On Sunday, March 7, five hundred Christians were killed—slaughtered with machetes by Fulani Muslims in the Nigerian state of Plateau. The latest in religious clashes that the state has seen in recent months, the bulk of the attacks this time were in three farming villages (Dogo Nahawa, Zot, and Rastat) near the town of Jos, with reports claiming around 75 houses burned.
Christian leaders say they telephoned for protection from the national security forces as the Muslim crowd gathered, but the military apparently refused to react until 3:30 a.m., by which time the slaughter was mostly finished. Indeed, the failure to protect the Nigerian Christians was even more egregious—for the assailants seem to have come from out of state. Despite advance notice of their arrival, the military made no plans beforehand to protect the threatened villages.
Some of this governmental failure comes from sheer incompetence, and some derives from an unwillingness of Muslim political and military leaders to attack their own people. But mostly the failure to protect threatened Christians seems to originate in the strange fear of action the military forces seem to feel. Even while Church burnings and assassinations continue, the military—which acts as the national rapid-response police force—is terrified of being perceived as taking sides. Hundreds of deaths later, they move into an already burned-out territory and declare victory.
Christians outside Nigeria have been oddly quick to seek non-religious reasons for the murders. It’s true that ethnic battles align with some of the religious conflicts, as do geographical divisions between the oil-rich south and the impoverished north—to say nothing of the old wounds still felt from the civil war, from 1967 to 1970, over the attempt of Biafra to secede from Nigeria.
For that matter, Nigeria has been plagued with attacks on its oil wells and pipelines. Officials, including three state governors, meet yesterday to discuss an offer of amnesty for rebels who disarmed—and a militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, promptly bombed the building.
But the fact remains that, whatever the cause, violence in Nigeria always ends up as religious. Authorities have arrested and charged 49 of those who attacked the villages around the state capital of Jos, but they still have no plans in place to prevent future attacks.
And so the violence will go on. And what advice can we give the Christian communities? The incapacity of the government to protect its citizens will have—must have—one sure result: When government fails, people take on the roles of government—especially the military roles. If the Nigerian authorities cannot act, the Christian communities will have to arm themselves and form mobile, rapid response military groups to safeguard their members.
It’s hard to advise the Christians not to arm themselves, but this is not a result anyone wants to see. International pressure on the Nigerian government may help force the authorities to act more seriously. Indeed, it’s the only possible help, and here at First Things we are organizing a protest rally, to be held at 5:00 on April 7 at the Permanent Mission of Nigeria to the United Nations, 828 Second Avenue, here in New York.
How many more rampages will it take? How many more murders of 500 people here, 500 people there—a land red with blood—before the Nigerian government understands its responsibilities? It took more than a decade for the world to understand the slaughters that were happening in the south of Sudan and apply pressure to the Sudanese government. We cannot allow the same delay to happen now. Join us on April 7 as we rally to bring attention to the murderous consequences of the failure of Nigeria to defend its own people.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things