The Christmas Eve attacks that, according to official estimates, left more than 100 people dead (the unofficial toll is much higher) and 200 houses incinerated across three Local Government Areas (LGAs) of the North Central State of Plateau are troubling for two reasons. One is the sheer brazenness of the marauders who, according to media reports, set upon their targets in the most cold-blooded manner and behaved with all the swagger of a group perfectly aware of its superiority (in both firepower and tactics) to local security and intelligence agencies.
More troubling is the tone of frustration and near-resignation underlying much of the public reaction to the tragic incident.
Perhaps the best illustration of this was the plaintive statement released in the immediate aftermath by the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Father Matthew Hassan Kukah. Noting that “the killers have turned the security agencies into objects of mockery and turned Nigerians into mere weeping, helpless victims and spectators,” Kukah, a social critic in his own right, gave voice to an idea that is gradually becoming commonplace among a cross-section of Nigerian Christians to the effect that, far from random bandits, the killers are “professionals” with “sponsors in high places” and otherwise “now embedded in the architecture of the state.” In other words, contrary to the perception that the bandits would have mowed down anything that crossed their paths, they may have set out to attack those communities precisely because of the Christian identity of their residents.
For some time now, the dominant and widely accepted framing of the conflict in the northeastern and middle parts of the country has been that it is an unfortunate collision between Fulani herdsmen pressed southward by changing climatic conditions in search of nourishment for their livestock, and agrarian communities objectively and understandably threatened by the sudden migration. Put differently, the “culprit” here, to the extent that one can be said to exist, is not ethnoreligious malice but geography, something that is totally beyond the control of the opposing groups and communities, and one that careful and sustained state intervention can and will eventually remedy.
While this framing remains plausible (for the moment, its place in the scholarly and policymaking imagination remains by and large secure), it has come under pressure by those who, pointing to the disparity in the attacks on Christian majority communities, churches and related places of worship and other ancillary targets, coupled with the documented abduction and killing of Christian religious leaders, contend that parallel to the seeming Act of God that is the undeniable change in climatic conditions is the orchestration of real agents with a nefarious political and religious agenda. That agenda, it is suggested, is the systematic displacement of Christian communities and their replacement by their Muslim compatriots.
Recently, this, shall we say, Displacement Hypothesis, has gained more converts, many won over by the sheer statistics. For instance: a good majority of the estimated 3 million people displaced from their homes in the North-East and the Middle Belt by the Islamist insurgency group Boko Haram and other armed groups as of November 2021 are Christian. Over 10,000 people alone were displaced by the Christmas Eve attacks conducted simultaneously across more than nineteen communities in Plateau State. Furthermore, according to the Onitsha-based International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law (Intersociety), “at least 52, 250 Nigerian Christians have been killed since the outbreak of the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency in 2009.” Within the same period, “18,000 Christian churches and 2,200 Christian schools were set ablaze.” Finally, if the Open Doors World Watch List for 2023 is anything to go by, “Nigeria accounts for 89 percent of Christians martyred worldwide,” while the country also ranks first on a list of “the top ten countries where Christians face the highest rate of violence.”
To be sure, these statistics have always been publicly available, and a case can be made that what we are witnessing is nothing but the downstream effect of the equal opportunity ineptitude with which Nigeria’s security and intelligence agencies have always been associated. At any rate, for every Nigerian Christian killed, there seems to be a commensurate number of “moderate Muslims” similarly murdered, an addendum which, if accepted, disqualifies the argument of selective discrimination against Christians. Finally, the Islamist insurgency appears not to have been too discriminatory in its choice of physical targets, attacking churches and other Christian places of worship much as it destroys mosques, government offices, post offices, schools, army barracks, and police stations.
Beyond statistics, what appears to have shifted the mood in the country—or at least within a section of the Christian community—is the perception, one that increasingly solidified during the tenure of President Muhammadu Buhari (2015- 2023), when an estimated 30,000 Christians were killed, that Christian lives did not matter to the administration. Despite the fact that Buhari’s Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, is a Christian and pastor of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Nigeria’s foremost Pentecostal church, the belief gradually took hold that Buhari was a religious partisan (in fairness, the former president has battled such accusations for most of his public life), and that he would have done more to combat the chronic insecurity which eventually darkened his tenure had the immediate and most affected targets been Muslims.
Invariably, Christian hostility toward Buhari, and ipso facto his All Progressives Congress (APC) standard bearer, Bola Tinubu, spilled over into last year’s presidential electioneering campaign and was foundational to the appeal and eventual victory of the Labor Party (LP) candidate, Peter Obi, across various Christian-dominated states. Animus towards Tinubu the candidate was further stoked by his decision to select Kashim Shettima, a Muslim from Borno State, as his running mate, completing a Muslim-Muslim ticket that many Christians saw, rightly or not, as a slap on the face after eight years of buffeting by Boko Haram and its Islamist affiliates.
Whether the perception of selective discrimination against Christians is true or not, the truth of the matter is that the Tinubu administration can least afford to allow growing Christian disaffection, particularly the sentiment that Nigerian Christians are being killed for their faith, to fester.
The president has his work cut out for him. In the first place, he needs to succeed where his predecessors have failed by ending the reign of terror and insecurity in the country. For reasons ranging from pervasive kidnapping to unprovoked attacks by armed bandits, the majority of Nigerians—Christian and Muslim—no longer feel safe in their homes or on the streets. Many have grown tired of the constant promise to “overhaul the security architecture.”
Second, the President needs to take seriously the grievance of a cross-section of Nigerian Christians, animated by the feeling that there are powerful forces across the northeastern and middle belt states intent on executing a masterplan to displace the “native” Christian inhabitants of those communities and repopulate their lands with Muslims.
As Father Kukah aptly warned in his statement, the legitimacy of Tinubu’s government may well depend on his getting this right, and it would be a crying shame if, for all the talent at his disposal, and the intense yearning of Nigerians for change, Tinubu were to end up as yet another empty suit.
The evidence so far does not look all that promising.
Reina Patel and Alexandra Dent contributed to the research for this article.