WASHINGTON (CATHOLIC NEWS AGENCY)--The controversial presidential election on Feb. 25 still dominates Nigeria’s main news. Meanwhile, recent terrorist raids in Benue, a predominantly Catholic state in north-central Nigeria, are getting scant mention.
Six counties in the Middle Belt state have seen deadly attacks by Fulani militants since the election, according to Mike Uba, the county chairman of Guma, adjacent to the state capital of Makurdi. The affected counties are both in the north and southern borders of the state.
One of the most recent attacks, on March 7, left at least 20 residents dead in the village of Tse Jor after about 40 attackers with machetes arrived on motorbikes and slashed defenseless men, women, and children for at least two hours, Helen Tikyaa, an aid worker employed by the Catholic Diocese of Makurdi, told CNA. Tikyaa said she drove to the village during the attack but dared not go in until the killers had departed.
Women and children from Tse Jor and surrounding villages are still streaming into internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Naka, 20 miles west of Makurdi, Tikyaa said.
Paul Hemba, the security adviser to the Benue governor, told CNA that the killers likely avoided using rifles during this raid to avoid alerting the military, which has a base approximately seven miles south of Tse Jor.
“The terrorists planned this attack knowing they would get little resistance,” he said. “This attack in a remote rural area was a surprise to everyone. The attackers knew that the military would need at least one hour to get to the attack site due to the crude roads and because few of the villagers even had cellphones, and those who did wouldn’t necessarily know who to call in case of emergency.”
Father Remigius Ihyula, a priest administering aid in Makurdi, said the attack on the Tse Jor community caught the citizens and the authorities off guard.
“It was the first time the community saw such violence since the killings started in 2001, and the attackers came without warning,” Ihyula told CNA in a text message. “The motive could be nothing short of terrorism and the desire to inflict pain and disperse populations to occupy the deserted areas.”
Benue has more than 1 million people struggling to survive in makeshift camps due to terrorist raids that have depopulated large areas and prevented hundreds of thousands of small farmers from accessing their four-acre farms, Ihyula said.
The attacks continued 62 miles east of Tse Jor on March 7, according to Father William Shom, who pastors a church in Yelewata, Guma County. An attack by Fulani terrorists who came in large numbers to Yelewata that evening left seven people dead. The terrorists also burned 27 houses, Shom said in a text message to CNA.
“This is what my parishioners are passing through,” Shom added. “We cannot sleep with our eyes closed. We are calling on the international community to come to our aid.”
The town of Naka, population 3,000, is host to a sprawling IDP camp of 5,000 residents, chiefly women and children suffering from hunger and trauma, according to reports from the Foundation for Justice Development and Peace.
“With the attack on Tse Jor on [March 7], there are now eight villages near Naka that have been depopulated and taken over by Muslim tribes, whose militia make up the killing parties,” Tikyaa told CNA. “Many of the children show signs of malnutrition. The state government makes ration deliveries only once each month, and when food runs out, the people in the camps try to earn money by doing jobs or begging in the streets of Naka.”
“The UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], Red Cross, [and] MSF [Doctors without Borders] are very active in giving support of various kinds,” Father Ihyula said. “The UNHCR particularly has been of tremendous help, offering temporary shelters and protection-related support to the victims.”
“While the Benue state government has tried its best under the circumstances, the federal government has neglected the sufferings of the people,” he said.
“From the point of view of the Foundation for Justice and Peace and the Catholic Diocese of Makurdi, our challenge to effective intervention strategies has mainly been the constant attacks and displacement in multiple areas,” he added. “It has been overwhelming dealing with this situation.”
On Benue’s southern border with Cameroon, attacks by Fulani Muslim terrorists claimed more than 50 lives of Catholic parishioners in the remote mountains of Kwande County from Feb. 26 to March 2, according to media reports.
The villages came under attack following the Feb. 25 presidential election, which certified Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the All Progressives Congress (APC) candidate, as the winner. The APC was the known preference of the radicalized militias to win the pivotal presidential race, according to observers at the Denis Hurley Peace Institute, which has argued that the APC win has emboldened the terrorists to attack with impunity.
Benue was won by the APC in the presidential campaign, and the upcoming round of gubernatorial elections on March 18 will see the APC rallying behind a suspended priest as their candidate for governor, Father Hyacinth Iormem Alia. The bishop of the Diocese of Gboko suspended Alia in May 2022 because canon law does not allow priests to be involved in partisan politics.
Alia has reportedly condemned the attacks on the heels of the election and said through his media spokesman that some political groups in Benue have attempted to “cash in” on the APC win.
“My reading of the APC win in Benue is that the people have been deceived to believe that the APC will retain power, and it would be foolhardy to be in the opposition given the benefits of belonging to the ruling party,” according to one priest who would only speak under the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.