Despite incessant attacks, Nigerian Catholics keep their faith
Police and residents of Wumat, a farming town 45 miles south of Jos, Nigeria, arrive to survey damage and help survivors of a terrorist attack on Nov 22, 2022. / Courtesy of Victor Nafor
Abuja, Nigeria, Dec 2, 2022 / 13:45 pm (CNA).
November proved to be an especially deadly month in Central Nigeria, leaving Catholics like Matthew Onah and his family struggling to cope with their losses.
In the Catholic enclave of Maikatako, 11 people were killed on Nov. 15 in an attack by armed militia, reportedly 200 to 300 in number and dressed in black.
Among the victims was Onah’s 2-year-old son. A member of the St. Benedict’s Independent Mission Kuba within the Diocese of Pankshin in Plateau State, Onah said his wife, Rosemary, 33, was injured but is recovering in a local hospital. Their two other children survived.
One week later, at least 12 unarmed civilians were killed by radicalized Muslim militia in the town of Wumat, 45 miles south of Jos, the capital of Plateau State, according to Titus Alams, a former speaker of the Plateau State House of Assembly.
Alams told CNA more than 200 terrorists encircled the hilltop settlement on the cold Tuesday night, shooting residents who tried to escape.
Burned vehicle in the town of Wumat, Nigeria, where 12 villagers were killed in a terrorist assault on Nov. 22, 2022. Courtesy of Victor Nafor
The attacks followed weeks of terror raids on surrounding Christian villages, causing farmers to stay away from their farms, said Father Andrew Dewan, who is in charge of St. Benedict’s Independent Mission Kuba, which serves approximately 25 surrounding villages.
“Just last month, we buried two of our parishioners in a town close to Maikatako,” Dewan said. “They were killed by the same Fulani militants who went to kidnap their sister. They kidnap Christians for ransom, destroy their farm crops and still wage attacks, killing Christians and destroying their livelihoods.”
The motivation for the attacks is “land grab and forceful Islamization,” he said.
“They have taken many of our communities and turned them into no-go zones,” Dewan said.
Officials in Nigeria have often characterized the attacks as clashes between sedentary farmers and semi-nomadic herdsmen over the fertile land, which they say have increased because of climate change.
Bishop Michael Gokum of the Pankshin Diocese told CNA this is a distortion of the facts.
“If you are in your house and somebody comes and attacks you, that is not a clash,” Gokum said in a phone interview. “We are worried about the growing killings not just of Catholics but all Christians which have continued unabated.”
Bishop Michael Gokum, head of the Diocese of Pankshin, Nigeria. Courtesy of Bishop Gokum
The attacks by groups of Islamist militia variously called “herdsmen,” “bandits,” or “unknown gunmen” increasingly victimize farming towns in Nigeria’s vast Middle Belt of states.
At least 18 people were shot and hacked to death in the northern area of Benue State on Nov. 3 in three neighboring villages of Guma County, reported Father William Shom, a resident of the county. Many of the victims were children, Shom told CNA.
More worrisome to Nigerian experts is that herdsmen attacks are popping up in Nigeria’s southern states, where they were rare a few years ago.
On Nov. 21, a terrorist group heard speaking the language of the Fulani tribe attacked villages in the southern area of Enugu State, approximately 400 miles from the attack sites in Bokkos County, Plateau State. Enugu State is home to more than one million Roman Catholic residents.
Analysts have warned that the incessant attacks — if unresisted — could push Africa’s most populous nation into the hands of radical Islamists.
“True, Christian farmers have clashed with nomadic Fulani Muslim herders, or militants, for scores of years, but recent attacks by Fulani militants appear to be coordinated and strategic,” Kyle Abts, executive director of the International Committee on Nigeria (ICON), told CNA.
It’s “concerning that there are continued killings in Plateau State and just a few days later new attacks in the southern state of Enugu,” he added.
“Throughout the Middle Belt, security forces are either overwhelmed, unable to stop, or complicit in these attacks,” Abts said.
Solomon Maren, a member of Nigeria’s House of Representatives, said Bokkos has seen a steady rise in armed attacks and annexations since 2018.
“Our people in the rural areas can no longer farm or move freely without the fear of attacks. Just last month, we buried more than 30 of our people who were attacked either on their farms or in their houses,” he said.
Gov. Simon Lalong ordered a crackdown on terrorists’ hideouts in Bokkos on Nov. 17. Military spokesman Major Ishaku Takwa told CNA that night that the effort was already underway.
However, three hours later, apparently, the same gang of 300 terrorists that attacked Maikatako assaulted a village approximately two miles west of Maikatako.
The volunteer guards in Maikatako armed with single-shot shotguns resisted the night attack as best they could, according to guardsmen who spoke to CNA.
“They took cover behind houses firing their guns but were forced to retreat by the terrorists’ superior weapons, AK-47 assault rifles,” said Bitrus Dang, a retired assistant superintendent of police. Dang and two other men were injured during the attack.
According to the military spokesman in Plateau State, Major Ishaku Takwa, villagers do not call for help early enough.
“Prompt information sharing is key to ending these attacks,” he said. “These terrorists come in and strike within minutes and go away so we need information as soon as it happens.”
A pastor in the town who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation told CNA that two army trucks carrying at least five men each were stationed on a bypass encircling Maikatako earlier in the evening when rumors of a planned attack started circulating. However, they stood by listening to music during the attack, the clergyman said.
“We were helpless,” Dang said.
“They came with AK-47 and AK-49 rifles as well as other sophisticated weapons,” he said. “We only had single-shot cartridge guns.” He said the attack continued for four hours without any intervention by police or soldiers.
While sifting through the rubble of their burned house on the morning of Nov. 16, Onah found a Bible, his only belonging that survived the terrorists’ fire.
“I lost everything including my baby, my car, my house, food and clothing, but with this [Bible], my hope is renewed,” he said.
“Nothing will stop me from being a Catholic. Nothing will stop me from following Christ,” he said.