There is now more violence in Nigeria’s Middle Belt than in the northeast, where Boko Haram continues its operations. Ostensibly, violence in the Middle Belt is driven by conflict between “herders” and “farmers” over land use, ethnic and religious rivalries, and (likely but hard to prove) the agendas of rival politicians. As was long the case with respect to Boko Haram, Lagos and the prosperous south have ignored or minimized this violence, but that may be changing. A catalyst is the killing of seventeen parishioners and two Roman Catholic priests during mass in April in Gwer East Local Government Area in Benue state by “herdsmen.”
The Catholic Bishop's Conference has directed that every diocese in the country should organize demonstrations on May 22, the date of the funeral mass for the Gwer East victims. The Lagos archdiocese is also organizing a requiem mass for the victims the same day. (Gwer is outside the archdiocese.) The Catholic Bishops characterize the demonstrations as peaceful and say they will be focused on “the barbaric but (sic) intolerable killing of two priests and seventeen others by herdsmen.”
The paramount ruler of the Tiv nation, the Tor Tiv, is James Ayatse. At his own initiative, he has announced plans to meet with the local Muslim traditional ruler, the Emir of Lafia, as well as the governor of Nasarawa State and the chief of army staff, General Tukur Buratai. His stated goal is to end the killing of Tiv people in Benue and Nasarawa state by “herdsmen.” He has acknowledged the political dimension of some of the conflict. The current Tor Tiv is a Christian, the chairman of the Benue State Council of Chiefs, and a distinguished former professor of biochemistry. The strong responses by the Catholic Bishop's Conference and the Tor Tiv to Middle-Belt killings are significant and may focus national attention.
Nigerians like to say that theirs is the world’s most religious country—and the happiest. They are likely right, at least about the first. Traditional rulers, ranging from the Sultan of Sokoto to the Oba of Benin to the Tor Tiv, enjoy significant influence in their communities, though they are not recognized by the constitution. Their authority often has a religious dimension and they are trusted by the man and woman in the street more than politicians or government officials. Hence, clergy and traditional rulers are powerful.
While both initiatives have a Christian coloration, the Tor Tiv is also reaching out to Muslim traditional leaders, and the Catholic Bishops are appealing for support from “all men and women of good will,” a reference to Muslims and non-Roman Christians. It will be important for both parties to avoid stereotypes and over-simplification, not least by their followers. Land and water issues in the Middle Belt would test the Wisdom of Solomon. Moreover, the murderous “herdsmen” may in fact be cattle rustlers and other criminals, and they may or may not be Muslim. Then, too, there is the possible political dimension to the killing, especially in the run-up to the national and local elections now scheduled for early 2019. Nevertheless, both initiatives have the salutary consequence of bringing Middle Belt insecurity to the attention of all Nigerians.