Priest killed in Nigeria on way to mediate peace

According to some historical studies the two populations lived in harmony until the advent of British colonization, when the colonial authorities favored the Jukuns to the detriment of the Tiv, planting the seed of discord which exists to the present day.

The Vatican New Agency, Agenzia Fides, reported the sad news that yet another priest has been murdered in Nigeria. Fr. David Tanko from the Diocese of Jalingo, was on his way to mediate in an ethnic conflict between the Tiv and Jukun populations on August 29. Fr. Tanko was stopped by armed men on the approach to the village of Takum, in central-eastern Nigeria. 

Local witnesses reported that an armed militia, suspected to be Tiv, killed Fr. Tanko after which they set fire to his body and his car. 

The Bishop of Jalingo, Mgr. , condemned the killing of Fr. Tanko:

“As soon as we heard the news of his death we were shocked. The diocese is in mourning”. 

Bishop Hammawa added: “We preached peace and made efforts to bring both sides to the negotiating table. State police promised me they are investigating the case, we pray that the perpetrators will be brought to justice… We do not want there to be retaliation that would only worsen the situation.”

Catholic Priests walk in procession to St. Leo Catholic Church to hold a mass before proceeding on a solidarity rally against violent attacks across the country in Lagos, on May 22, 2018. – Catholic Churches in Nigeria held solidarity rally across the country to prortest against a church attack in Benue state that killed at least 18, including two Roman Catholic priests. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

The funeral of Fr. Tanko took place on September 2 and he was buried in the diocesan cemetery of Jalingo on September 3. 

The conflict between the Tiv and the Jukuns dates back to 1953. According to some historical studies the two populations lived in harmony until the advent of British colonization, when the colonial authorities favored the Jukuns to the detriment of the Tiv, planting the seed of discord which exists to the present day.

The conflict resurfaced violently on April 1st and was triggered by a dispute between a Tiv and a Jukun in the village of Kente in the Wukari area, which soon degenerated into a series of raids in the villages of the two populations, with deaths and looting. The violence also spread to the neighboring State of Benue. In July, the governors of the two States concerned, Benue and Taraba, launched an appeal for peace, while Dr. Isaiah Jirapye, President of the local section of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), asked the two parties to dialogue, stating “to having made the necessary contacts for an immediate dialogue to guarantee the end of hostilities”.

According to AFP, at least two Nigerian priests were killed in August, while a third survived shots at his car.

In Africa’s most populous country with 190 million inhabitants, Christian and Muslim leaders, who represent 47 percent and 52 percent of the population respectively, play a significant role as mediators in the resolution of local economic or political conflicts.
They then become targets of violence, wrongly attributed to their religion.

On Aug. 22, a coalition of religious organizations met in the capital, Lagos, on the occasion of the International Day of Remembrance of Victims of Religious Violence and proposed the establishment of a religious equity commission. Its effectiveness, however, is already in doubt.

“The objective will be to ensure that people of all religions [Christian, Muslim and traditional] have equal access to societal and governmental affairs while protecting their religious freedom and without fear of reprisals,” said Christopher Powell, Communications Officer for one of the organizers of the conference, the International Christian Foundation for Democracy (ICFD.)

Vincent Hiribarren, a lecturer in modern African history at King’s University in London, is skeptical about this initiative.

“It’s just another attempt to bring religious balance to the country,” he says.

Hiribarren, however, does not neglect the indispensable nature of religious leaders in negotiating peace as Fr. Tanko was attempting to do. He acknowledged that “many men of faith, priests or imams, play a political role beyond the framework of religion because it is at the local level that these conflicts can be resolved.”

“In this region, as in the rest of Nigeria, there are tensions between the [indigenous] populations and those who arrived during the colonial period [1914-1960]. Clashes are taking place to gain access to land and state services,” Hiribarren added, regretting the simplistic explanations of inter-ethnic clashes, even though they clearly exist between the Jukun and Tiv communities.

“As mediators are often religious representatives, conflicts can indeed take on a religious dimension, with persecuted Christians on one side and burnt mosques on the other. But most of the time, the problems remain economic and political, before they become religious or even ethnic,” the historian said.