Nigerian security officials suspect extremists from Islamic State’s affiliate in west Africa were behind an attack on a Catholic church last weekend that killed dozens.
Forty people are now thought to have died after gunmen stormed St Francis Catholic church in Owo, Ondo State, on Sunday, and 61 survivors are still being treated in hospital, according to local authorities. The total is double an earlier estimate.
Nigeria’s National Security Council said on Thursday that the attack was the work of the Islamic State West Africa Province (Iswap) group, apparently reinforcing fears that the militants, who have been restricted to the north-east for many years, are looking to expand their influence and reach to other parts of the country. Ondo, in the south-west, has long been considered one of the safer parts of the country.
Nevertheless, some analysts have counselled caution, noting the absence of any claim of responsibility from Iswap.
“Iswap always claim big attacks, and always ones in the south,” said Vincent Foucher, a research fellow at the CNRS (National Centre of Scientific Research) in Paris. “They want to show they are strong and even expanding so they definitely would claim this one.”
He said, the modus operandi was different. “Most previous Iswap attacks have used hit-and-run tactics, not a big assault team as in this incident.”
Other possible perpetrators include militia involved in local conflicts, violence between farmers and herders, and even criminal networks. In one attack on a church in Anambra state in 2017, police arrested local racketeers and traffickers.
The growing instability of Africa’s most populous nation was underlined by attacks that killed at least 32 people in the rural north-west several days ago.
Armed gangs on motorcycles attacked four villages in the Kajuru area of Kaduna state on Sunday, witnesses said. Poor telecommunications delayed residents from reporting the attacks, as is often the case in parts of northern Nigeria.
Such attacks have become frequent in Nigeria’s troubled north-west, where thousands have been killed, according to data compiled by the US-based Council on Foreign Relations. Residents are often abducted and kept in detention for weeks, usually in forest reserves, until ransoms are paid.
The gunmen in the latest violence were “armed Fulani militia”, one resident said. “That is the language they were speaking. That was their outlook. They are not new to our environment because this is not the first time they were attacking.”
Fulani herdsmen, who are mostly Muslim, have been in conflict with the settled farmers for decades over access to land for grazing. The rivalry has become deadly in recent years as armed gangs attack rural communities.
Neither the police nor Kaduna state officials have yet confirmed the attacks. The limited security presence in many remote communities makes it difficult for government forces to protect residents from the attacks or quickly arrest the perpetrators, analysts say.
Muhammadu Buhari, the Nigerian president, has been accused of not doing enough to end the country’s security problems, one of the main campaign promises the former general made when he sought election in 2015. Buhari’s tenure as president ends in May 2023.
Iswap has been unable to fully capitalise on its spectacular victory over the rival extremist group Boko Haram last year.
“They have had mixed fortunes,” Foucher said. “The army has been more active and pretty good at putting them under pressure now that they are the main focus …. They are also facing unexpectedly tough resistance from other extremists.”
By Jason Burke
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