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Mass grave at Gonan Rogo Nigeria where Fulani militants killed 17 villagers at midnight on May 12. Picture Release International Stefano Foundation
Nigeria: Unfolding genocide? New report by UK parliamentarians highlights growing Islamist nature of the attacks. (Picture Release partner, Stefanos Foundation)

Release International welcomes a new report by UK parliamentarians highlighting the religious element behind much of the growing violence in Nigeria. The report warns of the risk of an unfolding genocide and calls for UK aid to be linked to efforts to protect Nigerian villagers from attacks by Islamist extremists.

The new report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion and Belief, Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide? is the result of an investigation by 100 UK parliamentarians from a wide range of political parties.

It describes attacks on churches and Christians which killed more than 1,000 in 2019. A partner of Release International, which supports victims of violence, estimates 30,000 have been killed since the conflict began in the 1980s. The United Nations put the death toll at 27,000.

Religious dimension

In recent years, Fulani militants have taken over from Boko Haram terrorists as the number-one killers in the region. These herdsmen, searching for grazing lands reduced by global warming, have slaughtered farmers and driven them from their homes.

‘But this is not just about resources,’ says Paul Robinson, the Chief Executive of Release International.

‘This report acknowledges the religious dimension to much of the violence, which can no longer be ignored. This report shows these attacks can no longer be simplistically caricatured and written off as “herder-farmer violence”.’

According to the APPG report, many of those attacks have been carried out by militants shouting ‘Allah u Akhbar’ [Allah is greater] and ‘Destroy the infidels.’ The heavily armed extremists have destroyed more than 500 churches in Benue State alone.

The APPG report urges the world to face up to this religious dimension, however uncomfortable: ‘Commentators must not shy away from describing conflicts as motivated by religion or ideology when that is the case.’

Islamist violence

Adds Paul Robinson: ‘Release joins with British parliamentarians in urging the world to wake up to the unrelenting Islamist violence in Nigeria.’

The report argues that in killing and driving out Christian villagers, the Fulani militants, wittingly or unwittingly, are serving the same agenda as Boko Haram. The stated aim of the terrorist group Boko Haram is to turn Nigeria into an Islamist state. Its spokesman has declared: ‘This war is against Christians.’

The APPG report stated: ‘While not necessarily sharing an identical vision, some Fulani herders have adopted a comparable strategy to Boko Haram and Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) and demonstrated a clear intent to target Christians and symbols of Christian identity such as churches.’

In the APPG report, Co-Chair Baroness Caroline Cox said: ‘While the underlying causes of violence are complex, the asymmetry and escalation of attacks by well-armed Fulani militia upon these predominately Christian communities are stark and must be acknowledged.

‘Such atrocities cannot be attributed just to desertification, climate change or competition for resources, as [the UK] Government have claimed.’

‘Targeted attacks’

And Vice Chair of the APPG, Fiona Bruce MP, added: ‘Targeted attacks against churches and heightening religious tensions indicate that religious identity plays a role in the farmer-herder conflict.’

‘These attacks are taking place with impunity,’ says Paul Robinson. ‘And there is a growing religious dimension to these attacks. Nigeria must act to stop the violence.’

Release has been providing support, including trauma counselling, to victims of violence in Nigeria. Through its international network of missions, Release International is active in some 25 countries around the world, supporting pastors, Christian prisoners and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles, and working for justice.

Read the report on the APPG website here