A mass burial of more than 70 people is under way in Nigeria’s central Benue State. Dozens have been killed in conflicts between nomadic herdsmen and farming communities in three states – Benue, Nasarawa and Taraba – in recent weeks. The Nigerian army says it has deployed special forces to all three to “stem the menace”.
Muslim herders, mostly of the Fulani ethnic group, and Christian farmers often clash over land in the region. Since the New Year, the number of clashes has intensified, with more than 100 deaths reported in Benue and Taraba states. Fighting has been particularly heavy in Benue state, where 80 people have been killed and 80,000 displaced.
“Thousands are attending today’s funeral service to honour those killed,” Benue’s information commissioner Lawrence Onoja told the BBC.
Mr Onoja, who was at the funeral, said 73 people were being buried. He defended his state’s controversial ban on open cattle grazing implemented in November, which Fulani herders have complained targets them unfairly.
“Our economy in Benue State depends on agriculture,” he said. “Take that away and we have a serious problem.”
Mr Onoja said that herdsman had a “misconception” the law was against them, saying they had not taken the time to look at it closely.
“[Until now] Fulani herders have been a law unto themselves. We want them to adopt ranching. These clashes result from the encroachment of cattle on farmers’ land.” The BBC’s Haruna Shehu says Fulani herders’ associations have told him they only mount retaliatory attacks when others steal their cattle or kill members of their community.
“They prepare attacks months in advance and enlist fellow herdsmen from as far as Guinea,” he said.
While these tit-for-tat clashes often begin over land, the crisis seems to be taking on an ethnic and religious dimension.
Earlier this week, President Muhammadu Buhari ordered the head of police to relocate to Benue to manage the crisis.
The president’s office later confirmed the deployment of special forces to Nigeria’s central region in a tweet:
Analysts say the deployment to more states is likely to overstretch the Nigerian military, as it currently has thousands of troops fighting Boko Haram in the north-east. Many other troops are operating in the oil-rich Niger Delta in the south, where militants are demanding a greater share of the oil wealth.