Nigeria is to launch a major security operation after a wave of retaliatory violence between Christians and Muslims claimed as many as 169 lives in the centre of the country.
A curfew was declared in Plateau State in an attempt to end one of the deadliest episodes of an increasingly bloody conflict between Muslim cattle herders and Christian farmers that has swept large parts of Africa’s most populous country.
With fears mounting that Nigeria is slipping into an inter-communal war, Muhammadu Buhari, the country’s president, condemned the latest bloodshed as “deeply unfortunate.”
His police chief, Ibrahim Idris, announced the deployment of a special force in Plateau.
“The intervention is to put an end to the violence,” he said.
Police officials said the latest round of clashes erupted on Thursday when Christian farmers from Plateau’s native Berom tribe killed five Muslim Fulani cattle herders they accused of trespassing on their land.
The Fulani, who mainly come from northern Nigeria, retaliated with a wave of attacks on six villages in the Barkin Ladi region of Plateau State. In one incident, the two young children of a clergyman were hacked to death, according to a local Christian rights group.
Officials in the state put the death toll at 120, while some activists said that 169 had died. Nigeria’s police, frequently accused of understating death tolls, said 86 people were killed.
Fighting between the semi-nomadic Fulani and sedentary farmers has been common in parts of Nigeria for decades, but never has the situation been as serious as it is today.
Clergymen carry white coffins containing the bodies of priests allegedly killed by Fulani herdsmen after clashes in May Credit: EMMY IBU/AFP
More than 1,000 people have been killed since the start of the year, making Nigeria’s cattle wars more deadly than the Islamist insurgency waged by the Boko Haram militant group in the north of the country.
The violence has been attributed to many factors. More frequent droughts, blamed on global warming, have driven Fulani herdsmen further afield in search of pasture.
The cattle routes they once plied have been closed off by a rising population of farmers in the country’s fertile central regions, where much of the violence is taking place, and by the corrupt allocation of land.
Northern Nigeria is also awash with weapons, many of which flowed out of Libya after the collapse of authority following the death of its strongman Muammar Gaddafi — making the conflict more brutal than it once was.
Worryingly, the conflict is increasingly being framed in Nigeria as a religious one, with Christians accusing the Fulani of mounting an Islamist takeover.
There is no evidence of this, and the Fulani themselves say the violence is solely about cattle.
“These attacks are retaliatory,” said a spokesman for the Miyetti Allah, the Fulani herders’ principal advocacy group, speaking in reference to the violence in Plateau.
“Fulani herdsmen have lost about 300 cows in the last few weeks… to armed Berom youths.”
But President Buhari’s response to the violence has been seen as half-hearted, with previous military operations doing little to restore the peace, raising suspicion among Christians that he is turning a blind eye because he himself is Fulani.
In a stark illustration of the potentially dangerous evolution of the crisis, young Berom men were reported to be pulling suspected Muslims from their cars on Plateau State’s main highway and killing them.
The reports could not be independently verified, but witnesses said they had seen six bodies at one Berom checkpoint.
Cattle related violence has been reported in more than a dozen of Nigeria’s 36 states. Reports emerged on Monday of at least 21 deaths in a separate clash in Adamawa State in northeastern Nigeria between Fulani herders and Christian Bachama farmers over the weekend.
Cattle-related violence has not been restricted to Nigeria. On Sunday, ethnic hunters killed as many as 32 Fulani herders, including their wives and children, in Mali.