200 more villagers are feared dead as Nigeria plunges deeper into chaos

The first 50 gunmen arrived Friday night, then disappeared into the blackness enveloping the remote village. But they returned again the next day, at 4 a.m., and that’s when the real horrors began.

“They fired into homes,” Gideon Bughu told local media. “As women and children scampered to escape, they were shot and later cut with machetes.”

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The 45-year-old resident of Sankwai Village, in central Kaduna state, described a night of killing that bled into day. “They set our homes on fire. If you stayed inside, you were burnt. If you run out, they shoot at you. The men stayed inside, so most of those burnt were men.”

By Sunday, the number of residents killed in Sankwai — and neighboring towns Unguwar Gata and Tekum — had risen to 200, according to reports from Deutsche Presse-Agentur and Naij. Nigerian officials declined on Sunday to specify an exact number of victims, and the German news service says the 200 figure was based on villager accounts. “Three villagers were attacked with a number of casualties and homes [were] burnt,” a police spokesperson said. “Troops are now combing the surrounding hills for the murderers.”

The killings are symptomatic of a larger tension that has tightened around the nation since the 2011 general elections, which ushered in the administration of Christian Goodluck Jonathan over Muslim Muhammadu Buhari.

After that election, the northern territories of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, rioted following what they perceived as a breach of a tradition that would have placed a Muslim in charge of the country. According to a political agreement, power in the country rotates between southern Christians and northern Muslims every two terms.

Just last week, gunmen riding motorbikes gunned down at least 69 people as they burned their way through four villages in the nation’s arid north. The region is home to Boko Haram, a group linked to Al Qaeda, which wants to impose Islamic law over the region and has killed at least 500 people this year, Agence France-Presse reports.


This screengrab taken from a video released on YouTube on April 12, 2012 apparently shows Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau sitting flanked by militants. (Handout Via AFP/YouTube)

But Sunday’s killings, perhaps, were driven as much by scarcity of resources as sectarian tension. Many of the conflicts pit Muslim cattle herders against Christian farmers — both of whom may be armed with automatic weapons — vying for plots of land.

In December of last year, Human Rights Watch published a report saying religious tension has killed as many as 3,000 people since 2010. The report painted a chilling picture of a country run by feckless authorities as it plunges into chaos.

“The response of Nigerian authorities following mass killings has been surprisingly similar through the years,” the 137-page document says. Few atrocities, it says, are reported to authorities. “By far the most common reason cited for not reporting [it] was captured by a rural man in Kaduna State: “‘The police won’t do anything.'”

Terrence McCoy covers poverty, inequality and social justice. He also writes about solutions to social problems.
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Gail Sullivan · March 17, 2014