The aftermath of an attack by extremists in Monguno, northeastern Nigeria, on Saturday. Associated Press
Rowan Williams, The independent
A recent open letter to the G20 leaders – an initiative coordinated by Gordon Brown – underlined the extreme urgency of planning a response to the impact of COVID-19 on nations in the developing world. Limited infrastructure, inadequate healthcare, urban overcrowding and various other factors will undoubtedly increase the death toll from the coronavirus in such circumstances.
But one of the major factors increasing vulnerability is endemic and violent conflict. Displaced populations are obviously going to be at greater risk; people who have lost their homes and livelihoods, often living in crowded and disease-prone environments, will feel the impact heavily.
The fact that Nigeria’s already fragile public health budget is being cut at a time when infection is spiralling has helped to bring into focus the risks developing in many African nations. However, Nigeria’s level of internal conflict is such that we may well expect it to be worse affected than some of its neighbours.
A new report, released on Monday by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, entitled “Unfolding Genocide?“ provides a horrifically detailed picture of how inter-communal violence has spread in the “middle belt” states of Nigeria over the past decade.
While reliable statistics are hard to come by, a conservative estimate of the number of displaced persons is approximately 300,000; last year saw at least 1,000 deaths in the ongoing struggles between farmers and nomadic herdsmen in these states. Readers should be warned: the extreme barbarity of many of the killings, involving rape, mutilation and burning, leaves a scar in the imagination.
The roots of these struggles read like a checklist of the most serious international challenges of our times. Environmental degradation has ruined huge tracts of grazing land and natural resources (the surface area of Lake Chad decreased from 15,000 square miles to less than 1,000 in the last forty years of the 20th century, and the rate of desertification has reduced both grazing and farming land in the Sahel by 80 per cent).
Governmental policies on land development have frequently been disastrous in this connection, and policies about managing grazing land and practice have, at best, been inadequate and ineffectual.
Violence in various other countries, not least Libya, has fuelled a substantial illegal arms trade. Political leadership has been remote or corrupt, with a widespread culture of impunity in regard to alleged abuses by government forces. Fake news is rampant and hysterically alarmist; international social media managers have a tiny number of people who have the cultural and linguistic skills to monitor this effectively. Add to this a rapidly increasing population and a rising number of alienated and unemployed young men, and you have enough to guarantee a high level of tension and anger.
But what has made this particularly lethal in Nigeria is the added element of religious rivalry. Nigeria is a nation divided almost 50-50 between Islam and Christianity, with a very slight preponderance of Christianity. As in so many other contexts like the Middle East, a history of slightly uneasy but normally manageable coexistence has been disrupted by the rise of extremism – often directed, in Nigeria as elsewhere, against other Muslims as well as Christians.
Longstanding protocols for resolving tensions between communities have in many areas been swept away as new populations of nomads and pastoralists with no history of relationship with farming neighbours are driven southwards by environmental change, into what have been predominantly Christian areas, reviving deep-rooted historic anxieties – however wrong-headed – about “Muslim invasion”.
Federal government attempts to regularise or rationalise grazing practice have predictably been seen in some quarters as an aspect of the same agenda, with the fear that they will further reduce land available for cultivation. And while pastoralists can count on substantial profits from increasing sales of cattle – whose price has rocketed in recent years, with spectacularly wealthy cattle barons lavishly subsidising the purchase of up-to-the-minute weaponry for militants – farmers have far less opportunity to generate surplus cash.
These conflicts have so far involved a death toll more than six times that associated with the better-known activities of Boko Haram further north and east in Nigeria. But the rhetoric and methods of Boko Haram and other militant groups have been borrowed with enthusiasm by some herder militants in middle-belt states such as Jos and Kaduna.
Increasingly this is seen on both sides as a campaign to eliminate the Christian farming communities. Attacks on villages involving wholesale massacre are becoming more common; some well-informed observers argue that this conflict is being instrumentalised by Islamist radicals to push the country towards an open religious war.
There have certainly been reprisal attacks by Christians against Muslim herders. However, the numbers strongly suggest that the Christian communities are suffering more acutely, partly because of the adoption of the new radical language and agenda of the Daesh franchises in Nigeria. Social media content continues to feed the flames, and there is a lot of pressure for Christian communities to organise their own militias, given the weak or complicit response of government security forces.
The APPG’s report pulls no punches; it does not simplify the background factors but shows with exemplary clarity how the manipulation of religious tension is a match thrown into a petrol can in the region. Unchecked, the current patterns of conflict could indeed lead to a genocidal climax.
Yet policies to avoid this are not that hard to identify. Education for nomadic groups is an urgent priority, with access to routine political and social involvement. The National Livestock Transformation Plan devised by the federal government needs to be implemented with full consultation with all interested parties, especially agriculturalists. Existing restrictions on the small arms trade must be enforced.
A joined-up environmental policy needs to be in place, stopping exploitative and irresponsible development of what should be farming land. Not least, professional training and accountability for local police and national or regional security forces is imperative. This is one of several areas where international aid and encouragement should be targeted. And it is essential to identify and support those religious leaders, Muslim and Christian, who have preserved a larger perspective and are willing to risk creating contexts for mediation – and to keep up articulate and honest advocacy with government.
The cost of the middle-belt conflicts to Nigeria runs into billions of dollars, but the true cost is in lives and in hope for Christian communities increasingly dreading extermination, and Muslim communities affected by the vicious apocalyptic fantasies of Daesh and Boko Haram.
This report is essential reading for anyone concerned to understand the multiple vulnerabilities of African nations in our globally interconnected world – anyone who wants to protect civilians.
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