“Talking about genocide would not be overstating the issue”
Interview with Sarah Ochekpe, Emancipation Centre for Crisis Victims (ECCV), Jos
You are based in Jos, in Plateau State, which has been the scene of many brutal attacks on Christian villages by Muslim Fulani herdsmen. What is the background to the conflict?
Plateau is inhabited by different people of diverse religions but the indigenous population there, made up of the Beroms and other minority tribes, is mostly Christian. There was a time when they all lived peacefully with the Fulani. But with time and the rise of Islamic fundamentalists, this relationship seems to have gone sour. We now have a situation where the Fulani that we knew from way back are conniving with people from outside the communities and the country to attack the local population and displace the locals.
When did this start?
Sometime in 1994, Jos Local Government Council was split by the military government of the time to create Jos North, Jos South and Jos East local government councils. This action was viewed with great suspicion by the local indigenous population who openly protested, especially
when a Fulani man was appointed to preside over the council as chairman. The matter came to a head about 20 years ago. In 2001, barely two years into the civilian democratic administration, there was a massive attack concentrated on the Berom and non-Muslim populations of the Jos-Bukuru area. Many Christian places of worship were set ablaze, houses and business premises were destroyed, and many lives were lost. The dispute centred on the ownership of Jos city and the control of the local administration.
Between 2008 and 2010, the crisis escalated again following local council elections. The destruction was much greater, and this led to some shifts in the settlement patterns in the city where Christians seemed to have moved to areas they considered safe and the Muslims did
In response, different administrations in Plateau State set up commissions of inquiry to determine the root causes of the incessant crises. One of the outcomes was the definition of who is considered indigenous to Jos and who is not. The Justice Fiberesima Judicial Commission distinguished between indigenes and citizens. It acknowledged that an indigene was one whose forebears were natives of Jos while a citizen was one whose parents and grandparents had migrated from elsewhere and settled in Jos.
With time, the attacks led by Fulani herdsmen have shifted from mostly urban areas to rural areas, and in the process many villages and communities have been displaced. To ensure peaceful coexistence between all ethnic nationalities and religious groupings in the Jos
area, the government decided to set up a military task force, Operation Safe Haven. But that seems not to have helped much because we have seen situations where military personnel tend to allow the Fulani to do whatever they want, including grazing on people’s farmlands, destroying crops before they are ready to harvest, and attacking villages without being repelled. The Fulani have become more militant, in terms of the more sophisticated weapons they use, much of which are brought in from outside. There is a growing fear that a linkage exists between the herdsmen and Boko Haram.
Is it your belief too that there is a linkage?
We believe so because of the manner of attack on the villages and the weapons used. From media reports, it is common knowledge that Boko Haram has on several occasions attacked military positions and taken over military weapons, and from the shells that are sometimes gathered
from the scenes of attacks we see that they are customised military bullets. But some local communities have also directly accused the military of being complicit because they know and have recognised military officers who have been directly involved in attacks against them.
Is it possible to say the Fulani have an Islamist agenda like Boko Haram?
Nigeria’s experience with the Fulani is that they have sought to establish their dominance using Islam right from the days of the jihad in the 19th century when the Fulani Islamic leaders led by Usman dan Fodio waged a jihad on the Hausa states and took over their administration by setting up Fulani emirates and installing Fulani emirs in the Hausa communities. So we see this as a resuscitation of that desire to dominate the people.
And this is not only happening in the Middle Belt. The Fulani are moving southward to predominantly Christian communities. They often come with herds of cattle and try to take over farmland and forests in the name of grazing. In many such places, people can’t go to farm now because they are afraid of being attacked and this will eventually affect the level of food production in many communities.
This suggests that there’s an organisation behind the Fulani that is directing what they are doing.
From the nature of the attacks we feel there must be some coordinated action somewhere. We may not be able to pin it down but something is happening and of late some Fulani-based organisations have laid claims to some of the attacks.
Would it be correct to use the term ‘genocide’ when talking about what is happening to Christians?
I think talking about genocide would not be overstating the issue. In 2010 there was a massive attack on the village of Gyenburuk (Dogo-Nahawa) in the Jos South local government area. In one night more than 200 people were killed - children, the crippled, women and men. I visited the village the very next day and it was a terrible sight. And these were purely Christian communities, so it’s as if somebody intended to wipe them out. There have been attacks like that on other villages, also in southern Kaduna, Adamawa, Benue and Taraba states and in some parts of Niger and Nasarawa states. It’s a deliberate targeting of Christian and non-Muslim populations.
