A series of brutal attacks were carried out in central Nigeria’s Plateau state on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, leaving over 150 people dead by current estimates. Armed groups carried out coordinated assaults on villagers in four local government areas – Kanam, Wase, Bokkos, and Mangu. Thousands have been displaced by the violence which seems to have been ethnically motivated, targeting largely Christian communities.
Details of the Attacks
The first reports of an attack came on Christmas eve in the Kanam local government area. Local government officials reported Sunday morning that over 100 people had been killed in Kuru Station by gunmen.
“The incident lasted from Saturday evening through Sunday morning,” said Ibrahim Hashimu, Information Officer in Kanam LGA. “Over 100 people were killed and this is very sad because they targeted a group of innocent civilians.” 1
On Sunday, Plateau state governor Caleb Mutfwang said the death toll had reached 115 and was still climbing. The state police commissioner Bartholomew Onyeka also cited that death toll figure.2
The attacks appeared coordinated, striking multiple villages nearly simultaneously in the early hours Saturday night through Sunday morning. In addition to Kuru Station, villages attacked included Chando Zrrechi (Bokkos LGA), Kpachudu and Matir (Riyom LGA), Tihr (Bassa LGA), Ncha (Mangu LGA), Ngyonghong (Mangu LGA), and Wereh (Riyom LGA).3
Mutfwang said “Women, children, and old people were the main target and were purposely slaughtered.” Over 300 homes across 23 villages were burned down completely.4
The violence caused at least 10,000 people to flee their homes seeking safety, as the attackers seemed to rampage through villages “killing anyone in sight and burning down every house.” Some villagers are still reportedly missing days later.5
The brutal and seemingly indiscriminate nature of the attacks as well as the high death toll during the Christmas holiday sparked outrage both domestically in Nigeria and internationally.
Governor Mutfwang called the attacks “pure terrorism” that is “not caused by herder-farmer clashes.” He vowed to still hold the “Wyclef and M I” concert next month to “defy the terrorists.”6
Police and military reinforcements have been sent to the affected areas. Newly elected President Bola Tinubu called the perpetrators “envoys of death and sorrow” who “will not escape justice.”7
Internationally, Pope Francis denounced the “terrorist violence” and offered prayers for the victims in his Angelus prayer on December 26th.8 The U.S. embassy in Nigeria pledged support to Plateau authorities to “bring those responsible to justice.”9
While investigations are still ongoing, local government officials have indicated the likely involvement of “militant Fulani herders” in the attacks. These groups have been involved in cycles of violence with predominantly Christian farming villages in central Nigeria going back several years related to land disputes.10
There has also been concern that the attacks show a rising threat from the Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) terrorist group which has been becoming more active in northwest and northcentral Nigeria.11 ISWAP did claim two attacks in Plateau state last year.12
|Land disputes, ethnic tension
|Involved in farmer-herder clashes for years
|Establish Islamic rule
|Expanding influence, claimed 2 prior attacks in Plateau
While investigations continue, the methodical and coordinated timing of the simultaneous attacks point to extremist terrorist groups like ISWAP as more likely to have both the capability and motivation.
The Bigger Picture
Unfortunately, horrific violence of this nature has become all too common in parts of Nigeria. These attacks come during a period of heightened political and ethnic tensions leading up to Nigeria’s presidential election this past February when the incumbent was voted out.
The Middle Belt region where Plateau State lies has been gripped by violence for years involving disputes between predominantly Muslim Fulani herders seeking grazing land for their cattle and largely Christian farmers seeking to protect their crops and ancestral lands. Thousands have been killed on both sides which has only bred more animosity and retaliation attacks.
In this fragile environment, extremist groups like ISWAP have been able to exploit ethnic fault lines and stir up even more violence to advance their agenda. Their attacks deliberately target Christians to inflame tensions. This makes determining the motivations behind attacks even more complex – existing disputes become intertwined with ideological terrorist violence.
What Happens Next
While condolences, pledges of support, and outrage pour in, affected communities want to see real improvement to security and their own protection. President Tinubu has pledged to crush the “messengers of darkness” who “threaten the right of other citizens to worship freely.”13
But he inherited security crises plaguing multiple regions from day one of his presidency. Curbing violence will require improving rule of law and accountability for attackers, disarmament initiatives, inter-community reconciliation efforts, and likely targeted military operations against known terrorist cells. None of that happens quickly or easily. Tinubu will be pressed to accelerate security sector reforms early in his term.
Locally, the Plateau state governor has his own major challenge to restore confidence among citizens that the government can protect them. Many see the repeated inability to prevent such attacks or capture those responsible as a failure of leadership at both federal and state levels.
While optimism after the election seems to have waned quickly, the administration knows allowing violence to fester risks their political support. So efforts to show strong response can be expected in the short term. Sustaining those efforts and translating pledges into real change on the ground will prove the ultimate test in the longer term.
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