The Mass Murder of Nigerian Christians

Michael Nnadi was the kind of Nigerian whose face projected a nearly supernatural joy. His pronounced features made him look both older and younger than his 18 years. His skin was dark, aglow with a smooth radiance that reflected the sun. An ever-present smile consumed his entire face, easily lighting up a room.

Michael was one of 270 students studying at the Good Shepherd Seminary in Kaduna State on the main highway to Abuja. On the evening of January 8, 2020, his world was upended when an armed gang, disguised in military fatigues, breached the gate of the school. They snagged four seminarians, including Michael, and made their escape.

The straightforward words of the seminary’s registrar, Rev. Joel Usman, belied his anguish. “After [taking] the headcount of the students with security agents, four Seminarians have been declared missing. Kindly say a prayer for their release,” Reverend Usman pleaded.

By the end of the month, three of the four boys had been freed, but not Michael. A few days later he was found dead, his body dumped on the side of a road, massacred by his kidnappers. Local authorities attributed the kidnappings to criminal activity by bandits whose interest was in whatever they could extort from the Catholic church or the relatives of the four seminarians.

At Michael’s funeral, the esteemed Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto denounced the injustice of his murder, trying to use the power of his words to awaken the conscience of a nation: “This is for us the moment of decision. This is the moment that separates darkness from light, good from evil. Our nation is like a ship stranded on the high seas, rudderless and with broken navigational aids ... Nigeria is on the crossroads, and its future stands precariously in a balance.”

Michael’s twin brother, Raphael, spoke to the Nigerian press the week he and his brother would have turned 19. He saluted the path of spirituality, faith, and service that his brother had selected. “Michael was so much committed and loved the things of G-d, that his choice to become a priest did not surprise many people who knew him. My consolation is that he did not die in vain, pursuing things of the world, but rather he died in the service to G-d, training for the priesthood.”

It remained a mystery to Raphael, his family, and the seminary as to why Michael had been killed while the others had been freed. The same negotiators had been working on behalf of all four abductees. Some Nigerians, as well as local and international authorities, thought that he may have been disposed of as a negotiating tool to increase the ransom for the others, but no one knew for sure—until April 30, 2020.

That’s the day the murderer, Mustapha Mohammed, was interviewed in prison by Nigeria’s Daily Sun newspaper. The jailed gang leader detailed to the reporter that his gang took five days to survey the property, which was already familiar to one gang member who lived nearby. Then they attacked.

Mohammed spoke openly about Michael’s fate, saying, “He did not allow me any peace; he just kept preaching to me his gospel.”

So why did Mohammed kill Michael?

“I did not like the confidence he displayed [in his faith], and I decided to send him to an early grave,” said Mohammed. This terrorist murderer is 26 years old and not a member of Boko Haram or ISIS in West Africa. He is a local Fulani Muslim and one of the 45 members of a gang that has been working this area for years, brazenly kidnapping, extorting, and murdering the innocent.

The French intellectual and human rights activist Bernard-Henri Lévy traveled throughout the Middle Belt in late 2019 to focus exclusively on the Fulani raids against Christian communities. In a Wall Street Journal essay reflecting on his visit, published days before Hanukkah and Christmas that year, Lévy wrote:

A slow-motion war is under way in Africa’s most populous country. It’s a massacre of Christians, massive in scale and horrific in brutality. And the world has hardly noticed.

A Nigerian Pentecostal Christian, director of a nongovernmental organization that works for mutual understanding between Nigeria’s Christians and Muslims, alerted me to it. “Have you heard of the Fulani?” ... The Fulani are an ethnic group, generally described as shepherds from mostly Muslim Northern Nigeria, forced by climate change to move with their herds toward the more temperate Christian South. They number 14 million to 15 million in a nation of 191 million.

Among them is a violent element. “They are Islamic extremists of a new stripe,” the NGO director said, “more or less linked with Boko Haram.”

Officials’ initial refusal to attribute the attack in Kaduna to Islamists—in any form—reflects a black hole of denial that is pronounced in Nigerian politics. This endemic self-censorship has now been absorbed by many professionals in the foreign policy establishment who have adopted a policy of not mentioning the religious components of these outrages at any cost, in order to prevent being accused of politicizing religion. This denial serves as an accelerant of religion-fueled conflict—until the facts and blood on the ground can no longer be denied.

Accelerant is the word the United States ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard, used in our meeting in February 2020. We asked her about the religious aspects of the violence and conflict in the heart of the country. She denied it was in any way about religion, and described the conflict as “fundamentally a resource issue.” Religion was, according to Ambassador Leonard, only relevant as it served as a potential accelerant to conflict. She left us with the impression that, by speaking up for victims of religious persecution, people like us were a part of the problem. We found this to be hugely alarming.

Later we looked at the embassy’s public statements and social media accounts and discovered that they said almost nothing about the conflict, let alone any of its religious components. We found Ambassador Leonard’s perspective particularly disheartening, given that she serves a secretary of state whose foreign policy has held little ambiguity as to the role of religion in the conflict and the importance of protecting religious freedom in Africa’s largest country.

Of course, no one disagrees about the need to depoliticize religion in Nigeria. Even Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic aid organization, addressed whether the Kaduna attack was “religiously motivated,” using these carefully selected words: “There has been no indication of the abduction being religiously motivated up to now” (emphasis ours). Yet in this same statement, five days following the attack, they rightly left open the door for subsequent information to come to light and further noted:

What is [also] concerning is the security situation of the whole of Nigeria’s so-called Middle Belt—which includes Kaduna. The situation is already extremely precarious owing to the numerous and repeated attacks on mainly Christian villages by members of the nomadic Fulani people. Thousands of people have lost all their properties and been left as refugees. At the same time, [the] Islamist Boko Haram terrorist group has continued to perpetrate its atrocities across the northeast of the country.

They were right to leave this door for further information open because Michael was killed not for money but—in the words of his killer—because of his faith. After all, many of the atrocities being committed in Nigeria today occur not only at the hands of Boko Haram terrorists in the northeast but at the hands of Fulani militants in the heart of the country, not far from its capital.

This Middle Belt is populated by both Christians and Muslims and serves as a de facto dividing line between the predominantly Islamic north and predominantly Christian south. Those who survived one of the hundreds of surprise attacks on Christian communities here (including everyone we personally interviewed) recounted that the Fulani militants were yelling “Allahu Akbar” as they attacked—before they stole land, cattle, and other resources.

These attacks are clearly enabled by a kind of Islamic supremacy, which makes the attackers feel entitled to Christian property, akin to what previous generations of Fulani Muslim raiders believed when initially establishing their foothold in Northern Nigeria 200 years ago. In fact, the Sokoto Caliphate itself was established through an Islamic jihad in the early 19th century, and its leaders were “most, but not all ... Ethnic, Fulani.” Expansionist efforts by Fulani jihadists have continued for generations.

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