Nigeria in flames: Breaking the cycle of revenge

Nigeria should respect the Fulani’s traditional culture and give them their full human and civil rights as citizens.

A 'level of accommodation and understanding' is required to find a means to peace in Nigeria [EPA]

This article is the eleventh in a series by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, a former Pakistani high commissioner to the UK, exploring how a litany of volatile centre/periphery conflicts with deep historical roots were interpreted after 9/11 in the new global paradigm of anti-terrorism – with profound and often violent consequences. Incorporating in-depth case studies from Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Ambassador Ahmed will ultimately argue that the inability for Muslim and non-Muslim states alike to either incorporate minority groups into a liberal and tolerant society or resolve the “centre vs. periphery” conflict is emblematic of a systemic failure of the modern state – a breakdown which, more often than not, leads to widespread violence and destruction. The violence generated from these conflicts will become the focus, in the remainder of the 21st century, of all those dealing with issues of national integration, law and order, human rights and justice.

Cannibalism, Jihad, al-Qaeda on the rampage, and an apocalyptic war between the forces of Islam and Christianity – What is going on in Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa? In this article, we will explore the answers and set the scene with the recent murder of two Nigerian politicians.

In the city of Jos in the Plateau State of central Nigeria in early July this year, a group of Christian Berom tribesmen gathered together at a somber funeral for over 60 innocent individuals recently murdered in the home of a pastor by Muslim Fulani herdsmen. While in shared mourning, they were descended upon under a rain of bullets from a number of armed men, again Fulani. Twenty more were killed, including two leading Berom politicians: a Nigerian Federal Senator and the Majority Leader of the Plateau State Assembly. In response, a number of Berom, the dominant ethnic group in the area, retaliated the following day by killing any person in the area they identified as Fulani, bringing the weekend’s death toll to over 200.

Despite the bucolic slogan of Plateau State – “The Home of Peace and Tourism” – the area has been plagued by this vicious cycle of violence between the Christian Berom and Muslim Fulani populations for over a decade. As both groups are motivated by codes of revenge and honour, any violent act is set to trigger a series of other bloody counter-attacks.

Acts of cannibalism 

Gunmen target Christian worshippers in Nigeria

Amidst the seemingly sectarian nature of the conflict, the central government’s role, both directly and indirectly, in the violence against the Muslim periphery goes largely unnoticed. The sequence of events above was triggered by the Nigerian security forces who the Fulani associate with the Berom. Shortly before the Fulani attack, the security forces burned to the ground 50 Fulani homes in retaliation for a Fulani herdsman being accused of killing a Nigerian soldier.

The violence has even escalated to unspeakable acts of cannibalism. In the fall of 2011, widely-circulated videos showed the Christian Berom tribesmen eating the charred flesh of Muslim Fulani they had killed and roasted. Visible clearly are several policemen standing back and watching the cannibalistic events unfold. Voices can be heard calling out to the young man with a machete hacking apart a headless and blackened body, “I want the heart” and “Did you put some salt?” 

Many are shocked at the brutality of these attacks, with commentators quick to blame attacks against the Christians on “al-Qaeda-linked” Boko Haram, the murky and undefined group located in northeastern Nigeria among the Muslim Kanuri people. The leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, cited the incidents of cannibalism against the Muslim population in Jos in his defence of the Christmas Day bombings in 2011.

The Fulani as well as the Kanuri could have responded to attacks upon them by means of traditional tribal justice using dialogue through councils of elders or through the religious leadership. They, however, took a route which negated both their tribal and religious traditions, and in the mutation, slaughtered innocent Christians in churches and their homes, including infants. Therefore, their story, their cause and any sympathy for them are lost.

In order, however, to understand the present violence which plagues the heart of West Africa, we must look to the history of this region itself and the place the Fulani herdsmen have held on the periphery of Nigeria. 

Prior to British colonisation, the Fulani had supported the Fulani religious leader Usman Dan Fodio, who claimed descent from the Prophet, in overthrowing the Hausa States and establishing the Sokoto Caliphate in the early 19th century in what is today northern Nigeria. When the British established the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria in 1900, they instituted indirect rule over Sokoto with its Fulani and Hausa inhabitants, relying on the pre-existing state structure and Muslim leadership. Britain even went so far as to declare itself “the greatest Mohammedan Power in the World” in the Nigeria Gazette during World War I in order to bolster support from the Muslim population. In 1914, the British united Northern and Southern Nigeria into a single colony. It proved to be an unhappy marriage. 

Throughout these political changes, the Fulani herdsmen remained firmly on the periphery, continuing to evade taxes and searching for adequate grazing lands for their vast herds of cattle, their sole means of economic livelihood. Major JA Burdon, an early 20th century British administrator in northern Nigeria, spoke of the intense attachment the Fulani have with their cattle: “The herdsmen are peaceful and inoffensive; they became warriors through the necessity for self-defence… trusting for the defence of their treasured herds, their one possession, to neither horses nor armour, but only to their spears and their desperate courage.” Tending their cattle was an important aspect of their code of honour, Pulaaku, or “Way of the Fulani”, which was also a means of providing social order among their nomadic clans.

