LAGOS — The United Nations is ignoring repeated calls for help in resolving a resource war between largely Christian farmers and mainly Muslim herders in Kaduna, a state in northwest Nigeria. The conflict has been smoldering since 2011 and now, fanned by climate change, threatens to burst into flame.
Violence in northwestern Nigeria killed more than 8,000 people between 2011 and 2020 and displaced more than 200,000 others, according to figures compiled by the International Crisis Group. The organization blamed armed “herder allied” groups, vigilantes, criminal gangs and jihadists and traced the violence — including kidnapping, village raids and cattle rustling — to competition over resources between predominantly Muslim Fulani herders and predominantly Christian farmers.
Confrontations in the state of Kaduna have spiraled into ongoing feuds, with the Nigerian military still unable to restore confidence and calm. Residents who were displaced can’t return home and many more are still fleeing their homes. Just last week, a priest and eight others were kidnapped in southern Kaduna.
As climate change is intensifying and desertification worsening in the Sahel region of West and Central Africa, herders outside Nigeria can cross unchecked into southern Kaduna and other parts of north-central Nigeria, where their cattle go after crops. Clashes have been reported in the south as well, signaling growing conflict on many fronts.
Yet much of the world has remained silent since 2019, when Agnès Callamard, then a UN special rapporteur, spent 12 days in Nigeria. After meeting with numerous public officials and private citizens, she issued a statement saying, “The warning signs are flashing bright red: increased numbers of attacks and killings . . . increased criminality and spreading insecurity; widespread failure by the federal authorities to investigate and hold perpetrators to account, even for mass killings; a lack of public trust and confidence in the judicial institutions and state institutions . . . [and] toxic ethno-religious narratives and ‘extremist’ ideologies.” The poorest Nigerians were being hit particularly hard, she added.
Callamard had visited the cities of Abuja (the capital), Benue and Plateau in the north-central region, Lagos in the southwest, Rivers in the south-south and Borno in the northeast. At the time, Benue and Plateau were experiencing farmer-herder clashes as well, with attacks in Benue almost as frequent as those in Kaduna. Although Callamard did not visit Kaduna, she described the rhetoric used by government officials there to explain the violence as “short-sighted.”
“Those conflicts are often framed as a struggle by Christian Nigerians to preserve their indigenous lands against a religious and ethnic ‘invasion,’ rhetoric condoned by many in positions of authority, particularly at the federal level,” she said. “That widespread narrative, which can be used to justify far greater violence in the region, is remarkably short-sighted, offering little prospect for an effective way to address what are conflicts over scarce resources.”
Callamard’s visit came three years after the Human Rights Council, an intergovernmental body in the UN system, asked her to investigate “violations of the right to life” and allegations of arbitrary killings in certain parts of Nigeria. Callamard’s examination and others indicated that the movement of gun-carrying herders in northwest Nigeria and the increased flow of small and light weapons across the Sahel region of West Africa were leaving lasting damage in farming communities across Nigeria. (Callamard was the special rapporteur on extrajudicial summary or arbitrary executions from August 2016 to March 2021; she now heads Amnesty International.)
In southern Kaduna, which has a history of ethnic tensions, clashes began in 2011 after the Independent National Electoral Commission declared Goodluck Jonathan of the People’s Democratic Party winner of the presidential election, beating Muhammadu Buhari, who ran under the Congress for Progressive Change party.
This pronouncement touched off conflict, and within days, Human Rights Watch reckoned, 800 people were killed, roughly 680 in Kaduna and the rest in 11 other northern Nigerian states. Supporters of Buhari, mainly Muslims who would later oust Jonathan, went on a rampage, butchering Christians, burning tires, looting shops, razing churches and attacking People’s Democratic Party offices as well as other properties, Human Rights Watch said. In retaliation, more than 500 people — mostly Muslim — were murdered in Christian-dominated areas of Kaduna.
“As they were burning our houses, they were busy shouting that since we chose Buhari over Jonathan, we should go and call him to build back our houses,” Musa Isa, who now lives in Kano State, also in the north, told PassBlue. Isa, who is originally from Kaduna and survived being shot in 2011, is sure that along with two of his eight children, he was shot by Christians, who also burned mosques and say they are the indigenous people of the arable southern Kaduna land.
Although the Nigerian federal security agencies gained some control within three days, the mayhem triggered dormant ethnic conflicts in southern Kaduna. Tensions remained high in this half of the state and have stayed so ever since.
Fanning the flames
By the end of Jonathan’s first year in office, reports of gun-carrying cattle herders in rural communities began to surface. From then through the end of 2016, according to a statement to the news media on Dec. 29 that year by three Catholic priests, “the herdsmen and their ilk turned the towns into killing fields and killed mostly women, children and the elderly, who couldn’t run for cover.” They said 808 people died, 16 churches were burned and 1,422 houses destroyed.
“The level of barbarity was such that pregnant women got their wombs blown out and massacred before their children,” the statement said. “And these innocent children were not spared either.”
The attacks occurred in communities in Jema’a, Kaura, Kauru and Sanga, all in Kaduna state. Dan Azumi, a native of Sanga, said in January 2017 that the town had escaped earlier sparks of ethnic and religious violence, but after the post-election violence in 2011 residents started hearing that Fulani cattle herdsmen were sighted around their communities, bearing assault rifles.
