Do Conditions for Genocide Exist in Nigeria?


By Hassan John, February 2020 


A slow-motion war is underway in Nigeria, warned French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy following a visit to the Middle Belt at the end of 2019. [1] “It is a massacre of Christians, massive in scale and horrific in brutality. And the world has hardly noticed,” he declared. In a video produced for Paris Match the prominent intellectual went as far as to describe the situation as “pre-genocidal”, stirring painful memories of Rwanda, South Sudan and Darfur.


Lévy’s SOS to the world did not go unnoticed – or unchallenged. In an interview, Vincent Foucher, an Africa researcher at the French state-funded CNRS-Sciences Po Bordeaux, went so far as to deny that the conditions for genocide exist in Nigeria, and accused the philosopher of aggravating tensions between Christians and Muslims through his one-sided and wrong-headed argument. Those of us who live on the frontlines of terrorism in Nigeria know very well that the trajectory of violence has reached the point where 'pre-genocidal' is an appropriate way to describe the situation in huge swathes of the country, especially the North-East and the Middle Belt. The danger of targeted killings and massacres morphing into genocide is real.


Most of the death and destruction is wreaked by non-state actors, such as Boko Haram and its spin-offs and networks of Fulani militias. Together, they were responsible for 86% of terrorist-related deaths in 2018, according to the Global Terrorism Index 2019. But while the state may not be the main perpetrator, enough evidence has emerged for the International Criminal Court to launch preliminary investigations to

determine whether the Nigerian military as well as Boko Haram are guilty of crimes against humanity.


Foucher’s denial of a pre-genocide situation is based largely on a dubious legal line of argument. He claims that the state must be the perpetrator and act according to a plan for mass targeted violence against religious or ethnic groups; otherwise it cannot be regarded as genocide. This, of course, is not the case in Nigeria.


Clashing visions of society, rooted in religious outlook, have been an intrinsic part of Nigeria's long history of political conflict


The researcher also largely ignores the highly visible sectarian aspect of the upsurge of violence, preferring instead to portray a complex, largely sectarian situation as a simple conflict over land. This is odd since just about every Nigerian knows that clashing visions of society, rooted in religious outlook, have been an intrinsic part of Nigeria’s long history of political conflict.


The closest Foucher comes to hinting at the existence of a sectarian dimension is to be found in a few oblique references. Regarding internal actors, he writes merely that “certain [unnamed] Nigerian religious and political leaders” try to politicise the situation – not in order to bring about a solution but to mobilise a constituency and networks inside and outside Nigeria. Regarding external forces, Foucher raises an old canard, blaming “American ultra-missionary and violently anti-Muslim evangelism” for fuelling radical Islam. Such rhetoric may go down well in post-Christian Europe, but it dangerously obfuscates an inconvenient reality: Moderate Muslims and traditional believers were

being killed, beheaded and enslaved en masse in the early 19th century by Dan Fodio’s Fulani-led jihad – long before Christian missionaries

had any impact in the country.


In the lands of western neo-imperialism, politically correct narratives and the fear of a backlash including accusations of Islamophobia or hate speech tend to discourage any critical examination of the religious factors behind the Nigerian tragedy. Those who do attempt to examine the

religious element are all too often dismissed as individuals or groups ‘using religion’ to achieve their goals. Many reports therefore prefer to talk about Climate change and the fight for resources as the main cause of the conflict.


[If climate change and the fight for natural resources were the key factors, then the solution would be easy. The Government could simply carve out large cattle ranches in the northern states from where the herdsmen migrate, so they don’t kill women and children from farming

families and take away their land and property just for their cattle. It would be a great economic strategy to set up ranches that would benefit the farmers too allowing them to grow hay and sell it to the herdsmen in return for meat, milk and cheese.]


For Foucher to argue that the targeted killings of thousands of people in Nigeria on the basis of tribe or religious belief and practice does not render the situation pre-genocidal is distressing. It is reminiscent of the Rwandan tragedy where early warning signs were ignored, and regrets and apologies were tendered later. UNICEF, Amnesty International and other non-governmental organisations have recorded thousands of premeditated attacks. There is an abundance of readily available evidence. The Nigerian House of Representatives was not mistaken when it called the attacks in Plateau State genocidal.


To claim, as Foucher does, that the attacks are “not coordinated on a large scale” is inaccurate. The Nigerian Army knows clearly how frustrating it is to engage the Fulani militias in the wide Middle Belt region and Boko Haram in the northeast. The army has lost soldiers in some of these engagements. Eyewitness accounts narrate very effective systematic, precise and well-coordinated attacks. This prompted the call by a former military general, Theophilus Danjuma, to communities to raise and defend themselves or risk being wiped out. Although

Foucher says there is no evidence of it, the former Nigerian Army spokesman, Major General Chris Olukolade, has stated that there is a link between the Fulani herdsmen and Boko Haram.


Many Muslims have acknowledged the targeting of Christians and churches by Boko Haram and Fulani militias. 


It is a fact, as Foucher mentions, that not only Christians have been targeted. A large number of Muslims have also been killed, some in reprisal attacks. Many mosques have been destroyed and Boko Haram has attacked Muslims opposed to its interpretation of the Quran. But Foucher

is wrong in asserting that the attackers’ shout of “allahu akbar!” is the only reason why victims believe their attackers are Muslims. Many Muslims have acknowledged the targeting of Christians and churches by Boko Haram and Fulani militias. There are also many examples of Muslims protecting Christians when the Fulani attacked villages, as was the case in Plateau State. Last year Imam Abubakar Abdullahi received an award from the US government for doing just that.


Boko Haram’s destruction of some 13,000 churches, its refusal to release Leah Sharibu, the Christian Girl who would not recant her Christian faith, its abduction of the predominantly Christian Chibok schoolgirls,  the execution of 10 Christians last Christmas and of Reverend Lawan Andimi in January, with the videos posted online, send a clear message of the sectarian ideology behind its actions.


Foucher demonstrates complete insensitivity to the victims of atrocities by Boko Haram and the Fulani militias who live in a state of perpetual vulnerability. To call the victims’ cry for help an attempt “to politicise the situation” is unacceptable. The French, British and American governments, along with a number of non-governmental organisations, are spending millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money in West Africa Fighting Islamist terrorist groups in the Maghreb and particularly in Nigeria in a bid to stop the unfolding disaster. Yet for Christians in Nigeria to ask these countries to take a more critical look at the manifestly sectarian character of the terrorism is characterized by Foucher as a “dubious cause!”


Vincent Foucher may criticise the findings of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s investigations, but his postulations fall far short of a solution to Nigeria’s tragedy. On the contrary, they will only embolden the violent sectarian extremists to believe that they can commit violence with impunity. Will the world wait until Foucher’s narrow, legal definition of genocide is fulfilled before it reacts?


Hassan John is Canon of the Anglican Diocese of Jos and its Media Director. He is a trained journalist and writes for international media organisations including CNN.


[1] The New War Against Nigeria’s Christians By The Fulani Herdsmen – Wall Street Journal, 20 December 2019