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.
While these Fulani attacks are distinct from Boko Haram, their tactics are eerily similar. Virtually every Christian, and many Muslims, concede that these Muslim militants have been emboldened by Boko Haram, even if they aren’t aligned with the latter’s political insurgency. In the first three months of 2020, more than 400 civilian Christians were killed in Fulani raids and hundreds of homes burned.
On our visit we were supposed to meet with a representative from one of these villages. Instead, the leaders of the entire village came, filling up our hotel room, with the adult men still bearing a look of total shock on their faces even though the attack had occurred many weeks before. They described the Fulani raiders arriving under the cover of darkness with their jihadist chants and their AK-47s. The marauders swiftly maimed and murdered Christians while burning down every structure and pillaging what remained.
Hundreds of similar incidents have occurred. We reviewed one confidential list that precisely documents attacks by Fulani militants on 79 Christian villages over the last five years in one state alone. Yet we haven’t identified a single case where the perpetrators were brought to justice or where security forces prevented an attack.
Survivors recount that all these attacks were punctuated by jihadi calls. Nevertheless, countless policymakers, scholars, and diplomats refuse to acknowledge that the Fulani attackers are at least partially inspired by Islamic extremism. In 2018 when Fulani raiders massacred 86 Christians and burned 50 homes around Jos, the Associated Press headline read, “86 Killed in Nigeria as Farmers, Herders Clash.” A similar report in Time magazine included a photo of a large Christian funeral but didn’t mention the words “Christian” or “Muslim” and instead simply described the conflict this way: “Bloody clashes between farmers and nomadic herders in Nigeria’s central Plateau State in late June claimed at least 86 lives, as each group vied for the region’s increasingly scarce farmland.” The reporter attributed the cause of the attacks to “climate change.”
Denying the religious element in Nigeria’s conflict defies credulity. We are writing to nullify this immoral status quo; the time has come to demand that those who promote this accepted narrative prove that religion plays no role in the ongoing slaughter.
Even efforts to acknowledge the complexity and “nuance” of the conflict convey more than a whiff of denialism. Take what John Campbell, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in 2019:
When Christians or Muslims are killed in the Middle Belt, it is not clear exactly why. Is it because they are a farmer or a herder? Or because they are ethnically Fulani, many of whom are herders, or of a small ethnic group, who are often farmers? Or is it because they are Muslims, which most Fulani are, or Christian, which those of many small ethnic groups are? These questions are not easily answered.
Perspectives such as Dr. Campbell’s unintentionally befog the facts on the ground and allow the world to avert its eyes from the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing. After all, there are virtually no Christian raids on Fulani to report. We were able to identify only one incident when the Christians under attack were even able to defend themselves. This is a one-sided, violent campaign, with the Fulani attacking the innocent in the dead of night.
The rare incidents of Christians attacking Fulani herders happened in retaliation to an initial attack by Fulanis, and there are almost no incidents of Fulani herders attacking Christian farmers without the accompanying jihadist cry of “Allahu Akbar!” More often than not, defenseless Christians are taken as lambs to a slaughter.
In an attempt to avoid blame for striking the kindling of a holy war, too many so-called experts would rather twist their analyses into verbal pretzels than acknowledge that this is a deadly religious persecution that demands the world’s attention and action. Nigeria has a religious freedom problem and a human rights problem, not just a problem of natural resources and poverty.
We only wish that academic residents safely ensconced in their ivory towers would take the time to come face-to-face with the victims. Let those scholars then debate what those armed militants were thinking before they barged into another Christian town yelling, “Allahu Akbar!” with their AK-47s firing. Are those thugs really thinking, I want their land because climate change has taken mine?
Whether the Fulani are violent criminals or jihadi terrorists—or both—there is one indisputable fact here: The Nigerian government is failing to stop the bloodshed, and the determined apathy of the international community is aiding and abetting their indifference.
Excerpted from ‘The Next Jihad: Stop the Christian Genocide in Africa’ by Rev. Johnnie Moore and Rabbi Abraham Cooper. Copyright © 2020 by Reverend Johnnie Moore and Rabbi Abraham Cooper. Used by permission of Nelson Publishing, an imprint of Thomas Nelson.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean and director of the Global Social Action Agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Rev. Johnnie Moore is the president of the Congress of Christian Leaders. Their forthcoming book on Nigeria with Harper Collins is titled The Next Jihad.