Christian Jonathan's mother was holding the 9-month-old boy in her arms when she was shot dead during an attack on their village in northwestern Nigeria. The assailants cut off one of Christian's fingers and abandoned him by the side of the road with a bullet wound in his tiny leg.
“They left him on the ground beside his mother’s body,” said Joshua Jonathan, Christian’s father. “They thought the boy was dead.”
The late-night attack in April in Runji in Kaduna State left 33 people dead, most of them burned alive or shot dead. Many more have been killed since in the continuing clashes between nomadic cattle herders and farming communities in northwest and central regions of the West African nation, including more than 100 this month in Plateau state.
The decadeslong violence is becoming more deadly, killing at least 2,600 people in 2021, according to the most recent data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Once armed with sticks, the groups now fight with guns that have been smuggled into the country.
Both sides accuse the government of injustice and marginalization, but the clashes have also taken on a religious dimension, giving rise to militias that side with the herders, who are primarily Muslim, or the farmers from Christian communities.
The growing security crisis presents a huge challenge for Nigeria’s incoming president, Bola Tinubu, who rose to power in Nigeria — Africa's largest economy and among its top oil producers — promising to improve the lives of affected communities and address the root causes of the crisis by providing jobs and ensuring justice. Tinubu's inauguration is scheduled for Monday.
If the violence isn't reined in, analysts say, it could further destabilize the country and drive more of its 216 million people into poverty. U.N. agencies say the violence affects mostly children, who are already threatened by malnutrition, and women, who are often abducted and forced into marriage.
The response of security forces can be slow and arrests are rare, prompting a growing number of communities to defend themselves when they come under siege.
“There is a substantial loss of confidence in the government as a protector of citizens," said Nnamdi Obasi, the senior adviser for Nigeria at the International Crisis Group. Obasi warned that the failure of the incoming administration to speedily resolve the conflict would lead to “more people seeking their own self-defense, more proliferation of weapons, more criminal groups and a rise in organized armed groups.”
In Runji, an agrarian village, The Associated Press spoke to some survivors in hospital beds and others touring a mass grave and their razed houses. They said they were under attack for hours and that the gunmen fled long before security forces arrived.
Every household bears a scar.
Christopher Dauda’s family was trying to escape when the gunmen caught up with his wife and four children, killing all five. Danjuma Joshua’s two daughters were shot in the back while they tried to flee. In the home of Asabe Philip, who survived but has burns all over her body, the assailants burned five children alive as they cowered in one room.
Christian's aunt has tried to fill the void left by the killing of his mother. His father said Christian cries a lot and barely sleeps, although his physical wounds are gradually healing.
“We try to manage with what we have left,” Joshua Jonathan said.
On the other side of the conflict, the herders say they are also under attack. They complain of cattle rustling and extrajudicial killings by local security groups working as community vigilantes.
Abdullahi Bello Bodejo, the president of the national herders’ association, denied that anyone in the group was responsible for the violence. Most of the herders belong to the Fulanis, an ethnic group.
“Fulanis are not the killers. Any person carrying out killings is not our member. Sometimes, when communities accuse us of killings, 75% is not true; they have their own crisis but always blame Fulanis,” said Bodejo.
Nigerian security forces say they have arrested dozens of gunmen and recovered their weapons. But the assailants are estimated to number in the thousands and can easily recruit new members, according to Abdulaziz Abdulaziz, a conflict researcher.
“There is a limit to the kinetic (military) operations, as it doesn’t address the socioeconomic issue that gave rise to banditry in the region in the first place,” said Oluwole Ojewale of the Africa-focused Institute of Security Studies. He said the incoming Tinubu administration must work with state governments to address unemployment, poverty and social injustice.
The recent violence has led to the formation of community, state and regional security outfits that experts say could create bigger problems for Nigeria’s security architecture if not properly monitored.
And their recruits are young.
Felix Sunday, a college student in Kaduna, said that he was 16 when he joined a local vigilante group in 2021, and that he struggles to combine the night watch with his studies.
Across much of West and Central Africa, porous national borders facilitate the smuggling of weapons. A survey-based report published in 2021 by the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey in collaboration with the Nigerian government found that at least 6 million firearms may have been in the hands of civilians in the country at the time.
The military and police have recovered hundreds of firearms in Nigeria in the last year, but weapons dealers elsewhere are exacerbating the problem.
“Things have gotten considerably worse. Some are large military weapons imported from other countries,” said Confidence MacHarry with the Lagos-based SBM Intelligence security firm.
With sophisticated weapons, the gunmen have launched daring attacks in areas with a heavy security presence, including a military base and an airport in Kaduna, indicating that the problem may be the motivation of the security forces themselves.
Survivors of the attack in Plateau told the AP that the police didn't arrive until the next day, echoing comments from people living in Runji, which has a security checkpoint nearby.
“When we call the soldiers, it is after the attackers have left that the soldiers come. Even if we hear they (the attackers) are coming and we report to the government, they don’t take proactive action,” said Simon Njam, a vigilante leader near Runji who uses bows, arrows and locally-made guns to secure the area.
Part of the problem is that the security forces are disorganized and unprepared to respond to the attacks, according to Kabir Adamu, the founder of Beacon Consulting, a security firm based in Nigeria's capital, Abuja.
“We don’t have a coordinated security sector that identifies and counters threats," he said. "They need to work together to protect lives and currently, we are not seeing enough of that.”
The Nigerian military and police didn't respond to written and phone inquiries seeking a response to the claims.
As more families mourn the loss of their loved ones, forced to replace farmland with graveyards, their priority is demanding justice.
“How can people just come and kill and nothing will happen?” asked Dauda in Runji, remembering his life with his wife and four children. “They cannot bring back my lost family, but the government can at least rebuild my home and ensure justice.”