This article is part of our special report Europe’s role in stopping Nigeria’s ‘silent slaughter’.
Dr Richard Ikiebe has led recent efforts to get international community backing to stop nearly two decades of ethnic and religious killing in Nigeria. “Now, people are listening to us”, he says.
Dr Ikiebe is a co-founder of the International Organisation for Peace Building and Social Justice (PSJ), whose recently launched ‘Silent Slaughter’ campaign is seeking to build international awareness to halt murderous attacks by the Fulani and Islamic terror groups in Nigeria’s northern and Middle Belt regions.
The US Department of Defense’s Africa Center for Strategic Studies estimates that 60,000 lives have been lost since 2001.
The groups may be different and operate in different regions but the pattern is similar. In the north-east, attacks by Boko Haram or the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) are against predominantly Christian and ethnic minorities. Farmer-herder clashes have been predominantly between Muslim Fulani herdsmen and Christian farmers, exacerbating ethnoreligious hostilities.
In the 2019 Global Terrorism Index Nigeria ranks 3rd between Iraq and Syria as the countries most impacted by terrorism, and Fulani extremists as being responsible for the majority of terror-related deaths in the West African country.
Dr Ikiebe tells EURACTIV that PSJ has been campaigning on the issue for just over two years. “We’ve always been involved in this space.”
The question is why Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, a stern former general who was re-elected for the second four year term in February 2019, is failing to protect his country’s people.
For Ikiebe, the inaction of President Buhari’s government borders on complicity. “Even in his home state there are killings,” he points out. “You can’t have people being killed so brutally, so consistently, and in such large numbers, and nobody is arrested,” he says.
“Of course there are things in north-east with Boko Haram – almost like a lawless territory. It is nothing short of complicity.”
The Governor of Delta state, Senator Ifeanyi Okowa, has also accused “unidentified military personnel” of helping the herdsmen following a spate of murderous attacks in January and February.
“We have listened to over 50 victims who have told us that there were helicopters flying overhead,” Ikiebe says.
It is the government’s failure to listen and act that has prompted Dr Ikiebe and PSJ to go to the international community. “We are not getting any traction in the country. We are speaking to deaf ears,” says Ikiebe, adding that there is “a state of denial” in Nigeria.
PSJ has launched its campaign in the United States and United Kingdom, and Ikiebe is confident that the tide is starting to turn among the international community.
“Now people are listening to us,” says Ikiebe, adding that “several weeks ago, we had an audience with the US Secretary of State, asking for a special envoy as they did in Darfur.”
That proposal would expand the existing position of US Special Envoy for Boko Haram to cover Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin to cover terrorism by Boko Haram and Fulani militants, deteriorating human rights and the root causes of violence, as well as food insecurity and poor governance.
Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was “quite open” to the proposal, says Ikiebe.
That was followed by a debate in the UK Parliament on the security situation in Nigeria.
“We are using every open door to try to speak to those in power”.
Work in progress
Getting Europe into motion is a different challenge, however. “Engagement with the EU is still a work in progress,” Ikiebe says, adding that there is often a reluctance by the EU and other world leaders to get involved in anything that has its roots in ethno-religious conflicts or the colonial past.
“People are afraid, tired of anything with religious connotations. If you call it what it is – ethno-religious killing – then everyone takes a dive,” he says.
“There is hypocrisy when it comes to persecution of Christians.”
The combination of militant Fulani herders and Jihadist terror groups in Nigeria is similar to the situation in the neighbouring Sahel countries, where France has been leading Operation Barkhane and has sought to persuade other European countries to contribute troops and aid to the G5 Sahel mission which has been tasked with combating jihadist groups in the region.
“The EU should take more interest in the Sahel and do more to hold the government of Nigeria to account over what is happening to its people,” says Ikiebe.
He adds that the insecurity in the Sahel and northern Nigeria is also fuelling migration from the region to Europe.
“80-90% of Africans crossing into Europe (from the Sahel) are Nigerians. And they will keep coming. If the EU is going to keep giving aid – they should put everything on the table,” says Dr Ikiebe.
(Edited by Frédéric Simon)