For more than 25 years Rev Koppah Seboh Shiktuun has been sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with Fulani herdsmen in Nigeria but an escalation in Fulani — and other — violence in the nation has put a hold on his evangelism outreaches and he is concerned that if the crisis is not resolved it could develop into a catastrophe like the Rwanda genocide.
Speaking in an interview from his home in Panyam in Nigeria’s middle-belt Plateau State, where he says armed Muslim Fulani herdsmen have overrun 54 predominantly-Christian villages, displacing thousands of local people, he said the rise of violence in the nation forced the cancellation of last year’s conference of Fulani converts to Christianity because it was too dangerous for delegates to travel across the country to Panyam.
“If there is no change we will not hold this year’s convention either. Besides the Fulani violence there are lots of places where people are kidnapped for money and there is also a rise of militia groups all over the country. With all these things taking place one cannot move freely and we have to protect lives,” said Rev Koppah of the Church of Christ in Nations .
He said life was going on as normal for the more than 400 Fulani converts who had been prevented from attending the annual conventions in Panyam due to the escalation in violence in the last two years. They were scattered around the country and some of them were pastors or serving in Christian ministries.
However last year, a fellow evangelist to Fulani people, with Great Commission Movement, disappeared while on a mission in Taraba state and it was possible he was killed.
About three days ago about five local miners were attacked and killed by Fulani herdsmen and Fulani attackers this week murdered a pastor and his family in Jos in Plateau state, Rev Koppah said.
He said most of the herdsmen involved in the current wave of attacks were “not the local Fulanis we grew up with” but were from Niger, Chad and other countries. They were armed with AK47s and revolvers. Sometimes local Fulanis even reported them to authorities.
Official statistics on the violence are hard to come by and explanations vary widely for the rise in Fulani violence over the past two years. More than 1 300 people have been killed by Fulani herdsmen in the past year according to the International Crisis Group, and according to some reports hundreds of thousands of displaced people — mostly rural farmers — are living precariously in camps. The Fulani violence has overshadowed that of the Islamist Boko Haram terror group which captured world headlines for abducting 274 schoolgirls in 2014. According to some groups the Fulani violence is intentional Christian genocide but the Nigerian government says it is a grazing land conflict driven by the impact of climate change which has devastated traditional Fulani grazing land in parts of Africa.
Combination of factors
I asked Rev Koppah what he thought was behind the increased Fulani violence. He said he believed it was a result of a combination of factors, including religiously-motivated Islamist jihad, political agendas, and land grabbing. To add to the confusion, sometimes herdsmen were caught wearing military uniforms or soldiers were found backing herdsmen, and there were even instances where locals formed alliances with Fulanis and participated in attacks.
“There are also those we call cattle rustlers,” he said. “So it is not so easy to point fingers.”
The situation was exacerbated by the fact that it was an election year — Nigeria will go to the polls on February 16 2019. The country experienced an increase in violence before every election, he said. Tough economic conditions in which people were struggling to feed their families also contributed to the atmosphere of violence.
Regarding widespread claims that the government was implicated in the violence, he said the fact that President Muhammadu Buhari is a Muslim and a Fulani, makes it inevitable that people will be suspicious about the government when they see no end to the rising violence.
He said it is a fact that in all of the states where Fulani violence is taking place, with the exception of Zamfara state, predominantly Christian villagers are being targeted by Fulani herdsmen linked to Islam from the Muslim north or neighbouring countries. Attackers had taken over Christian villages and changed the villages’ names.
He said he was very disappointed that most of the security force leaders in the police, military and political sphere were Muslims.
“If the situation was balanced, maybe 50/50, then government would have been exonerated from the accusation of involvement in the violence. But if 99% of the security forces are from one religion and things are not working well, most people are going to conclude that the federal government is behind it.
“They [the federal government] should have reacted by reshuffling the security,” he said.
He said he hoped that there would be a significant improvement in the Fulani violence crisis after the February election. He believed that the crisis is a major election issue and whether there is a new government or Buhari is returned they will be expected to bring new, innovative solutions to the security problem.
“That’s our hope and our trust in God,” he said.
Asked for his views on the world’s response to the crisis in Africa’s most populous country, he said: “Honestly, we feel the international community should come to our aid because if things remain the way they are, there is a likelihood we could go into the situation that happened in Rwanda.
“Up until now the Christians have mainly been patient, they have been praying and trusting God and urging the government to take very serious steps to curtail these things. If this situation continues it will definitely reach a situation where the Christians will also be armed and fight. And that will lead to a lot of killings and destruction in the land.”
He said the international community should mount pressure on the Nigerian government to take responsibility to stop the violence.
Displaced people were living in IDP camps where many of them were dying of diseases and hunger. “So the international community should step in and help us, honestly. They only talk on paper, sometime on electronics. They are supposed to he practical.”
He also said that the Fulani attackers were armed with weapons that were not made in Nigeria or elsewhere in Africa. The world should not sell arms and ammunition to Nigeria and neighbouring countries, he said. He said it was rumoured that Fulani herdsmen “got arms and ammunition from some government functionaries — and some highly-placed officials are accused of providing these arms and ammunition”.
Seeking the Lord
Rev Koppah said that during this season in which his evangelism work has been curtailed he has been “organising prayers from time to time to ask the Lord what to do”.
He said: “I am still encouraging members all over the country to remain resolute and constant and trust in God. We believe that the church is passing through persecution and as Christians persecution is not a new thing. And that will not deter us from reaching out as soon as the situation normalises.
“Even if doesn’t normalise we will find another way of reaching out — maybe through media houses, print or electronics.”