Nigerian herders kill 33, burn 4 churches days after kidnapping schoolchildren

'This is religious persecution. We must call it that. I have 1,000 reasons to believe so,' said a local leader.

A herdsman leads cows through streets in Abuja, Nigeria, in November 2020. Photo by Audu King/Creative Commons

NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) — Barely a week after the kidnapping of nearly 140 students at a Baptist boarding school in Nigeria’s northwestern state of Kaduna, a fresh terrorist attack in the region has left at least 33 people dead and four churches and hundreds of homes burnt down, according to Luka Binniyat, a spokesman for the civil society organization Southern Kaduna People’s Union.

The attackers have been described as Fulani herdsmen — nomadic cattle farmers whose livelihoods have been under threat in recent years as drought has dried up their usual grazing areas. Since 2016, 108 farming communities in southern Kaduna have been displaced in land-grabbing campaigns allegedly by Fulani raiders.

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In the most recent attack, assailants laid siege for six days in the region, storming homes and looting foodstuffs and valuables before setting houses ablaze, according to local sources, along with Roman Catholic, Anglican and evangelical Christian churches.

“I am angry. I am worried. Someone is sleeping in their job while thousands of innocent people are being massacred” said the Rev. John Joseph Hayab, who is the chairman of the Christian Association of Nigeria’s Kaduna chapter. “What’s more worrying is that those who are carrying out the attacks are not being arrested.”

The 33 dead were members of the Aytap ethnic group in a locally governed area called Zangon Kataf.

Nigeria, red, located in Africa. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Nigeria, red, located in Africa. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Of Kaduna’s 6.1 million residents, some 60% are Muslim Hausa-Fulani herders, mostly living in the north of the state. The remaining 40%, are predominantly Christian farmers. In 2000, state authorities introduced Sharia law, spurring tensions between the two groups. The change contradicted the country’s 1999 national constitution, which declared Nigeria a secular state.

Christians accuse Muslim herders of torching farmland, while the herders accuse the Christian farmers of killing their livestock.  

As violence between the groups has intensified, Christian leaders have complained that followers were bearing the brunt of the herdsmen’s dislocation, as churches are burnt and pastors and ordinary Christians killed or kidnapped for ransom. They reject experts’ conclusions that the conflict is over land use, saying the herdsmen are targeting Christians for their faith.

“This is religious persecution. We must call it that. I have 1,000 reasons to believe so,” said Hayab.

On July 5, terrorists abducted students from Bethel Baptist Church High School on the outskirts of the state capital after overpowering security officers. Scores of the students have escaped, but 125 are still in captivity. 

“These are innocent children of Nigerians who left the confines of their parents in pursuit of education and a better tomorrow,” said the Rev. Samson Ayokunle, the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, in a statement.

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Before this latest abduction, at least 950 children had been abducted from their school by armed men since December, according to a July 7 report from UNICEF. In the six weeks going back to the end of May alone, more than 500 had been abducted in separate incidents in central and northwest parts of Nigeria. The children have never been found. Similarly, 100 of the 276 mainly Christian girls kidnapped from a school in the town of Chibok in Borno State in 2014 have never been found.

In June, President Buhari admitted he had failed to quell attacks by Boko Haram, the northern Nigeria Islamist militant group, which began its insurgency in 2009. Christian leaders now say they want him to act.

“We are telling him: We have heard your numerous speeches, but now we want action. Evoke your power as head of state and commander in chief and arrest these criminals. We know they can be defeated,” said Hayab.

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