Over the course of a weekend in late June, more than 200 people died as farmers and herders clashed in central Nigeria. Footage of the attack showed people brandishing machetes, burning vehicles, and women and children trying to escape violence in Jos, a city in the Middle Belt of Nigeria.
"For decades," notes the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, "Nigeria has struggled to address sectarian violence between farmer and herder communities that are often polarized along religious lines." Farmers in Nigeria tend to be Christian, while herders are usually Muslim.
Land disputes and internal migration are key sources of tension. A 2017 report by the International Crisis Group observed "drought and desertification have degraded pastures, dried up many natural water sources across Nigeria's far-northern Sahelian belt and forced large numbers of herders to migrate south in search of grassland and water for their herds."
Boko Haram's insurgency in northeastern Nigeria has also forced many herders to flee south in search of security. Increased migration toward the central and southern regions of Nigeria has led to confrontations between herders and farmers over land use.
The Crisis Group report estimates approximately 2,000 people died annually from herder-farmer violence between 2011 and 2016, and tens of thousands were displaced.
Religious differences between farmers and herders add further fuel to the violence. The Crisis Group report argues that "herder attacks on farming communities have spawned dangerous political and religious conspiracy theories," and many Christians view attacks by Muslim Fulani herders as a form of jihad. Dr. Samuel Uche, prelate of the Methodist Church in Nigeria, said, "We are aware there is a game plan to Islamize Nigeria, and they are using the Fulani herdsmen to initiate it."
The Crisis Group report says these charges are not supported by solid evidence, and it highlights comments by Mohammed Sa'ad Abubakar III, a Fulani and spiritual head of Nigerian Muslims, who has said Fulani herders who kill ought to be prosecuted.
Nathan Johnson, regional manager for Africa at the nonprofit International Christian Concern, told the Washington Free Beacon that Christian communities are suffering more severely from the violence.
"From what we've tracked so far in 2018, about 1,500—maybe a little more—Christians have died in the Middle Belt due to this conflict," Johnson said. "To put that in perspective, about two to three hundred people have been killed up in the northeast by Boko Haram."
Christians, he says, are especially vulnerable because of their sedentary lifestyle. "They're in a location, they don't move around." It is much easier, therefore, for the government to confiscate firearms—illegal to possess in Nigeria—from the homes of farmers than from herdsmen.
The Fulani are "very clearly using AKs," Johnson said, referring to the AK-47 assault rifle. Christian communities lack similar firepower with which to defend themselves.
The government has thus far proven ineffective in stopping the conflict. More than 300,000 people have been displaced in the Middle Belt's Benue State alone over the past year.
Despite President Muhammadu Buhari's pledge after late June's violence to bring the conflict to a peaceful resolution, faith leaders are growing impatient. Earlier this month, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Nigeria issued a statement warning, "If the president cannot keep our country safe, then he automatically loses the trust of the citizens."
"He should no longer continue to preside over the killing fields and mass graves that our country has become," the statement continued.
Johnson assessed the government's approach to the conflict in unequivocal terms. "There's really no effective thing that the national government has done to really protect either side of this conflict, whether it be the Fulani or the farmer Christians," he told the Beacon.