On the night of Feb 21, at least 500 people were killed in the mainly Christian area of Agatu in the central Benue state of Nigeria. That’s according to local sources, although the figure could rise even higher – due to continuing violence and the fact that locals and relief workers still cannot get full access to the area due to security concerns.
Eleven days after bands of Muslim Fulani nomads launched systematic attacks on local communities, they still occupied at least six villages they’d seized, confirm relief and media workers – the first who managed to reach the area. Local media report that spokespeople for the herdsmen’s association told the police chief their action was provoked by the Agatu people killing “10,000” cows.
Members of this first mission said they saw no dead cattle at all. One of the team, carrying an amateur video camera, captured disturbing evidence of the human deaths, however, and sent this report, voiced by WWM staff.
‘What is going on is jungle justice! It’s survival of the fittest. We are just a local government. Small place! Sir. I just want to point out this: as we are going we will see a lot of devastations that have been done to us
(Akpa Iduh, Agatu Community leader, also Chair of the Peace and Reconciliation Committee set up by Benue State to, alongside Fulani community leaders, stop the attacks).
REPORTER: About 20,000 people are thought to have fled the wave of attacks which some locals say is the worst massacre by mainly Muslim Fulani herdsmen since 2010 – when 400-500 died near Jos. Victim after displaced victim told us how the attacks began in Okokolo village in Agatu local government area, and then continued daily in neighbouring villages, leaving them nowhere to run.
Dr Sunday Ochoche, our mission leader and Executive Director of the Victims’ Support Group, set up in July 2014 to support victims of the Islamist Boko Haram insurgency in NE. Nigeria, was shocked by the scale of devastation.
“I’ve been to a number of crisis spots in this country. What I’ve seen is comparable to the damage caused by Boko Haram in NE Nigeria”.
(Dr Sunday Ochoche)
REPORTER: What we saw was unnerving – the tales of victims could not capture the extent of the devastation. Traveling mile after mile on bumpy dirt roads, we saw no sign of human beings, in village after burnt-down village.
Local officials explained that fear of repeat attacks kept them from coming back to bury the bodies still littered in the villages. Survivors said the attackers had AK47s and ammunition belts. They reported that two prior official trips by army and police had ended with nothing except the firing of warning shots.
REPORTER: The narrative of the herder/farmer conflict is common. But there are undercurrents of an apparently bitter religious battle for domination. Fulani herdsmen are mainly Muslim and the Agatu farmers are mostly Christian.
After our mission, the Nigerian government suspended non-military visits to the region. Soldiers were deployed there just in time to forestall another attack, on March 5, when herdsmen set fire to yet another village.
It was easy for us to see why people like Iduh were angry. In a couple of earlier villages, cattle roamed free – the only living things in sight, except for a couple of herdsmen who took off as soon as they saw our convoy’s plumes of dust. As we drove further into the area, swarms, droves and then herds of hundreds of cows, flanked by herdsmen, came into plain view. They were still at the scene of the crime – it seemed to be a continuing, active situation as we left.
Original story, published 4 March:
Several days of attacks in February’s final days killed hundreds of people and sent thousands fleeting from largely Christian areas of Nigeria’s farming belt.
The armed attacks in and around Agatu, in the central Nigerian state of Benue, had features long familiar to Nigerians: ethnic Fulani cattle herders, largely Muslim, moving in on farmers, largely Christian. The long-running land conflict frequently is framed in economic terms, but it also has distinctive religious contours. Survivors quoted by Christian-rights advocates said the attackers specifically targeted Christians and churches and spared Muslims and mosques.
The violence broke out 23 Feb. and continued across several villages for several days, culminating 29 Feb. in what witnesses told Nigerian news media was a massacre in Agatu. The killings sparked protests in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. A week after the attacks began, President Muhammadu Buhari ordered an investigation.
A complete assessment of the number of dead and displaced is not available. Early social-media postings by Signal, a news startup in Abuja, reported “scores” dead. An aide to Benue Gov. Samuel Ortom told Agence France-Presse that “hundreds of lives were lost.”
The Agatu violence appeared to be worse than the 2010 attacks in Plateau state that killed more than 200 Christians, according to a 2 March email sent to supporters by Emmanuel Ogebe, a Nigerian human-rights lawyer based in Washington, D.C. who specializes in crimes against Nigeria’s Christians.
A Nigerian news organization, Vanguard, quoted a survivor, Ada Ojechi, as saying the fatality rate was very high but could not put a figure to it because no survivor could take the risk of counting the dead.
Ojechi told Vanguard that the promise of Federal military and Benue state police created a false sense of security. Many of the people who fled began to return on Sunday. The next day, the attackers returned.
“Our people were caught napping because we relaxed when we heard what we considered the cheering news that the federal government has intervened,” Ojechi was quoted as saying.
“Unfortunately, the Fulanis knew we had relaxed and took advantage of us to unleash a terrible massacre on us. As we speak, corpses litter everywhere in the village. I have been trying to reach many of my family members without success. We feel terribly let down by the government that announced a joint security team. We have not seen the security men- be they policemen or military, as I speak.”
Nigerian news reports said more than 7,000 people have been internally displaced and are living in camps as a result of the violence.
In announcing an investigation, President Buhari said: “The only way to bring an end to the violence once and for all is to look beyond one incident and ascertain exactly what factors are behind the conflicts.”
“There should not be any reason why Nigerians of any group or tongue cannot now reside with one another wherever they find themselves after decades of living together.”
In his 2 March email dispatch from Nigeria, Ogebe said the area remained in an “active shooter” situation.
In meeting with eight survivors 28 Feb., Ogebe said a Muslim man claimed to have been spared when he was able to recite a verse from the Quran for the attackers.
“They claimed they were told that [the Muslim man’s] people did not support Islamic worship. He denied this and showed them his mosque. It was spared but village churches were burnt,” Ogebe wrote.
“Yet the US embassy still maintains that this is purely a turf war between farmers and grazers without religious undertones.”
Open Doors, a global charity that provides support to Christians and churches that are under pressure for their faith, ranks Nigeria as the most violent country on Earth for Christians. Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist insurgency that has pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed Islamic State, is responsible for the great majority of anti-Christian violence. But its attacks “also inspire others, thus creating a ripple effect leading to further fanatical movements and violent, more spontaneous mobs,” according to an Open Doors assessment of Nigeria.
“Hausa-Fulani herdsmen and settlers have been conducting massive operations over the years as a result of which thousands of Christians have been evicted or killed,” the Open Doors assessment says.
Nigeria ranks No. 12 on the Open Doors World Watch List, which comprises the 50 countries where life as a Christian is most difficult.