ROME – Illustrating the crisis gripping Africa’s most populous nation ahead of national elections next year, one Nigerian Catholic priest claimed Saturday that he buried 18 parishioners over the past year who died amid inter-communal violence, and that his own community was homeless for a year.
In a jab at those who would counsel priests against such public denunciations of government failures to provide security, Father Cyriacus Kamai added, “Someone will say you are a priest, don’t be involved in politics. We will fight for our people.”
By “our people,” Kamai appeared to have in mind primarily members of the Kuteb ethnic group, who make up a sizeable chunk of the population of the northeastern Nigerian state of Taraba, where they are under increasing pressure from largely Fulani herdsmen seeking to claim lands in the area for grazing.
“Kuteb people are under attack right now in Taraba State,” Kamai wrote in a series of tweets dispatched Saturday, Aug. 6.
“2023 will be a vote to be alive or die,” he wrote, referring to next year’s elections. “We will fight for our people with no fear of intimidation by anybody. After all, we are just but moving corpses.”
According to the African Center for Strategic Studies, there have been more than 15,000 deaths since 2010 as a result of violence between farmers and herders over land use, with most of the carnage concentrated in West and Central Africa, with Nigeria as a particular hotspot. Of the casualties, half have come since 2018 alone.
Although the roots of such conflict may be economic, the analysis concludes, “it is often amplified by the emotionally potent issues of ethnicity, religion, culture, and land. Militant Islamist groups have instrumentalized such divisions to inflame grievances, thereby driving recruitment.”
In the case of Nigeria, the Fulani herdsmen are largely Muslim while many farmers are Christian, adding an explicitly religious dimension to the conflict.
“Most livestock herders have no association with extremist groups and are often victims of their actions. Nonetheless, once the genie of inter-communal conflict is unleashed, passions take over,” the center’s analysis said.
“Attacks become deadlier, expulsions more frequent, and reprisals extend to communities not immediately linked to the initial flashpoint,” it said. “The stakes quickly shift from questions over resource access or local politics to deep-seated notions of identity. Entire communities are labeled bandits, insurgents, or terrorists.”
Speaking at a recent meeting of African bishops in late July, Cardinal John Onaiyekan of Nigeria, the former Archbishop of Abuja, faulted the country’s government for failing to respond adequately to the violence.
“There is great insecurity throughout the country, people are being killed every day; bandits and terrorists seem to have a free hand,” Onaiyekan said. “We don’t know where the security forces are.”
Onaiyekan stressed that he doesn’t see the violence in terms of Christians v. Muslims.
“They are killing more Muslims than Christians, which confirms that this is not a war of Muslims against Christians,” he said. “Many Muslims are suffering as much as we are.”
“We have the certainty that more Muslims are dying than Christians because the center of the violence is in the Muslim-dominated northern states,” Onaiyekan said.
Kamai’s Taraba State has become an epicenter for the violence.
Last month, a member of the state’s House of Assembly claimed that 25 villages had been looted and burned in his district alone in herdsmen attacks, leaving a large number of people essentially homeless.