3 August 2020
Violence in the northwest Nigerian state of Kaduna escalated in July as reports of massacres and arson attacks emerged from villages in the region. The attacks, characterised by the government as “politically-motivated banditry”, have increased tensions between the Fulani and Atyap ethnic groups. Photos and videos of mass burials went viral on Nigerian social media networks as people called for an end to the violence in their communities.
Photos and videos posted online show the aftermath of massacres in villages across the southern part of Kaduna. Some describe the latest attacks as a campaign of violence perpetrated by Muslim Fulani herdsmen against Atyap Christian farmers. Meanwhile, Fulani people blamed Atyap people for 99 deaths, alongside theft and arson, in June.
Kaduna State is characterised by religious and ethnic diversity. The Fulani, a primarily Muslim ethnic group concentrated in Nigeria, are one of the largest nomadic herding communities in the world. The Atyap people, predominantly farmers, are a majority Christian ethnic group residing in southern Kaduna. Both claim to have settled in the region first, and conflicts have arisen over land, resources and political control for decades. The northern part of the state is made up of mostly Fulani people, while the south is primarily Atyap.
A July 19 attack on a wedding party in Kukum Daji village left at least 23 Atyap people dead, according to local news reports.
Joseph Liberty, a youth community leader in Kukum Daji who lost two of his cousins in the attack, witnessed the violence:
Most of the people who were at the wedding venue were actually young people, teenagers. They were having a party, celebrating the groom and the bride. Suddenly the gunmen came and surrounded the place and started shooting sporadically. Because there were many people at the venue;that is why the casualties were so many. Nineteen people died on the spot, then 33 or thereabouts were severely injured. We were taken to the hospital in Kaduna and another person died later, then another person and another person. In all, four people died later due to excess loss of blood. The ones in the hospital are still recuperating.
The next day, on July 20 around 7pm, the Atyap village of Gora Gan was attacked by about 50 gunmen who entered the village and began setting fires, which a local reverend said caused 500 people to flee to an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp. Eight people were found dead at the scene, according to local news reports.
“Burials unbefitting of any human being”Activist and native of Atyap in Southern Kaduna, Steven Kefason explained that in villages like these, survivors must conduct mass burials:
These communities are in remote areas where there’s no electricity, there’s no standard hospital, there’s no mortuary where corpses can be deposited for a long time. Most times, after such attacks, the villagers conduct mass burials for the victims, except on rare occasions where they get a casket and the bodies are buried properly. The victims in these killings are Christians. They call the priest or pastor and they bury them in a very despicable manner, unbefitting of any human being. But that is the situation. They still live in fear so they don’t have the time to prepare a proper funeral for the victims. Sometimes, even during such burials, the attackers return to attack again. Some youths were mounting surveillance to provide security while the funerals were taking place.
Ongoing violence While religious and ethnic differences divide Atyaps and Fulanis, conflict often originates from land disputes between farmers and herders. Attacks by suspected Fulani herdsmen have been blamed for more than 1,000 deaths in the last five years, including 178 in the last seven months. The Nigerian presidency said July 21 that the conflict is “mutual violence by criminal gangs acting on ethnic and religious grounds. We note that revenge and counter-revenge only creates a circle of violence, thereby making everyone else unsafe, especially innocent people”.
According to numbers published in local news reports, at least 53 Atyap people were killed in five attacks July 19 to 24 in Southern Kaduna. The Muslim Youth Foundation of Southern Kaduna also reported attacks targetting Muslims in the region. A Fulani association, alleging increased attacks against Fulani herdsmen, set up a vigilante security group on July 29 to curb crime and “rural banditry”.
Since June 11, some Kaduna districts have been under a 24-hour curfew, which authorities extended to cover the rest of the state on July 25. However, violence continued despite the curfew and what authorities call a strong security presence in the region.
Governor of Kaduna State Nasir El-Rufai said that he does not believe the recent massacres have any religious or ethnic basis. Both Muslim and Christian leaders in Kaduna decried the killings and implored the government to help.
In an attack on the Atyap village of Zikpak on July 24, villagers reported that after opening fire, gunmen stayed in the village burning homes and cars for two hours. They said three homes were destroyed in the attack, and at least nine villagers killed.
Many people from villages in Southern Kaduna have had to take refuge in churches or camps. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 15 shelters were destroyed in the district of Kajuru between July 13 and 19, leaving 312 people displaced. Another 20 houses were destroyed during a July 19 attack by Fulani militias in Chibwob village, leaving 86 more people displaced.
More than 1,000 people are currently residing at the Mercy IDP camp, run by local church members in the town of Zonkwa.
“They may never return to their ancestral land again”
Kefason spoke to survivors of the attacks at IDP camps:
The victims, those that have been displaced, say they are on their own. The government is not doing anything: no medical assistance, no food, no shelter. The victims are in the thousands. They rely on donations. Neither the state nor the federal government has done anything to alleviate their suffering. Indigenous people have been displaced, they’re taking refuge in makeshift camps. They’ve left their ancestral land. If nothing is done, they may never return to their communities again.
On July 23, hundreds of Atyap women demonstrated at Atak Njei Agwam Atyap palace in the Zango-Kataf district. Dressed in black, they condemned the killings and the failure of state and local governments to prevent the ongoing violence. Human Rights Watch released a statement on July 31, which said that an insufficient police response to these violent attacks has resulted in “cycles of impunity” which perpetuate attacks and reprisals. They added that Kaduna security forces have the capacity to end the violence by launching thorough criminal investigations into the killings and getting justice for survivors and their families.
By Pariesa Young. A version of this article was first published by France 24.