Nigeria – The roots of a conflict with social and religious ramifications.
Bishop Ignatius Kaigama, Archbishop of Jos, capital of the Plateau State, located in the heart of the Middle Belt in Nigeria, recently visited Canada. At the invitation of the Canadian Office for Aid to the Church in Need (AED), he spoke about one of the main conflicts in his country: the one between the Fulani herdsmen (nomads and majority Moslems), and the farmers (sedentary and predominantly Christian).
Veteran and fervent defender of peace, Mons. Kaigama shares his knowledge on this conflict whose resolution requires a skillful and human dialogue, in an ever-increasing quest for the common good.
ACN: Bishop Kaigama, could you explain what has changed in this conflict that has been going on for a few years
Msgr Kaigama: The question of the herdsmen [referring here to the herding of cattle] who are mainly Fulani, and that of the farmers has become very complicated. Farmers cultivate their land using manual methods. When crops grow, they complain that the Fulani cows come and eat them. This situation is very worrying for them, as it deprives them of their main means of subsistence and generates strong tensions between the two communities
In retaliation, farmers attack the cows. Cows are worth more than anything to the Fulani. Also, if you kill a cow, if you attack them, the herdsmen will retaliate by attacking everything that belongs to you. Sometimes they go so far as to burn houses, kill families, and destroy crops. This is a very serious problem that we see especially in the northern part of Nigeria.
Compared to the situation a few years ago, has it gotten worse?
Herdsmen and farmers have always had conflicts, but not on this scale. Recently, herdsmen have developed a kind of new audacity to invade and destroy farmers’ crops. They do so with such impetuosity that farmers are forced to react. In the past, there were problems between the two groups, but they were not that frequent.
Is there any reason for this escalation?
One of the reasons could be that because the president of the country – Muhammadu Buhari – is himself a Fulani, the herdsmen think that they have an ally, and therefore, that they can do what they want and get away with it. Otherwise, people cannot explain why there is such a sudden increase in destruction.
Even the president of our country also recognizes that the Fulani we knew before only carried sticks and cutlasses to cut leaves to feed their animals. Now, those who destroy people’s crops are carrying sophisticated weapons. We do not know where they get these weapons from; it is rather worrying because people are dying, people are being killed, all because of these conflicts between herdsmen and farmers.
You mention the fact that there are new weapons, and you say you don’t know where they come from. Do you have any idea where they came from?
President Buhari claims that they are a remnant of the “Gaddafi Era” in Libya, that they found their way to Nigeria and that is how people were able to get their hands on them. People can get weapons illegally if they have money. Herders can sell cows and acquire these sophisticated weapons. This is a reality because in good times they would be much richer than farmers anyway. Farmers acquire such weapons too.
So, there are a lot of factors combined: the foreign weapons that circulate, the fact that they are able to buy them, or that they are manufactured locally or imported… In reality, we do not know who the suppliers are. »
Sadly last week a new wave of violence have taken place in parts of Plateau State, your diocese. You have been one of the pioneers of interreligious and interethnic dialogue in the capital of the Plateau State, where you founded the Center for Dialogue, Reconciliation and Peace 2011. What means the news about the killings for you?
I can share the story of multidimensional peace efforts in Nigeria, using our Dialogue Reconciliation and Peace (DREP) Centre in Jos as an example. DREP is an initiative of the Catholic Archdiocese of Jos meant to offer a neutral place where reconciliation of aggrieved parties takes place and also the Interfaith Vocational Training Centre in Bokkos near Barkin Ladi, where Muslim youths and Christian youths are trained for two years in vocational skills and helped to appreciate the civilized culture of dialogue instead of hostile confrontation at the slightest feeling of provocation. Shortly before I left Nigeria we were at meetings in DREP Centre in Jos with the Fulani and Irigwe ethnic groups to strategize on how to avert further killings. We even agreed to hold an interfaith prayer session in August.
To hear that the killings have resumed was a tremendous shock to me. The flagrant and despicable taking of human lives and the continued destruction to homes and means of livelihood is a disgrace to humanity and a shameful projection of a negative image of Nigerians. But even in the midst of violence caused either by Boko Haram, militant herdsmen or the yet to be identified “foreign invaders”, I believe peace is very possible as we are determined to sustain the culture of civilized conduct and peace.
What is your appeal in this very difficult moment?
I believe not enough has been done to challenge the herdsmen killings. It could either because of the so-called “hidden agenda” or simply the absence of courage, determination, patriotism and political will. Cattle, as important as they are, cannot be valued over human beings. That does not mean that cows should be wounded, stolen or killed. Our President should come out clearly, categorically and courageously to explain to his kinsmen why dialogue is the best solution.