Bulus*, 32, is in prison in Nigeria. His family had him arrested when they found out he was a Christian pastor. Now he’s waiting in an overcrowded cell to have his case heard but it could be up to ten years before there’s any significant progress.
Bulus is Fulani, a traditionally nomadic Muslim people in northern Nigeria. When his family discovered that he was not only a Christian but also a pastor they had him thrown in prison. “Before I could leave, relatives trapped me and started beating me,” said Bulus. “I thought I was going to die, but they dragged me to the police station and accused me of stealing some of their goats. Despite the fact that there was no proof, the police locked me up. Five days later they took me to court. I did not have the opportunity to defend myself but I was kept in prison anyway.”
Open Doors has provided funds for a lawyer to defend Bulus’ case. As an ex-Muslim there is pressure to have Bulus tried in Sharia court. Open Doors appointed lawyers is working to have the case heard in a secular court.
Nigeria is notorious for its broken justice system. Police can arrest people on a whim. Brutality and corruption are common. Cells are overcrowded such that each night is a battle to find enough space on the floor to lie down and sleep. Those who have been arrested can wait years to be convicted of any crime. While each year hundreds of prisoners die in the process from neglect or mistreatment.
Bulus knows that the end of this ordeal is still a long way off and he isn’t allowing himself any false hope of a speedy release. Instead he is using his imprisonment as an opportunity to share what he learnt at theological college. He said, “I decided to use my time in prison to preach the gospel. Many people don’t like it, but I continue anyway. I have received hope and strength from God to keep doing the work which He has called me to.”
His fellow prisoners regularly come to him for advice and prayer. One warden said, “Bulus is different. He seems at peace even when he faces difficulties.”
Before he became a Christian Bulus lived the semi-nomadic life of any Fulani. He tended his father’s livestock, herding them to fresh pastures. He knew to respect his elders and fear Allah. Five times a day he faithfully rolled out his prayer mat towards Mecca and prayed. Though he admits now that it never stirred his heart. Then one day a group of Christians visited. “An outreach team came to our village. After I heard their message I gave my life to Christ,” he said.
For his family this was unacceptable. To them being Fulani means being Muslim and they had an obligation to enforce their Islamic faith in the family. But Bulus was a firm his Christian faith. So his family disowned him. Bulus lost his inheritance, status in the clan and any prospects of a marriage. The future he had expected was gone. Still he was unwavering in his faith.
But when his family threated to kill him, he fled.
Bulus went to Jos, a city in Plateau State, where no one knew him. He enrolled in theological college to learn more about his new faith. He said, “In that time I learned a lot about Christ and experienced His provision in my life. But it was a very lonely time. I had no friends, no family and no support network. I was angry at my family for how they had treated me. But during the course I learned a lot about forgiveness. After I graduated I wanted to go home to see if there was any way my parents and I could be reunited.”
On his return to his village Bulus found the situation worse than before. “Their hatred had increased, especially when they heard I had become a pastor,” he said. That’s when they had him arrested.
Nigeria is number 12 on the 2017 Open Doors World Watch List. While the Nigerian army has had some success in tackling the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram, most of the recorded killings have been carried out by nomadic Fulani herdsmen, Islamic extremist who frequently targets Christian communities. In 12 of the northern states, Sharia (Islamic law) has been implemented. Christians in these states face discrimination and restrictions in accessing community resources, such as clean water, health clinics and higher education.
*Name changed for security reasons
Who are the Fulani?
The Fulani are the world’s largest nomadic group with 38 million people across central and west African countries. They speak a variety of languages including Hausa, English, French and Arabic.
Traditionally they are a nomadic group, herding cattle, goats and sheep. Some have settled, giving up the nomadic life, or graze their cattle locally. But there are others who still embrace a roaming existence.
An estimated 20-25 million Fulani people live in Nigeria. To be Fulani in Nigeria is to be a Muslim and 99% of them are – although there are varying degrees of dedication.
Where did the Fulani come from?
The Fulani’s traditional homelands are in the Sahel but Saharan desertification is forcing them to migrate further south to find grazing for their livestock. Nigeria loses 2,168 square kilometres of arable land every year to desertification, threatening the livelihoods of about 20 million people.
Nigeria’s Middle Belt straddles the divide between the largely Muslim north and a majority Christian south. It is an ethnically and religiously diverse zone, plagued by conflict over farmland, grazing areas, and stock routes. Fulani Herders are migrating here looking for pasture and water in a virtually unchecked way, intensifying pressure on already scarce resources.
What’s causing the current conflict?
There has been an increasing trend of conflicts – mostly with indigenous Christian who are being driven out of their ancestral homes.
Fulani herders are trying to uproot villages for socio-economic purposes and religious reasons. They have armed themselves and with sophisticated weapons and invade indigenous areas that do not belong to them, attacking and destroying villages, killing and chasing people off their ancestral lands and settling there themselves.
Thousands have been killed and many more have been injured in attacks. Hundreds of women have been kidnapped. Fulanis have destroyed countless homes and churches and seized large swathes of land and property. Communities are desolated. Children are displaced and can no longer attend school. Access to medical services has become more challenging than ever. Crops are destroyed and villagers are left without food or seeds to replant their fields. Those who stay in their villages are indiscriminately targeted. Land that has been abandoned by its owners is then seized by the Fulani.
Historically, grazing reserves were envisaged as ways to avoid competition for land and water points. But land has been squeezed by expanding commercial holdings. Most of the land, especially in the north, has been appropriated by private interests and corrupt politicians. The government has asked indigenous Christians to give up some of their land so that the Fulani can graze their livestock without conflict. However, they offer no compensation to the farmers who are adamantly against giving up their ancestral lands to Fulani, who attack their villages.
Nobody has been arrested for the attacks despite reports to the police. The government’s lack of action has exasperated the victims and fuelled rumours that the attacks are part of a governmental plan to impose Islam in Nigeria.
Open Doors research shows that violence increased in the run-up to the 2015 presidential elections and has persisted since Muhammadu Buhari, himself a Fulani, became president. Open Doors estimates that at least 50 villages are attacked each year leaving hundreds of families mourning and hundreds of homes destroyed.
Many experts on Nigeria now believe that Fulani violence across the Middle Belt has been responsible for more deaths than Boko Haram.
Is religion playing a part?
The reporting of the conflicts is often portrayed in light of migration but there is also a religious component. Open Doors research in three Nigerian states showed that 78 per cent of victims were Christians.
Many victims of the Fulani insist that the herdsmen are using the grazing conflict to execute an Islamic agenda of killing Christians and intimidating those that survive to renounce their faith in favour of Islam. The violence is inspired by the radical Islamic ideology espoused by Boko Haram that calls for the establishment of an Islamic state throughout Nigeria.
Professor Yusufu Turaki, Director of the Centre for the Study of Religion, Church and Society at Jos ECWA Theological Seminary said, “The Islamic ‘revival’ against the West, especially Christianity and western culture, has mobilised and motivated Muslims in West Africa, where they have started to think of reviving Islam and its original status. So today in northern Nigeria there is a vibrant and active revivalist Islamism. This militant form of Islam wants to move into the areas where it never was.”