In the first half of this year, according to Open Doors, 1,300 people were killed, and more than 30,000 displaced in Nigeria. These mostly Christian people are facing rapidly increasing persecution from a nomadic Islamic people called the Fulani herdsmen. This month, Open Doors is directing all donations to people helping those affected by the crisis.
Tim Reid spoke to 20Twenty’s Neil Johnson to explain who the Fulani are, why this problem is escalating, and how Open Doors is working with the local church to help those in need. Read on, or listen to the podcast of their conversation below.
If you would like to listen to the full audio interview click play below
Nigeria, which sits just below the Sahara Desert, is a divided country. ‘In the North of Nigeria, you have a mostly Islamic population,’ explained Tim Reid from Open Doors, ‘whereas in the south of Nigeria, it is majority Christian.’
In the last few years, Open Doors and other groups have seen a rapid increase in the number of clashes between Christian farmers and the mostly Islamic Fulani herdsmen.
Unfortunately, where the Fulani are attacking is in the Middle Belt region of Nigeria, and so we’re starting to see a shift.
Where once there was just persecution in the north, it seems to now be heading south.
‘The Fulani herdsman are part of an ethnic group which is larger, called the Hausa Fulani, and the Hausa Fulani people are a nomadic group who exist in a few countries, though their largest contingent is certainly in Nigeria.’
For thousands of years, the Fulani have been herding cattle in their own region in Nigeria’s north. But due to climate change, that land is becoming increasingly desolate, and can no longer support their cattle.
‘These herders have been driven further and further south over time, and that is what’s brought them into direct conflict with the Christians in this region, who are mostly farmers.’
Reid says these Christians are often easy targets. As more and more Muslims migrate south, the Christian population is slowly becoming a minority. The Nigerian government, meanwhile, is preoccupied with problems elsewhere.
‘We’ve seen that, in particular, the government has been wrapped up in a campaign to try and defeat Boko Haram, in the far north of the country. And with that has meant that most of the resources of the army have been directed there.’
‘And so when these Fulani herdsmen have come south into areas where there’s Christian farmers, they’ve come with weapons of their own, and they’ve encouraged their cows to graze on some of the crops of the Christian farmers. When that happens, the Christians will try and drive the cows away, which is often responded to with incredible violence.’
The issue of Christian persecution was raised by Donald Trump earlier this year, when Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari visited the Whitehouse. ‘The problem of cattle herders is a very long historical problem,’ Buhari admitted. ‘Before now, cattle herders were known to carry sticks and machetes… but these ones are carrying AK-47s.’
Tim Reid agrees that the increasing militarisation of the Fulani is making the conflict more brutal. ‘One of the real concerns that we’ve had in particular is that these Fulani herdsmen have very sophisticated weaponry.
We have no idea where it’s come from, but it appears that these groups have been armed, and this weaponry is being used against these Christian farmers.’
After Fulani attacks in June in Plateau State, President Buhari condemned the bloodshed, deployed more police officers, and declared a curfew in hope of curbing the violence. But he has been accused of sympathy for the herdsmen, thanks to his own Fulani roots.
‘Because of the under-resourced army, and the distinct lack of any kind of police presence as well, there’s been very little response to when these herdsmen come down violently. And entire Christian villages have been totally driven off their land.’
In the last 12 months, according to Open Doors, more than 50 villages have been attacked by the Fulani herdsmen. ‘Just this year, January to June, we’ve seen 1,300 people killed, and 30,000 people displaced.’
But Reid says God is working through the local churches, which are opening their doors to take in some of these displaced people. ‘We’re seeing a lot of Christians who are caring for one another at the moment,’ he said.
But there are many more displaced people than the church can support, and many more in imminent danger of losing their land. ‘The numbers are too high for any one church, and there’s a lot of people who are in very desperate need of care.’
‘Also, these communities are quite torn apart at the moment, with 1,300 people killed. Many villages are able to say 15 to 20 people in our village were killed in one night. We’re terrified.’
Open Doors is directing all donations made in August toward programs designed to help Christians who have suffered persecution in Nigeria. Having worked there for a number of years, they’ve developed strong relationships with a network of reliable churches in a variety of denominations. ‘And all are trying their hardest to work together,’ Reid said.
So people who give to this appeal in the month of August will be helping further those efforts to bring the church together, to provide coordinated responses.
‘It goes towards emergency aid, like food and shelter, but it also goes towards helping rebuild some of the infrastructure which has been destroyed over time, because some areas are no longer impacted. Also areas which have been impacted by other violence. There is rebuilding that can happen, and there’s schools which can be opened.’
‘So all of those donations go towards helping restore these communities, and help Christians who want to stay in these regions.’
Open Doors are hoping to raise $100,000 for persecuted Christians in Nigeria throughout August. Visit their website to give to their appeal.