WASHINGTON/ABUJA - It was dusk on July 24 when Emmanuel Ali said he heard the gunshots. A group of armed men entered his village in Nigeria’s Kaduna state, he said, and began setting fire to homes.
Ali fled to the bush with his family and then returned to rescue his paralyzed mother, who was trapped inside her burning home.
“The fire was almost catching her,” Ali told VOA’s French to Africa service. “I removed my window, that’s where I entered, and picked her out from the window.”
In Nigeria’s isolated northern villages, nightfall is fraught with terror as bandits terrorize residents. According to a new report by Amnesty International, bandits are operating with near impunity in the region. At least 1,126 villagers were killed by armed groups between January and June of 2020, Amnesty reported.
“When people’s homes are raided, the men are targeted and then they are shot at,” Osai Ojigho, Amnesty International’s Nigeria country director, told VOA. “They used machetes and cutlasses in order to inflict very serious wounds. And there have been cases of children, even as young as babies, being shot at and killed in the attacks that ensued. So, it really is quite shocking, the violence that they've experienced, even when they are not armed.”
In recent years, Nigeria’s security forces have focused on attacks by the extremist group Boko Haram in the far northeast of the country, Ojigho said. This has left a security vacuum in the rural parts of Kaduna, Katsina, Niger, Plateau, Sokoto, Taraba and Zamfara states in the central and northwest of the country. The violence has prompted an estimated 78,000 people to flee their homes.
“The armed mercenaries seem to want to inflict as much pain and brutality as possible,” she said. “And some of the communities are quite shocked by this experience because they weren't expecting it to escalate to this level. And that's why they have this sense of abandonment, like our government has forgotten about us because we are in the villages.”
The motives for the violence are complex.
Some attackers are bandits, stealing goods. Some are kidnapping people for ransom. There is also an ethnic and religious dimension. In Kaduna state, the Christian population lives mostly in the south and are predominantly farmers, and the Muslims are cattle herders and live in the north. They clash over limited fertile land for grazing and planting.
“It’s nothing else but land,” said Jonathan Asaké, president of the Southern Kaduna Peoples Union (SOKAPU). “The indigenous people of these lands have been pushed out gradually and the Fulani militia bring in Fulanis from God knows where to occupy these places.”
Kaduna Governor Nasir Ahmad el-Rufai said it is often a conflict between individuals or small groups that escalates into something far worse.
“It usually starts with a quarrel between a person from one ethnic group and another,” Rufai said. “The individual conflict, instead of being resolved peacefully by going to traditional leaders or religious leaders or other lawful authorities, tends to expand into an ethnic conflict.”
The violence is now getting wider attention and has prompted large protests in Kaduna and other major cities.
The Nigerian military created a special task force, code-named Operation Safe Haven, with the mission of bringing peace back to Kaduna and Plateau states. On August 10, the task force arrested eight suspects in connection with killings in the area.
Edward Kallon, the U.N. resident coordinator in Nigeria, said he discussed the issue when he led a delegation to meet President Muhammadu Buhari recently. He believes a multifaceted peace effort is needed.
“I told Mr. President that, in addition to the military efforts, there is a need to complement that with some enhanced dialogue and a political process in search of a durable solution to the crisis,” Kallon said during a briefing with reporters after the meeting. “So we think that various approaches have to be used to find a solution.”
Amnesty International's Ojigho said the cycle of violence will stop only when attackers see the consequences of their actions.
“One of the reasons why the violence has probably escalated to this point is because of impunity,” she said. “If people are not brought to justice, then they know they can get away with it. They will keep perpetuating it. So this needs to change.”
French to Africa service’s Gilbert Tamba contributed to this report from Abuja.