“The viciousness of these self-styled jihadists sends shivers into the spines of our traumatized people,” the priests said. “In the Godogodo and Pasakori attacks, the military merely watched and supervised the burning of our homes. When the youths mobilized to repel the attackers, the soldiers deliberately blocked them from entering the town.”
Federal and state agencies as well as other officials disputed the priests’ figures. The National Emergency Management Authority said deaths numbered around 200.
Following the priests’ revelations in late 2016, a civil rights organization called the Social Economic Rights Accountability Project (Serap) petitioned Callamard to look into the violence.
Mark Jacobs, a former state commissioner of justice in Kaduna, told PassBlue in a recent interview that he made a presentation to the Human Rights Council in Geneva but was informed that the information his team had gathered did not follow the council’s style.
“We believe the government at that time was instrumental in watering down whatever we were presenting,” Jacobs ventured, adding that the council preferred to believe state-backed “narratives” over individuals’ testimony. One narrative, he said, was that the attacks were not unprovoked and religiously based, but rather communal and criminal reprisals.
“The data was and remains very unchallenged,” Jacobs said. “Communities without any history of conflict with any other person or tribe were asleep, and the community will be surrounded, people will be killed, houses will be targeted and burnt. There will be a selection of houses. In cases where there are Muslims in certain communities, those Muslims will be spared.”
Today, he said, “many villages have been abandoned. Many villagers that have attempted to go back have been taken captive.”
In March 2021, before stepping down to become secretary-general of Amnesty International, Callamard told the Human Rights Council, “Attacks on both sides are part of seemingly endless retaliations, tit for tat, and have a devastating economic impact, resulting in food shortages and malnutrition.”
Three months later, in her observations to the 47th session of the Council, she added, “In the so-called farmer-herder conflicts, the security response — and the lack thereof — appears to have added new grievances and fostered further distrust, without either curbing the insecurity or providing better protection for the local population, particularly in isolated areas.” (Callamard, who is traveling, did not respond to a request for comment.)
Jacob’s account, meanwhile, tallied with what Azumi, the resident of Sanga, said in 2016. His area had escaped major violence dating as far back as 1987, he relayed, but in 2011 the harmonious dwelling of residents and Hausa and Fulani settlers in Sanga was shattered.
“Government will come out to speak as though explaining the situation,” Jacobs said, echoing the sentiments of southern Kaduna natives, “speaking as though they are the spokesperson of the attackers.”
Kaduna’s governor, Nasir El-Rufai, told journalists on Dec. 3, 2016, that his government did not understand the catalyst for killings in southern Kaduna the previous year, when he took office. He said an investigation commissioned by his government found that the killings were revenge for the post-election violence in 2011.
“Some of them were from Niger, Cameroon, Chad, Mali and Senegal,” he said. “Fulanis are in 14 African countries, and they traverse this country with cattle.”
He added: “So many of these people were killed, cattle lost, and they organized themselves and came back to revenge.”
“We got a group of people that were going round trying to trace some of these people in Cameroon, Niger republic and so on, to tell them that there is a new governor who is Fulani like them and has no problem paying compensations for lives lost and he is begging them to stop killing,” he said.
In 2018, amid killings and retaliatory strikes, the governor pushed a motion to turn four Christian-dominated chiefdoms into emirates. That May, he designated the chief of Kauru, a government in Southern Kaduna, as emir of the Kauru Emirate Council. El-Rufai’s moves reportedly worsened the division. The Adara people, the second-largest ethnic group in Kaduna state, issued statements accusing the governor of attempting to weaken non-Muslim traditional institutions. One of its chiefs, Maiwada Raphael Galadima, was assassinated while returning from a meeting with the governor to douse tensions triggered by the proposed emiratization in 2018. No arrests apparently were made.
Despite repeated findings, no commission of inquiry or fact-finding mission has been launched by the UN or any other international body to ascertain the degree of the conflicts and their potential consequences. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights did not respond to PassBlue’s asking whether a fact-finding mission will be conducted in southern Kaduna.
The Human Rights Council, which often works in partnership with the UN human rights commissioner’s office, carries out investigations through several channels, such as a resolution authorizing a fact-finding mission or a mapping exercise, or through a commission ordered by the UN secretary-general or by the Security Council.
Since 1992, the Human Rights Council has commissioned 17 investigations in Africa, five of them in West Africa. None has looked into the conflict driven by scarce resources, which is affecting food security in the Sahel region of the continent, particularly in the west.
Nigeria’s 33-grain silos can hold 1.36 million metric tons of foodstuffs, but in August those silos held only 60,000 metric tons. With farmers in the arable territory, including southern Kaduna, unable to reach their land, Nigeria’s food situation could turn dire soon, worsened by rising food prices and Russia’s war in Ukraine — and climate change.
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Damilola Banjo is a staff reporter for PassBlue. She has a master’s of science degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. in communications and language arts from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. She has worked as a producer for NPR’s WAFE station in Charlotte, N.C.; for the BBC as an investigative journalist; and as a staff investigative reporter for Sahara Reporters Media.