Nigeria’s military appears ready to begin a major operation to raid suspected hideouts across the central Nigerian Plateau State, where insurgents responsible for last week’s violence are thought to be based.
More than 200 people were killed in sectarian attacks between mainly Muslim Fulani herdsmen and Christian Birom villagers near the city of Jos over the weekend of July 9. Police blamed the violence on tribal differences over land, but an Islamist insurgent group, Boko Haram, claimed responsibility for the attacks, including the wholesale massacre of 63 Christian parishioners taking refuge in a preacher’s house.
In a statement by the director of defense information, Col. Mohammed Yusuf, said that Nigerian Armed Forces were planning a full-scale military operation, called “operation sweep and search,” to raid the villages of Mahanga, Kakuruk, Kuzen, Maseh, and Shong 2. Those are places that serve as hideouts for criminals, Col. Yusuf said, adding that civilians living in those areas should leave, since there might be “collateral damage” to innocent villagers.
“This temporary relocation is for a while and the villagers will relocate when the operation is completed,” Yusuf’s statement said.
To avoid “collateral damage,” he said, inhabitants of villages “where these criminal elements use as hideouts should vacate to a safer place where an arrangement is being made for them by the State government.” Groups representing Fulani herdsmen, however, urged villagers to stay put and pray, a sign that clashes with the military may be imminent.
Nigeria’s military – which has ruled Nigeria directly following five separate coups and “caretaker” governments since independence in 1960 – has never shied from taking action in internal security matters, and particularly against any group that challenges the authority of the Nigerian state.
Like the military’s response to the Biafran separatist movement in the late 1960s, and the Niger Delta insurgence of 2006 until the present, the Nigerian Armed Forces reaction to Boko Haram – an Islamist group that aims to replace the Nigerian government with Islamic sharia law – has been accused of substantial human rights abuses and excessive force, but Nigerian officials say that harsh methods are justified against violent groups such as Boko Haram.
Mohammed Abdullahi, secretary for the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association – which often speaks for the disparate Fulani-speaking community – urged villagers to disregard the military order, adding that association members would not move an inch from their villages.
“We are calling on the Federal government, United Nations, and other Human Rights bodies to put eyes on the possible genocide being planned by the soldiers," the group said in a statement. "If this is allowed to happen,” the Fulani group warned, “nobody should blame the Fulani man for taking every measure necessary to defend himself."
Ardo Isa Jafaru, an ethnic Fulani from the Jos area, blamed powerful ethnic Fulani politicians, such as National Security Adviser Sambo Dasuki, and religious figures such as Sultan Saad Abubakar from failing to stand up for the Fulani people in the current standoff.
“The irony here is that the National Security Adviser, Sambo Dasuki, is a not only a Fulani but, like the Sultan, a direct descendant of DanFodio,” Mr. Jafaru said, referring to the famed religious mystic Usman dan Fodio, a religious mystic who led a rebellion that created a Fulani state in 1808 in what is now northern Nigeria. “How could these injustices be perpetrated just two weeks after [Mr. Dasuki] visited Jos and assured the world that he will do his possible best to bring peace? Is driving the Fulani from their homes a means of bringing about peace?”
Many Fulani accuse the Nigerian military of siding with Birom villagers in what the Fulani see as a land dispute.
By launching an operation into Fulani areas, the Nigerian military will only make the problem of Boko Haram worse, according to the Cattle Breeders Association, adding that while ethnic Fulani would not be able to vacate their homes in 48 hours, they are willing to open dialogue with the government.
Religion, politics, and ethnicity
In Nigeria, three things are intertwined – religion, politics, and ethnicity – according to a report by the 12-member joint delegation of World Council of Churches (WCC), led by General Secretary Olav Fyske Tveit of Norway and Jordanian Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, chairman of the board of the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought.
If dozens of separate problems were resolved, it would contribute to overall peace, while inaction over other problems such as corruption, mismanagement, land disputes, and the lack of aid for victims or punishment for troublemakers have the potential to fuel tensions. This is especially true in Nigeria's "Middle Belt," where the mostly Muslim north meets the largely Christian south, according to the report.
"There is a possibility that the current tension and conflict might become subsumed by its religious dimension (especially along geographical 'religious fault-lines')," the report said, warning that blaming only religion for the strife would make that incomplete view "a self-fulfilling prediction.”
The Nigerian military insists its operation is only a “temporary” measure, adding that “the residents should be rest assured that as soon as the operations are over, they will be called back to their residences. Inconveniences caused are highly regretted.”
The Fulani herdsmen group warned that any operation in a predominantly Fulani area amounts to genocide, and argued that members would not fold their arms and watch some the army “continue their acts of terrorism” against a region with more than 150,000 inhabitants.
The herdsmen urged the government to force the military to stand down, but added that if they don’t, they will simply “instigate another crisis that has the potential of being worse than Boko Haram.”