In the Boko Haram area of the northeast we’ve seen attacks on both Christians and Muslims. There we may say it is one brand/sect of Islam against another and against Christianity. But in the Middle Belt it’s purely against Christians. We have cases in Jos of churches being bombed. So, if you go to the churches now you see there are barricades and vigilantes, including the military and the police guarding worshippers on Sundays.
Have the Fulani tactics changed?
Yes, instead of large-scale attacks, such as the one that occurred in June 2018 when more than 20 villages were targeted and invaded, attacks are now more frequent but on a smaller scale. And the attackers are now concentrating more on farms because this is the economic strength of the people; they know that the only way to get the people on their knees is to destroy the crops which are ready to be harvested. They don’t want the farmers to harvest and so are destroying the crops, which means they are destroying the farmers’ source of food and income, making them vulnerable to hunger and rendering them destitute.
There are regular reports of abductions in Nigeria. Is this also happening in Jos?
Yes, abductions/kidnapping are becoming very prevalent now. We’ve had reports of kidnappers going right into people’s houses and taking the children or women and insisting on a ransom being paid. When you travel on the highway you run the risk of being stopped by kidnappers, and even in the streets people are apprehensive. Sometimes even public transportation is attacked.
The government has talked about introducing Ruga (rural grazing) settlements for Fulani herdsmen and a National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP). Do these offer any kind of solution to the problem, assuming that a lack of grazing land is the main issue for the Fulani?
Ordinarily, these programmes should offer a way forward but Nigerians are suspicious of the actions of government. Nigeria is bedeviled by so many problems and we wonder why the government would single out this particular issue and spend so much time and money on it when there has been a public outcry by the many non-Fulani people who form the majority. There is a high rate of youth unemployment, boundary conflicts, issues of poor infrastructure, a low standard of education etc. One would have thought the government should pay equal attention to these issues.
And if Ruga is going to be a solution you don’t have to have Ruga or livestock transformation in every state of Nigeria, you can have it in the states where the Muslims and Fulani are predominant. If the problem is water, the government can invest in developing more water
infrastructure, including water transfer, by laying pipes to convey water from the south to the north and helping people to settle in those areas. But insisting on having Ruga in every state creates suspicion and raises tensions because there are some states with a lot of land and some states that don’t have sufficient land to implement it.
But if the states in the north implement Ruga and provide grazing areas for Fulani will that not make a difference by stopping them from migrating southwards?
Just now the migration southwards is suspicious because our borders seem to be porous and there are people coming into Nigeria from Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso. That’s why the other ethnic groups in Nigeria are suspicious of the government’s intentions, questioning why this migration is going on unhindered, and asking whether it is to displace the indigenous people or to change the demography of Nigeria.
You were a minister in the government of Goodluck Jonathan. If you were a minister now, what would you be trying to get the government to do?
If I was still in government, I would advocate that our policies should promote the greater good of all ethnic nationalities in Nigeria, and a more harmonious relationship between the different groupings; because our beauty and our strength should be in our diversity.
Nigeria is by its constitutional provision a secular state. However, in terms of government patronage and appointments one group or a section of the country seems to have the lion’s share of such opportunities. We have also observed in recent times in the Middle Belt that government appointments from the different tribal groupings are given first to indigenous Muslims even if they are in the minority. So, it appears there is a
deliberate policy to promote Islam but under the dominance of the Fulani.
Are there ways in which the West can put Buhari under pressure to end the conflict?
Western nations and global institutions have slammed sanctions on Nigeria in the past, during the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha in the 1990s. With the looming humanitarian crisis that could erupt if the forceful migration of Fulani and their herds is not properly managed, these Western nations and global institutions need to encourage the government of Nigeria to do the needful to address the fear of a large section of the county and tackle the problems at hand. And if nothing is done, then they should consider the option of sanctions. I don’t see why they can’t impose sanctions, if that would result in some positive action.
Sarah Ochekpe is a former government minister (2011 - 2015) and current chairperson of the board of Emancipation Centre for Crisis Victims (ECCV) that provides assistance to those displaced by the sectarian conflict in the Middle Belt of Nigeria.
 Plateau massacre, retaliation for lost 300 cows – Miyetti Allah, Vanguard 26 June 2018: