What is behind the Christmas Eve killings in Nigeria and ethnic tensions in the Middle Belt, explained

Ayaan Paul
Ayaan PaulDec 27, 2023 | 12:59

What is behind the Christmas Eve killings in Nigeria and ethnic tensions in the Middle Belt, explained

The Christmas Eve killings in the Nigerian central Plateau state marked a brutal episode of violence that has become disturbingly common in the region. The attacks, orchestrated by suspected nomadic herders, resulted in the deaths of at least 140 people and left a trail of destruction through 15 villages.


While the immediate trigger for the attacks on that particular Christmas Eve remains unclear, the broader context of violence in the region, known as the "Middle Belt," points to underlying socio-ethnic tensions. 


The Nigerian Middle Belt is a religiously and ethnically diverse region that runs north to south across the country. It's home to around 45 million people, who speak more than 230 languages.

The Middle Belt's population is projected to be 65% Christian, 25% Muslim, and 10% Animist. 

  • The Middle Belt is characterised by a complex interplay of ethno-religious dynamics, with clashes often involving Muslim Fulani herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers.
  • The clashing collective memories of the two social groups regarding land ownership, space, and resources, and their divergent perceptions of identity have led to violent conflicts. 

Ethnic tensions in Plateau state

Plateau state, situated in the ethnically and religiously diverse Middle Belt, has been grappling with conflicts fuelled by factors such as climate change and expanding agriculture. 

The region's communities face heightened strain due to these changes, leading to escalating tensions between Muslim herders and Christian farmers. The result has been a surge in cases of inter-communal violence, with hundreds of lives lost in recent years.

  • The conflict has been exacerbated by the competition for land, driven by climate change and agricultural expansion. 
  • Nomadic cattle herders from northern Nigeria, facing increasingly arid conditions, are compelled to move southward. In the southern regions, farmers are expanding their production to accommodate a rapidly growing population. 
  • This clash over diminishing resources, particularly land, has fuelled violence and deepened the rift between herders and farmers.

Implications of violence

The recurrence of such attacks underscores the ostensible objective of driving certain communities off their ancestral lands. However, the resistance from the affected populations is evident, as they strive to withstand these assaults on their homes and livelihoods.

Amnesty International has criticised the Nigerian authorities for their failure to curb the frequent deadly attacks in Plateau state, highlighting the need for effective measures to address the root causes of the violence. 

Nigerian President Bola Tinubu condemned the Christmas Eve attacks as "primitive and cruel" and directed the police to track down those responsible.

Last updated: December 27, 2023 | 12:59
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