Tuesday, December 24, 2019


At the referee’s whistle, the teams thought the match was over, as celebratory firecrackers popped, but in seconds they realized something was horribly wrong.

Francis Abba, 29, a talented elementary-school teacher, went down with a bullet smashing his femur bone. Coach Solomon Johanna, 48, faltered as a bullet sliced through his left hand but ran for cover into the knee-high meadow grass next to the pitch, according to witnesses. Most knew they were under attack by Fulani terrorists who had come for blood as they did five years ago to intimidate farmers crowding into their range land in this troubled state of Northern Nigeria.

Four masked men shouting slogans in the Fulani language rushed onto the field firing AK-47 rifles at the fleeing crowd of 200 fans, said Markus Tanko, a spectator at the match held in the village of Zunuruk. Francis played dead and refused to flinch when a terrorist shot him a second time to be sure, said his foster father, Dr. Michael Habu Duwai. In the dim light of sunset, the shooters looked for survivors who could be finished. One of them found Coach Solomon by the light of his cellphone as he dialed for help and shot him through his lower chest, said Dr. Duwai. Before they left the area, the terrorists had killed the coach and four players who had come for an annual Christmas football tournament that was set to end in a playoff on Christmas Day.

Welcome to South Kaduna, 17 days before Christmas.

“When I heard the popping sounds, I was at police checkpoint a kilometer from the village. I ran to the village and discovered about a dozen victims on the ground, some dead, others were injured. My son was shot twice in the leg, so I gathered him up and rushed him to the hospital, said Dr. Duwai, a sports-medicine specialist in the area.

“The attack was a deliberate act to destabilize our Christmas festivities and to inflict fear on our Christian community,” he texted from his home in Kaura Local Governance Area, a 90-minute drive south of the state capital of Kaduna City.

Heartbroken families, hoping to celebrate Christmas with a tournament among eight local churches, are fuming at local security officials who failed to arrive for more than hour, even though a military checkpoint was a 10-minute walk away.

The complaint that Muslim police and army deliberately neglect to come to the aid of Christians under attack has been heard for years in the badlands of Nigeria’s genocidal conflict, which scholar Bernard-Henri Levy recently called Africa’s “slow motion war.”

Mr. Levy, who was familiar with the Islamic State and the virulent Boko Haram group, came to Nigeria to learn for himself about Nigeria’s “other conflict,” the onslaught of the radicalized elements of the Fulani ethnicity, branded by the 2019 Terrorism Index as the most lethal insurgency in the country. He is sounding the alarm, which is long overdue, and he is not alone. On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explained that that Nigeria had been added to a special watch list of countries that have engaged in or tolerated “severe violations of religious freedom.” Mr. Pompeo pushed Nigeria higher on the list of problematic countries by putting it alongside Cuba, Nicaragua and Sudan.

Nigeria is not simply the most populous nation in Africa, it is the pivotal nation for steering the countries of the Sahel region toward free-market democracies or toward authoritarian, Islamist states such as Sudan,” says Stephen Enada, founder of the International Committee on Nigeria (ICON). “Islamist insurgencies, including those linked to the Islamic State of West Africa, Boko Haram and al Qaeda factions are challenging the militaries of several Sahara nations, according to terrorist analysts presenting at a Dec. 12 terrorism conference sponsored by the Jamestown Foundation in Virginia.

“The wanton massacre of five young men in Zunuruk is all the more tragic because of the deliberate neglect of military forces in the area to protect the eight Christian communities under attack,” says Mr. Enada. “Yet, even when governments and the snooze media are failing in their resolve to protect the powerless, now is the time for the West to take the persecuted Christians of Nigeria under our wing and into our line of sight. Thus, there is no better time for the Department of State to make its declaration of concern about the state of Nigeria, truly a failed state,” he said.

Douglas Burton is a former State Department official in Iraq and writes on terrorism and national security issues from Washington, D.C. Stephen Kefas Solomon in Port Harcourt, Derek Christopher in Kaura, and Lawrence Zongo in Kaduna contributed to this column.

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