Advocates for persecuted Christians in Nigeria question U.S. report that portrays Fulani as victims

Nigeria Holy Week Burned vehicles after Good Friday raid on April 7, 2023, in Ngban, Benue state, Nigeria. | Courtesy of Justice, Development, and Peace Commission

Advocates for persecuted Christians in Nigeria are criticizing a new report prepared by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) that they say ignores the many documented atrocities perpetrated against Christians by the Fulani ethnic group in Nigeria and instead paints the Fulani as persecuted victims.  

The April 27 report prepared by USCIRF — a nonpartisan federal body — asserts that Fulani civilians have been subjected to “xenophobic sentiment” because “Christian communities often equate Fulani Muslims with Salafi jihadist beliefs because of their Muslim identity.” The report goes on to say that “abuses have led some members of Fulani communities to arm themselves and conduct reprisal attacks based on ethnoreligious identity,” with the result being that “Christian communities across Nigeria are threatened by deadly attacks from vengeful assailants seeking retribution for grievances against Fulani Muslim civilians.” 

The Fulani are an ethnic group that occupies a large area of the African continent stretching from Senegal to Sudan. They are nomadic and largely share a language, Muslim faith, and a history of livestock herding. Jihadist Muslim groups, such as Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) have claimed responsibility for numerous deadly attacks on the country’s Christians. But myriad other attacks attributed to Fulani herdsmen on Christians in Nigeria, especially in the north of the country, have been reported in recent years. The current president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, is of Fulani ancestry, and there is widespread evidence that Fulanis have been largely able to carry out their attacks with impunity. 

Advocates for persecuted Christians strongly disagreed with the USCIRF report’s assertion that the numerous attacks attributed to the Fulani in recent years on Christians in the country are retaliatory. 

Sean Nelson, legal counsel for the U.S.-based Alliance Defending Freedom, told CNA that the USCIRF report “fails to explain the broader context of religiously motivated violence against Christians, where they are suffering thousands of deaths every year because of their faith.”

“The report is needlessly polarizing in an area that requires great sensitivity,” Nelson said.  

“The international religious freedom community would benefit from an explanation as to how the report was produced and approved, and USCIRF should consider a retraction. It is vital that the international religious freedom community is able to come together to advocate for those in Nigeria who have been so regularly and grievously victimized.”

Nelson said the report appears to fault the Christian community for the marginalization of the Fulanis while failing to acknowledge the brutal persecution the Christians of Nigeria are facing, often at Fulani hands. 

“The report rightly speaks against using an overly broad brush when discussing the Fulani Muslim community and militancy within it, but then proceeds to imply with false moral equivalency and little evidence that the broader Christian community is responsible for large portions of the violence,” he noted. 

Nina Shea, senior fellow and director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, called for USCIRF to prepare and release a report “giving the other side,” chronicling Nigerian Christian persecution.

Shea noted to CNA that a new report from the Kukah Center, a Nigeria-based policy research institute founded by Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of the Diocese of Sokoto, contradicts USCIRF’s claim that Fulani attacks on Christians — especially in the north-central part of the country — are retaliatory and are rather a form of terror aimed at displacing Christians from their land. 

The report includes detailed accounts from eyewitnesses about attacks on civilians suspected to have been carried out by Fulani herdsmen — many of which do not bear the hallmarks of retaliatory attacks but rather seem to be aimed at terrorizing the Christian community. The Kukah report also notes that since the beginning of 2022, at least 18 Catholic priests have been abducted by armed Fulani bandits across the country, with 80% of these abductions occurring in Northwest Nigeria. 

USCIRF, for its part, released on Monday its annual report, which included the recommendation that Nigeria be listed by the U.S. State Department as a “Country of Particular Concern” a designation that USCIRF has recommended for Nigeria since 2009. The report decries “rampant violence and atrocities” committed across Nigeria, including by militant Islamist groups and “dynamic alliances of insurgent, criminal, and vigilante actors.”

CNA reached out to USCIRF for comment on the April Fulani report but did not receive a response by press time. 

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