Clashes in northwest Nigeria between suspected Fulani cattle rustlers mounted on motorbikes and local youth vigilantes from the rival Hausa ethnic group left at least 72 people dead, police said on Monday.
Dozens of gunmen raided a meeting of youth vigilantes and local hunters who had gathered from different areas at the remote village of Yar Galadima, in northwest Zamfara state, on Saturday.
“The attackers came in large numbers on motorcycles and shot sporadically,” police spokesman Lawal Abdullahi said by telephone. “At the end 72 people were killed including the bandits, because the vigilantes and hunters fought back.”
Hundreds have been killed in the past year in clashes pitting the semi-nomadic, cattle-herding Fulani people against more settled communities that practice a mix of farming and cattle rearing, driven by disputes centred around land use.
The unrest is often seen as sectarian in nature since Fulanis are Muslim and the communities with which they are in conflict in central Nigeria’s “Middle Belt” – where the country’s mostly Christian south and Muslim north meet – tend to be Christian.
Gunmen, suspected to be Fulanis, killed more than 100 people in an attack on three mostly Christian villages in central Nigeria late last month.
However, the disputes have always been more about land and ethnicity: Hausas, who reside in the north, are also Muslim, and they also frequently clash with Fulani herdsman.
The unrest is not linked to the insurgency in the northeast by Boko Haram, an al Qaeda-linked group which wants to impose Islamic law in northern Nigeria. However, analysts say there is a risk the insurgents will try to stoke Nigeria’s north and central conflict. Closely fought elections due in February 2015 are also likely to add fuel to fire.
Human Rights Watch in December said clashes in the nation’s religiously mixed central region had killed 3,000 people since 2010, adding that Nigerian authorities had largely ignored the violence, an accusation they denied.