MAKURDI, Nigeria (Morning Star News) – Muslim Fulani herdsmen from Nasarawa state and Islamist mercenaries from outside Nigeria attacked villages in neighboring Benue state on Sunday (Dec. 14), killing five Christians, sources said.
Inhabited almost entirely by ethnic Idoma farmers, the Fulani herdsmen from Nasarawa state, with mercenaries from Chad and Niger, razed several villages, destroying homes and church buildings in the predominantly Roman Catholic Agatu Local Government Area and forcing hundreds of Christians to flee.
Area resident Sule Audu told Morning Star News in Makurdi, the capital of Benue state, that the attacks took place while Christians were in worship services.
“Several houses in communities like Adeka and Olegadeje villages were destroyed,” he said. “In addition, farmlands and properties were also destroyed in the renewed attacks.”
Since the beginning of the year, Christian communities in Agatu have been under attack from bands of armed Muslim Fulani herdsmen. Sunday Oyigadu, a Christian leader in the area, told Morning Star News that in the first six months of this year Muslim Fulani herdsmen attacked 61 Christian communities.
“It is sad that we spent a whole year running helter-skelter from Fulani herdsmen,” Oyigadu said, adding that Christians have been killed or displaced in Ichogoluwu, Oshigbudu, Ogwule, Ocholonga, Adagbo, Okokolo, Adana, Okpancheyi, Egba and Ekwo.
Usually invading from Loko, a predominantly Muslim border town in Nasarawa state, the herdsmen and mercenaries have killed and maimed Christian villagers and destroyed their homes and farms for months, he said.
“The crisis has forced us into seeing the bitter side of life – we no longer have beds to sleep on,” Oyigadu said. “Some of us manage with the mats donated to us by some Christian brethren, and others whose houses were also burned down are still squatting with their relatives in Otukpo town or cities outside Benue state.”
Peter Elaigwu, a Christian resident of the area whose house was destroyed, told Morning Star News that incessant attacks have devastated residents and displaced thousands. Two Christian widows, Ema Okpanachi and Abiye Edo, said their husbands were killed in attacks by the herdsmen, and that after this week’s assault they no longer have homes. They lamented that they have become refugees in their own land.
The Rt. Rev. Michael Apochi, Roman Catholic bishop of Otukpo, told Morning Star News by phone that attacks by Muslim Fulani gunmen have adversely affected churches and Christian ministries.
“Life has become unbearable for Christians, as thousands of our members have been displaced in the past one year of intense attacks by Fulani gunmen and Muslim Islamists,” he said.
On Jan. 19, Fulani herdsmen raided two villages in Benue that left seven Christians dead; a Fulani spokesman said the assailants must have come from elsewhere as there are no Fulani herdsmen known in the area. On January 21, Fulani herdsmen reportedly killed 20 civilians and five soldiers in Benue.
While Muslim Fulani have historically had property disputes with Christian farmers, Christian leaders say attacks on Christian communities in Benue, Nasarawa, Plateau, and Kaduna states by Fulani herdsmen constitute a war “by Islam to eliminate Christianity” in Nigeria.
Fulani herdsmen have long attacked settled Christian farmers in Plateau, Bauchi, Kaduna, Taraba and Adamawa states, but in the past year analysts have begun to see some ties between the assailants and Islamic extremist groups keen to exploit longstanding ethnic, property and religious conflicts.
Christians make up 51.3 percent of Nigeria’s population of 158.2 million, while Muslims account for 45 percent. Those practicing indigenous religions may be as high as 10 percent of the total population, according to Operation World, so the percentages of Christians and Muslims may be less.