We’ve heard a lot lately about white South African farmers being killed in farm murders. But another group of African farmers are being killed in far greater numbers and we’ve barely heard a whimper.
What would you think if you heard that there was a group of people, all belonging to one religion, who were being savagely attacked by another group so that they were forced out of their homes?
If whole villages were being destroyed, churches burnt to the ground and hundreds of people including women and children murdered? If the region’s government was doing little to intervene?
That’s the situation in the north of Nigeria. Nomadic Islamic herdsmen from the Fulani ethnic group are attacking Christian farmers in a conflict that’s even more deadly than the Boko Haram insurgency that’s ravaged the country for years.
You’d expect it to be big news, wouldn’t you?
But it’s far from the headlines of Western media.
Violence is escalating
While the tensions and violence date back some years, attacks have escalated dramatically lately.
The ICG says the violence was at its most deadly in the June 23-24 attack on 11 villages in Barkin Ladi and the subsequent reprisals on a highway, which killed more than 200 people.
Reverend Hassan John, an Anglican priest and former journalist who works in the city of Jos in northern Nigeria, has witnessed the violence.
“I have seen the funerals of at least 200 people killed by Islamist Fulani Herdsmen in a coordinated attack on sleeping women and children,” he says.
“I have had interviews with survivors who said they were attacked by men, some dressed in black chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ as they killed and set homes ablaze. I have met with pastors who have been targeted and churches burnt by the Fulani and have been to communities destroyed and then taken over by the Fulani who have then gone ahead to change the names of the villages.”
Good land is scarce
There are no doubt economic, agricultural, ethnic and tribal reasons for the developing conflict. Land and water are scarce and the nomadic herdsmen are competing with Christian farmers for space to graze their cattle.
They point to the expensive weapons wielded by the herders — provided by whom? — and to the way in which church buildings and pastors have been particularly attacked. The raiders have even attacked the home of the Anglican Archbishop of Jos, Benjamin Kwashi.
“They are trying to displace the Christians, they are trying to possess their land and they are trying to impose their religion,” international human rights lawyer Emmanuel Ogebe told the Christian Broadcasting Network.
One brave imam mercifully allowed his mosque to be used by frightened Christians to shelter from the attacks. His actions were a sorely needed respite and shows that peaceful co-existence between the two groups is possible.
Why isn’t this big news?
Why is the Western media so silent about it?
Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari — himself of Fulani background — has been accused of downplaying the violence as local squabbles over farmland, with no wider religious significance.
Western coverage reflects this framing.
Could it be that Western media outlets are so afraid of being accused of Islamophobia that they refuse to see — or to tell — the truth?
That is what Christian Nigerians feel is the case.
Africa is still to many Western minds a vast, unmapped continent: as novelist Joseph Conrad called it more than a century ago, “a blank space of delightful mystery” or “a place of darkness”. Even the most liberal and global of media outlets pay its politics and economics scant attention.
It’s just simpler to buy the line that it’s just local squabbles.
But the faces of those who have died in these atrocities are being hidden from view.
We are denied the chance to protest to our own politicians on behalf of the victims. And they are being written off as participants in “clashes” — these unarmed women, children and old people, who have been buried in mass graves.
Dr Michael Jensen is the rector at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point and is the author of My God, My God: Is it Possible to Believe Anymore?