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April 17, 2013

Sectarian Violence Flares in Nigerian 'Middle Belt'

by Heather Murdock

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says more than 100 people have been killed in religion-related violence since March this year in Nigeria's volatile "Middle Belt" region.  Some local leaders say the violence may be along religious lines, but it is politically motivated.

The American commission, an independent body appointed by the U.S. president and Congress, says dozens of properties have been destroyed in Nigeria since March.  Overall, it says, more people have been killed by sectarian violence in recent years than by Boko Haram - a militant group that has been waging an insurgency against the government since 2009.

It says since 1999 about 14,000 people have died in sectarian violence but only one percent of the perpetrators have been prosecuted. 

Local leaders in the Middle Belt, a region that roughly divides Nigeria’s mostly Muslim north from its mostly Christian south, agree that the increase in sectarian violence in recent months is driving many people from their homes. 

Although the fighting may be along religious and ethnic lines, they say, it is often a result of deeply religious and impoverished people being used or ignored by politicians.

"Religion as gone deep into people and politicians have used religion to put a line in between Muslims and Christians.  And, unfortunately if you look at the economic situation of the country, a lot of people that have no jobs to do, they have turned to drugs and other things.  You realize that politicians can easily use them," said Modibbo Aliyu, the national leader of the "Kautal Hore Fulbe" association, an ethnic Fulani group that means "Living Together."

Fulani people are generally cow herders and generally Muslim.  Aside from political, religious and ethnic differences, the Fulani often fight with groups like the mostly-Christian Berom over land disputes.  The Berom, as one might suspect, are farmers.

In the meantime, Mallam Umar Dare Babba, one of the leaders of Pastoral Resolve of Nigeria, a Fulani rights group, says the economy of the entire region is in danger as the nomadic cow herders stray farther away, sometimes into neighboring countries.

"Certainly it will affect the economy of the country. Milk, cows, meat will not be there.  Certainly the government must look into to the situation," said Babba. "There is need for the government to call the nomads and the communities where these problems are to sit on a round table.  Dialogue and look at where the problems are."

Analysts say if the problems are not addressed, disputes can set off a series of attacks and reprisal attacks that can drive casualty numbers especially high.

For example, clashes between herdsmen and farmers last month in Plateau State led to more than 20 deaths and spurred reprisal attacks over Easter weekend.  The U.S. Council on Foreign Relations says at least 50 died in the reprisal attacks, adding that the number could be five times as high.

Ibrahima Yakubu contributed to this report from Kaduna, Nigeria