Nigeria’s Grief

On Sunday, May 30th, cries of terror filled the scattered homes that make up the rural community of Nwori Nduobashi, Nigeria. It was around 3 in the morning, and people were still asleep when an armed band broke into their homes, flashing light in their eyes to confuse them while they swung their machetes. In the meantime, some attackers stood by the door and windows, killing those who tried to escape. Some had guns.

If a door was too solid to break down, the attackers set the house on fire. The few people who managed to escape were chased down and killed. Some bodies were found later on in the bushes—or only their clothes.

From Nwori Nduobashi, the attackers moved to nearby Ekpufu, Odoke, and Obakota, burning and sacking homes in their wake. By the time the massacre was over, about 123 houses were burned, and 120 people had perished—men, women, and children. Another 80 were seriously injured, many of whom were brutally dismembered.

Rescue Operations

Far from any major hospital, the survivors rushed their wounded to the closest clinic, about 45 minutes away by motorcycle (the most common means of transportation). They usually had three people on a motorcycle—one driving, and one holding the injured. Those who could not be transported by motorcycle were placed in wheelbarrows and pushed by hand.

The clinic is run by the Nigeria Reformed Church and is located in Onueyim Agbaja, where the mission had a compound. Marieke Ude-De Hollander, counselor at John Calvin Secondary School in Oswanka and wife of the local pastor and school principal, Rev. Nicodemus Ude, gave a report of the critical situation: “The first day almost all the patients were brought to our church clinic. There were so many, and the wounds were multiple and terrible—cut-off hands and feet, pierced eyes... Several babies were born on the road as people were fleeing.”

Medical personnel soon arrived from small nearby clinics, working from 8am until 9pm without a break, while others went to the nearest town (about ninety minutes away) to look for supplies.

“One pastor’s wife cooked for all the workers,” Ude-De Hollander continued. “My husband went to ask the staff of our school to donate blood. The government started sending cars to pick up patients and take them to the federal hospital in tow, and promised to treat them for free.”

In the meantime, the local communities had to deal with feelings of shock, panic, and grief. Many people decided to flee. “There is of course a lot of trauma and fear that can flair up at the slightest rumors,” Ude-De Hollander explained. “However, the Lord has also been so good to us in all this. Many people have prayed for us, and we see God answered prayers in different ways. It is really a miracle the way the patients could be helped with the very limited resources of our clinic. Also, some terrible wounds have healed very neatly.”

“After the first days were over, the church started visiting the affected villages,” she continued. “They formed teams of about seven people, and visited every compound to bring sympathy and comfort. One missionary that leads a program for disabled started conducting workshops on trauma healing too. We hear testimonies on how people are helped “

“Meanwhile, they also kept record of the number of destroyed houses and property, and the number of wounded, dead, and surviving people from each compound. They brought money to those that had lost everything, allowing them to buy necessities.”

The teams also visited the patients who had been moved to the state hospital. The treatment there is free of charge, but not always sufficient. “Sometimes the patients need medicine that is not available in the hospital, and needs to be bought outside,” Ude-De Hollander explained. “Some also need surgery in Enugu. The church helps financially in such cases, with the help of a donor.”

A Persisting Problem

As shocking and senseless as these attacks are, they are not rare in Nigeria. They are often attributed to Fulani shepherds, a decentralized, semi-nomadic group that has found increasing difficulties in finding grazing land for their herds. In desperation, some of these shepherds have trespassed into lands belonging to farmers, causing obvious conflicts.

According to a 2021 Report on Nigeria’s Security by the European Asylum Support Office, “Between 2015 and 2018, it has been estimated that at least 3,641 people have been killed and an estimated 300,000 have been displaced as a result of the conflicts.”

The Report quotes the Global Terrorism Index as stating that “‘Fulani extremists’ were responsible for 26% of terror related deaths in Nigeria and 325 fatalities in 2019.”

Since the Fulani are predominantly Muslim while most farmers are Christian, this conflict has also been presented as religious persecution, but this doesn’t seem to be true in every case. In these latest attacks, for example, the aggressors have burned down single homes, but no churches. Moreover, the Izi farmers of the attacked area were not involved in any conflict with herders. Quite aptly, the Report on Nigeria’s Security is careful to point out that blaming all the attacks on Fulani shepherds is a dangerous generalization, “presenting the Fulani as an ethnic-based terrorist group, when much of the perpetrators include criminal gangs of bandits and cattle rustlers.”