With independence from Britain in 1960, the national politics of Nigeria was dominated by a series of coups and counter-coups as the major ethnic groups – the Muslim Hausa and settled Fulani in the north, the Christian Yoruba in the south, and the Christian Igbo in the southeast – vied for national dominance, including a deadly civil war in the late 1960s which resulted in the deaths of nearly 2 million people. Apart from this, nearly a hundred other ethnic groups, both Muslim and Christian, found themselves living side by side in the Middle Belt region which serves as the border between the Christian south and Muslim north.

After independence, Fulani herdsmen began to increasingly shift their herds south into the Middle Belt region and establish more permanent settlements. This was largely due to the devastating Sahel drought of the late 1960s and 1970s which greatly reduced both their grazing lands in the north and the size of their herds. In addition, the development of new farming practices in the Middle Belt region during this period decimated the tsetse fly population which was harmful to cattle and previously served as a barrier to the Fulani herds.

‘Revenge missions’ 

Inside Story –
Will Nigeria violence spiral out of control?

With the growing number of Fulani in the Middle Belt, the herdsmen were seen to be “settlers” or outsiders by the indigenous population or “indigenes”, especially the largely Christian Berom farmers. The Berom farmers complained of the destructive presence of cattle on their land and resorted to stealing or killing the herds, often at the cost of the lives of the young Fulani boys who would tend the herds, a traditional means of displaying courage. The Fulani responded to these overtures of violence with equal or greater brutality.

Large scale violence erupted on September 7, 2001 when the palpable tension between Christians and Muslims led to the Jos riots in which over 1,000 people were killed in a week. A Nigerian government investigative committee found that between September 2001 and May 2004, the conflict resulted in the deaths of 53,787 individuals. 

Since 2001, the Fulani have been subject to targeted discrimination by the government and risk being arrested, tortured, or killed as well as seeing their homes destroyed in dragnet operations and “revenge missions” by security forces. In November 2008 after rioting broke out, the Berom Governor of Plateau State implemented a 24-hour curfew and issued the security forces a “shoot-on-sight” directive, resulting in over 130 deaths of almost exclusively unarmed Fulani herdsmen. Any action against the Fulani was often justified on security grounds, with government agencies referring to the Fulani herdsmen as “terrorists”. 

The Plateau State government denied the Fulani any recognition as citizens and attempted to push them out of the region. In May 2009, it was reported that 20,000 Fulani had been expelled from Plateau State into other northwestern states. After the attack on the funeral where the two Berom politicians were killed in July, there were calls from the Berom community to expel all Fulani from Plateau State. Ahmed Idris, a Representative from Plateau State in the Nigerian House of Representatives, referred to these deportations as “ethnic cleansing”.

The losses to Fulani livestock have been equally devastating and represent one of the greatest threats to their identity. The leader of the Fulani organisation Miyetti Allah stated in February 2011 that herdsmen had lost about eight million heads of cattle in the past decade. He warned that for the Fulani, “the race was facing extinction”.

The Fulani ethnic group stretches beyond Nigeria and across West Africa, where the Fulani are variously known as Fulani, Fulbe, Fula, or Peul, and this same conflict which fuels the violence in Plateau State can be found elsewhere. In Ghana, as the Fulani shifted their herds south, vicious battles erupted pitting the Fulani herdsmen against local farmers and the security forces. One Ghanaian MP captured the hostile attitude towards the Fulani when he publically announced in December 2011, “If in the course of defending ourselves they have to die then it is justified. So killing them I personally support it”. 

In order to find a means to peace in a country like Nigeria with such rich ethnic and cultural diversity, a level of accommodation and understanding is required. The government should respect both the Fulani’s traditional culture, including accommodating land needs with designated grazing routes, and give them their full human and civil rights as Nigerian citizens. 

With the Berom and Fulani of the Middle Belt caught in this cycle of revenge, leadership that underlines compassion and non-violence from both their respective faiths, Christianity and Islam, is desperately needed, such as the August 2012 visit of the Catholic Archbishop of Jos, Ignatius Kaigama, to the Jos Central Mosque where he was hosted by its Imam, Sheik Balarabe Dawud. In Archbishop’s words, he intended “to dispel the notion that Muslims and Christians in Plateau State cannot meet”. Only by heeding the message and example of their religious leadership and living up to the ideals of their respective faiths can peace return to the long suffering people of Plateau State and Nigeria. 

Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.  

Harrison Akins is the Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service and is assisting Professor Ahmed on Ahmed’s forthcoming study, The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, to be published by Brookings Press in January 2013.