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Attacks on Nigerian Christians persist despite pandemic lockdowns

Coronavirus restrictions aren’t halting Fulani herdsmen’s assaults

Attacks on Nigerian Christians persist despite pandemic lockdowns

Anglican Rev. Canon Bayo James Famonure after an attack by Fulani herdsmen (Stefanos Foundation)

Minutes before 9 p.m. Tuesday, Anglican Rev. Canon Bayo James Famonure was praying with his wife and two sons in the family’s sitting room when at least three armed herdsmen stormed into their home in Nigeria’s central Plateau state. 

The latest in a string of attacks on Christian leaders in central Nigeria began with the gunmen demanding money. Famonure said he had no cash, and the intruders shot him in the head and leg. Then they shot his wife, Naomi, in the back, and their two sons in their legs. 

As the assailants fled, neighbors carried the family to a hospital in Jos, the capital of Plateau state. Famonure’s wife underwent surgery on Wednesday, reported Mark Lipdo of the Stefanos Foundation in Jos. Doctors removed a bullet from her back that narrowly missed her spine. Doctors treated the rest of the family and all are in a stable condition, Lipdo said. 

“If you see the amount of blood, it’s a miracle he’s not dead,” Lipdo said after visiting the family’s home and seeing them in the hospital. Famonure currently serves as the head of Messiah College high school in Barkin Ladi County, where the attack occurred. He is also the founder of Calvary Ministries (CAPRO), an international mission with operations in several other countries.

Plateau is one of several central Nigerian states at the epicenter of attacks from armed Muslim herdsmen of Fulani origin. They increasingly deploy terrorist tactics to target Christian farming communities. On May 3, Fulani gunmen ambushed and killed four members of the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) as they traveled by motorcycle from Kwell village to Miango Town in Plateau state, reported human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide. 

Some blame changing environmental conditions and lax law enforcement that put the nomadic herders on the move in search of grazing pastures. But targeted attacks by herdsmen resemble attacks on Christians in the north by Boko Haram, the Islamic State–aligned militant group that also increasingly is threatening Christians in Nigeria’s Middle Belt. The violence has continued despite coronavirus-related restrictions, leaving several Christian groups struggling to assist communities battling a double crisis. 

“We are in a total lockdown in Jos with a few days of let out at weekends and this puts us under great pressure,” said Benjamin Kwashi, the Anglican Archbishop of Jos. He is also the general secretary of Gafcon, the global renewal movement of Bible-believing Anglicans. Kwashi survived a similar attack by Fulani herdsmen in 2018 in his home, but a neighbor who tried to confront the assailants was shot and killed. 

Christians and other residents find themselves confined to their homes since Plateau state Gov. Simon Lalong imposed a total lockdown on April 9. Only five out of more than 3,000 coronavirus cases nationwide are in Plateau state. The lockdown order has allowed only two breaks of three days each for families to restock their homes. 

The restrictions have done little to halt attacks and leave Christians perhaps more vulnerable.

Stefanos Foundation

The Famonure home after Tuesday’s attack (Stefanos Foundation)

On April 8, suspected herdsmen attacked a community in Bassa County and killed four people, including the pastor of a local ECWA church. Three days later, insurgents killed a 30-year-old Christian farmer at his home in Bokkos County. On April 26, suspected herdsmen ambushed a man and his wife as they rode a motorcycle in Barkin Ladi, leaving them injured. 

In neighboring central Kaduna state, which has recorded 92 cases of the virus, attacks on five villages between April 23 and 25 left at least 13 Christians dead. The suspected herdsmen also kidnapped another 13 people and burned down homes, vehicles, and food supplies, Morning Star News reported.  

“All the villagers numbering over 1,000 are now taking refuge with relations in nearby towns under tough conditions in this grim period of coronavirus lockdown,” Luka Binniyat, spokesman for the Southern Kaduna People’s Union, said in a statement. 

The persistent attacks have left affected communities in dire need of assistance. On May 7, a team from Stefanos Foundation hauled plastic buckets stuffed with rice, beans, cooking oil, and ground cassava, along with sanitary items, to sustain families in the town of Vom in Plateau state for the next two weeks. 

They also provided information about the coronavirus and taught people proper ways to wash their hands at camps for internally displaced and host communities. Lipdo said the effort will extend to several other towns in Plateau and another community in Kaduna state in the coming days. 

“We knew people were crying for help,” he said. 

The awareness campaign took on more importance after an Islamic cleric preached incendiary sermons about the pandemic. In one video, Sheikh Sani Yahaya called the virus an attempt by President Donald Trump to stop Muslims from going to Mecca and from gathering to worship in their communities. 

In another video reportedly filmed in late March at the Dilimi Mosque in Jos, Plateau’s capital, several Muslims crowded outside a blue fence and others on top of a two-story building chanting in Hausa language: “The Mallam [cleric] said there is no corona; we also say there is no corona.” 

The Jama’atu Nasril Islam, an umbrella body for Nigerian Muslims, released a statement shortly after the video went viral that cautioned preachers not to “incite innocent Muslims, who are unaware of the serious health implications of coronavirus which endangers humanity.”

Lipdo said the videos have also compelled groups like his to respond to Muslims, since disregarding coronavirus warnings poses a larger health risk: “It’s important that we talk to them, advise them—we do everything to raise awareness, so they come to understand this is life-threatening.”

Onize Ohikere

Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD's Africa reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria. Follow her on Twitter @onize_ohiks.

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  • Cyborg3's picture
    Cyborg3
    Posted: Fri, 05/15/2020 10:44 am

    It get so tired of reading of the sad plight of the Christians in Nigeria where they are attacked, brutalized, raped and killed. The government of Nigeria has blood on its hands if it will not protect its citizens or at the very least let them protect themselves.  I pray that God would move the government officials, Christians and others to end these injustices on the Christians of Nigeria!  Also, I pray for the Rev. Canon Bayo James Famonure that God would quickly restore him and fill his work with success!