Nigeria failing to tackle religious violence in its “Middle Belt” – U.S. agency

Nigeria’s government is not doing enough to tackle religious violence in central Nigeria, where more than 100 people have been killed since March, a U.S. government agency said on Monday.

Plateau state and other parts of the “Middle Belt” have suffered for decades from violence linked to land disputes between the semi-nomadic, cattle-herding Muslim Fulani and settled Christian Berom farmers.

There have been several clashes reported in the past weeks in Plateau, where violence can quickly escalate into tit-for-tat attacks that have killed hundreds within weeks in the past.

Security forces have been stretched since an insurgency by Islamist sect Boko Haram intensified more than two years ago.

The unrest in central Nigeria is not directly related to the Islamist insurgency, although Boko Haram has bombed churches in the region with the apparent aim of stoking ethnic and religious tensions.

“Religiously related violence has led to more deaths in northern Nigeria than have Boko Haram attacks,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a bipartisan U.S. government agency.

“The Nigerian government’s failure to prosecute perpetrators of religiously related violence only encourages reprisals and intensifies local tensions and mistrust.”

The agency monitors the right to freedom of religion abroad and makes recommendations to the U.S. government.

It has recommended since 2009 that Nigeria be designated among “countries of particular concern”, a U.S. State Department list of states that violate religious freedom. Iran, North Korea and Saudi Arabia are among those countries designated.

Since 1999, more than 14,000 people, both Muslims and Christians, have been killed in religious violence but only 1 percent of perpetrators have been prosecuted, the agency said.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation and top oil producer, has a roughly equal Christian-Muslim population and more than 200 ethnic groups who mostly live side by side in peace.