Most of the time, in fact, the attackers’ identity and motives have been difficult to determine. In some cases, the conflicts have been used for political gain. Some believe that groups like Boko Haram, one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in Africa, might be responsible for some of these attacks. But there are other possibilities, including tribal conflicts.

Blaize Itodo, a journalist, artist, and photographer in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, agrees that religious persecution is a painful reality in Nigeria. “Christians who have lost their lives or are still in captivity because they profess the Christian faith (as in the case of the school girl, Lia Sharibu, who is still in captivity) and those who can't even gather to worship because of fear of an attack are been persecuted. But beyond that, I think the attacks are fueled more by social, political, and financial interests.”

In any case, Itodo thinks that the attacks must be seen as crimes before they are seen as religious persecution, since they are a violation of human, not simply religious, rights.

So far, Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, has been slow to act, causing some to wonder if he, being a Fulani, is trying to protect his ethnic group. Many other politicians are equally passive, and some have been accused of siding with the attackers.

Idoto believes that all villages should set up some security measures, because none are safe. They should raise the level of vigilance and be on the look-out for strange or unfamiliar activities around their communities.  “I believe the people can do something if they are aware of [the attackers’] coming,” he said.

“The people should also begin to hold accountable their leaders and people they have delegated to hold these responsibilities on their behalf, demand that they do the right thing, stop the worship of leaders and people in authority, be involved in the process of choosing their leaders, and be less emotional about these things and more objective in their contributions.”

Ude-De Hollander agrees. “What is difficult is that the Federal Government keeps silent on this, and, as you can see, the whole world looks away.”

Trusting in God’s Care

Constant threat can produce fear. “When people live in fear,” Idoto says, “everything looks like a solution. So many have resorted to other things instead of trusting and focusing on serving God. In some cases, the fear of suicide bomb blasts has stopped people from going to church. When you fear what the devil can do to you as a Christian more than what God can do for you, it means your faith is shaky.”

Fear, Idoto says, can cause Christians to compromise or relativize their faith. “This can be seen around us in how we trust what our tall fences, bullets-proof cars, armed military personnel and secretive lives can do for us more than what God can do for us.”

Paradoxically, this fear doesn’t seem to be paralyzing the survivors of the recent attacks, who are instead focusing on how to move on. “Because it affects everybody, there is also a powerful feeling of shared grief,” Ude-De Hollader said. “People also have an optimistic hope that things are going to be better, which is a great gift, I believe.”

The first day after the attacks, the Ude family and some neighbors met to pray and sing. One song in particular stressed the importance of turning to Christ. “We all had a strong sense of urgency,” Ude-De Hollader said.

The following Sunday, Rev. Ude preached from Psalm 11. Then the whole church joined in singing the words of Psalm 91. “We were strengthened by worshipping God together,” Ude-De Hollader explained. “The church has been united in bringing comfort and relief. We also experience a deep gratefulness for knowing Christ as our safety and a renewed zeal to bring the Gospel to others. We receive strength and help when we worship God together.”

“What comes forward in the discussions time and again, are many stories of how God saved people who were calling on the Name of Jesus. Through this we see that, unless it is God’s time to call us to heaven, as a Christian, nobody can take our life.”

Ude-De Hollader hopes that Christians in Europe and North America will keep the Nigerian churches in prayer and raise awareness of a situation that is too often hushed down and kept out of sight.

Simonetta Carr is a mother of eight and a homeschool educator for twenty years. She has also worked as a freelance journalist and a translator of Christian works into Italian. Simonetta is the author of numerous books, including Weight of a Flame and the Christian Biographies for Young Readers series.

Related Links

Podcast: "Suffering, Sovereignty, and the Book of Job"

How Long, O Lord? Suffering, Scripture, and the Grace of God, with Ligon Duncan and D. A. Carson

When the Stars Disappear: Help and Hope from Stories of Suffering in Scripture by Mark Talbot

"Suffering and the Sovereign" by Phil Ryken

"Rejoice in the Midst of Suffering?" by Jason Helopoulos

"Byang Kato and the Universal Nature of the Historical Gospel" by Simonetta Carr