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Christian leaders file suit alleging 1,000 people killed in the past three years. “The affected Christian communities have been completely overwhelmed and are now desolate and devastated”.
The government of Nigeria failed to protect people massacred by Muslim Fulani herdsmen in predominantly Christian areas of Benue state in 2016 and should prosecute those responsible, a West African court has ruled.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice on Feb. 26 ordered the government to investigate the attacks that killed more than 300 Christians and destroyed property in the Agatu area, identify and prosecute the perpetrators and redress victims.
“The Nigerian government was in violation of its obligation to protect the human rights of these communities,” the three judges stated in their unanimous verdict.
The court also ordered Nigeria’s government to take urgent measures to protect Christians in the area by deployment of soldiers and police personnel to the affected communities. The suit states that in the past three years, Muslim Fulani attacks have killed 1,000 people and destroyed property in 15 counties, including the Agatu area.
The Rev. Solomon Mfa, a Catholic priest, along with 10 other Christian leaders in the area had filed suit against the Nigerian government at the court, which has jurisdiction over human rights issues for West Africa, as its companion courts, the European Court of Human Rights and the East African Court of Justice, do for their regions.
COURT: FAILURE OF THE NIGERIAN GOVERNMENT
Based in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, the ECOWAS court heard the plaintiffs’ request that the president of Nigeria, the inspector general of police, the chief of army staff and the minister of Internal Affairs be held accountable for the violation of the fundamental human rights of area Christians. In the past three years, herdsmen have set ablaze homes, household items, farms, crops, vehicles, machinery, food and schools, the Christian leaders stated.
“Fulani herdsmen within the last three years carried out over 50 major attacks on Benue communities, the most prominent of them taking place in 15 out of 23 Local Government Areas of the state, namely Agatu, Gwer East, Gwer West, Makurdi, Guma, Tarka, Buruku, Katsina Ala, Logo, Ukum, Kwande, Oju, Obi, and Konshisha,” their suit states. “The affected Christian communities have been completely overwhelmed and are now desolate and devastated as they have suffered wanton destruction of their churches, properties and lives.”
The plaintiffs charged that the failure of the government to constitute an investigation panel or take measures against further attacks amounted to negligence and was oppressive, arbitrary and capricious. They further held the government “responsible for injuring the dignity and pride of the applicants and for causing them great physical and psychological trauma.”
In the lead judgment by Justice Dupe Atoki, the court ordered the government to provide adequate security by deploying more security personnel to the “area to protect the community and prevent further occurrences of that mayhem.”
Based on Article 1 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Right, to which Nigeria is a signatory, the court held that the government is obliged to protect the human rights of its citizens.
The 10 other Christian leaders who filed the suit were the Rev. Joseph Dooga, Dr. Sam Abah, Dr. David Iordaah, Hon. Ochepo Yakubu, Hon. Terse Tange, Favour Adah Paul, Samuel Msonter Ijoho, Iorbee Bajah, Ashi Bajah and Terseer Iorbee Bajah, along with the Movement Against Fulani Occupation (MAFO).
The judges said their decision was anchored in the need to identify the attackers, prosecute them and give justice to the Christian victims.
Government officials have yet to respond to the court’s ruling, but the government had argued that it could not be held responsible for any ethnic crime committed by unidentified and unknown persons not connected or known to the defendants or any of its agencies – a contention the court rejected.
At the same time, the court ruled that it could not award the 500 billion naira (US$1.38 billion) sought by the defendants as it had no record of victims’ names, gender, age or addresses, and destroyed properties had not been specifically identified nor their value estimated.
Solicitor General Dayo Apata, who represented the defendants, blamed the crisis on ethnic differences between the Agatu community and the Fulani community over farming and rearing of animals, “as has been established by various panels of enquiry set up at different times in a bid to proffer solution.”
He argued that the crisis between the Agatu and Fulani communities was not based on security lapses or the inability of the federal or state governments to protect the lives and properties of the people of state, as security agencies were deployed to the Agatu community to protect lives and property.
Justice Edward A. Asante, president of the court, presided over the case, alongside three other judges, including Justice Dupe Atoki, who read the judgment.
Christians make up 51.3 percent of Nigeria’s population, while Muslims living primarily in the north and middle belt account for 45 percent.
Nigeria ranked 12th on Open Doors’ 2019 World Watch List of countries where Christians suffer the most persecution.