and capabilities it needs for a peaceful and well-ordered society. For example, states can help train Nigerian security forces and invest in religious freedom initiatives. State governments must recognize that they have a responsibility to international security that, at some point or another, may require international intervention.
Finally, Christians can play an important role in this issue. We must reaffirm the biblical basis for human value and equality and the obligation of all states to protect their populations. We also ought to use our resources and organizing capacity to support our brothers and sisters in Christ and Nigerians in general. Archbishop Kwashi insisted, “We need the help of the world to see the plight of this helpless, poor people in their localities.” We have an obligation to love our neighbors. Let us encourage our churches, our communities, and our governments in support of the Nigerian people.