When the first bishop of a new diocese in Nigeria was installed last month, the country’s apostolic nuncio highlighted hope that Church can help quell a sometimes violent ethnic conflict in the country’s northeastern Taraba state — especially through the sacrifices of the diocese’s new bishop.
Christians must put aside ethnic conflicts, while promoting “concord, collaboration and peace in the society in which the Church exists,” said Archbishop Antonio Filipazzi at the April 13 ordination and installation of Bishop Mark Nzukwein, first bishop of the newly erected Diocese of Wukari.
The nuncio said Nzukwein should “counteract those factors which tend to disrupt the unity of the Church and social harmony especially the mentality which makes one’s ethnic group and place the first and fundamental criterion of thought and action even to the point of violating God’s law and the lives and dignity of other human beings.”
The installation marked a historic moment for the Wukari diocese, established in Nigeria’s Taraba state last year. And the ordination liturgy focused on the role the diocese might play in the region’s long-standing warfare between the Tiv and Jukun ethnic groups — a conflict described by one national commentator as “Nigeria’s most relentless and pig-headed war.”
Conflict between the Tiv and Jukun people dates back for decades, and the reasons for warfare is complex. But at least five protracted periods of violence have broken out between the groups since 1959, leaving hundreds of people dead, and thousands more displaced.
Some local officials in the Taraba region have called for a better demarcation of boundaries between Taraba and its neighboring state of Benue; arguing that more clearly delineating political boundaries would help to deescalate Tiv and Jukun conflicts over disputed territory in a “grey area” between the states.
But even while work moves forward on that front, tensions in the region are escalated by the activities of kidnappers and armed bandits, as well as herder-farmer conflict over land use, and ethnic competition for scarce resources, and, many scholars argue, structural inequalities in power and social structures, abrupt revolutionary changes and war, and partisan political manipulation.
In light of that conflict, nuncio Filipazzi and other ecclesiastical officials have said the Church in the region has an important mission of peace — and that Bishop Nzukwein should be prepared to sacrifice to that end.
“A bishop does not gather people around his person or his ideas, but around Christ, in his Word and the sacrament of the body and blood at the school of Jesus, the good shepherd made lamb, immolated and risen, the sheep entrusted to him are gathered by the bishop, through the offering of his own life,” the nuncio explained.
A diocesan bishop “assumes a kind of Eucharistic existence, thus conformed to Christ, he becomes a living gospel - bread broken for the lives of many by his preaching and his witness,” he added.
The nuncio held out as an example of “Eucharistic existence,” the murdered local priest Fr. David Tanko who killed in 2019 while returning from a meeting to mediate a disagreement between Tiv and Jukun factions.
“Was this not the case with the sacrilegious murder of Fr. David Tanko, a priest who worked to reconcile Tiv and Jukun? May he rest in peace — may God convert those responsible for this crime, may this never happen again, not only against God’s ministers but against all human beings,” Filipazzi preached.
For his part, the 53-year-old Nzukwein said he has a four-point plan to address the needs of the diocese, including revamiping Catholic education, equipping laity for evangelization, and entrenching a sense of Christian unity among Catholic of differing ethnicities.
In strong terms, he condemned the ongoing crisis in Taraba state, emphasizing that: “This area has endured enough — the destructive impact of war, blood is flowing everywhere in southern Taraba, the hatred has overstretched its bounds, it has lasted for too long.”
The bishop urged forgiveness among parties affected in his diocese by the violence.
While the persecution of Nigerian Christians by Boko Haram and other Islamic groups has made national headlines, bishops across the country have urged that the Church be a leader in addressing ongoing smaller scale conflicts between the ethnic and tribal groups that make up Nigeria.
Displacement during Nigeria’s colonial period, and amid violence thereafter, has in some cases left ethnic groups with rival claims to overlapping territory, or made neighbors of groups with little common histor or shared culture.
To that end, bishops have expressed hope that the Wuhari diocese might have concrete effect on the ongoing Tiv-Jukun conflict
For his Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Abuja, the nation’s capital city, expressed optimism that “the creation and erection of Wukari diocese [will] be the more reason for more solid peace, stronger unity and more enduring love without boundaries among all the ethnic, religious and political communities in this lovely area of Taraba state.”