Seventy-three people killed since the start of the year in communal violence between semi-nomadic herdsmen and farmers were buried in Nigeria on Thursday highlighting a bloody conflict over fertile land that is taking on political significance.
The mass burial took place in Makurdi, in the central state of Benue, where thousands of mourners took to the streets to watch the funeral procession. The killings occurred in remote parts of Benue, the state worst hit by clashes that have killed at least 83 people since December 31.
Thousands of herdsmen mainly from the Fulani ethnic group moved southwards in the last few years to flee spreading desertification, putting pressure on dwindling fertile land amid rapid population growth.
The spike in violence has become increasingly political ahead of elections in February 2019 with critics of President Muhammadu Buhari, a Fulani, accusing him of failing to get tough with the herdsmen.
Feelings ran high on the streets of Makurdi where people, many clad in black, waved wreaths as coffins on trucks passed by carrying the dead mainly from rural communities of Benue.
Some mourners held banners with pictures of victims and the words: “President act now: your people are killing us”.
“Something disturbing I heard is linking those developments to the fact that a Fulani man is president and so, he is broking such kind of evil acts,” said the president’s spokesman, Femi Adesina, adding the violence predated Buhari’s administration.
The herdsmen are mostly Muslim and the settled farmers are often Christian.
Despite recent violence Nigerians, split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims from around 250 different ethnic groups, mostly live peacefully together.
Clashes in the last few months occurred in the north-west and south-east, but the middle belt – where differing religious, ancestral and cultural differences frequently ignite conflict – has been worst hit in the latest flashpoints.
Peter Zion (31) a member of a state government task force to defend farms, was recuperating in hospital after being shot and cut across his face and torso by herdsmen wielding guns and cutlasses on January 2 in Guma district.
“They killed some colleagues and the neighbours there all died,” said the father of two whose face had been cut and whose hands and legs were heavily bandaged. He described attackers going door-to-door shooting people.
The executive secretary of the Benue emergency agency, Emmanuel Shior, said around 80,000 people who fled herdsmen attacks were living in four camps in the state.
Herdsmen traditionally roam freely across West Africa, entering and leaving Nigeria through porous borders with Benin, Niger and Cameroon. They accuse Nigerian farmers of violent attacks in the last few years.
Improving security was a key promise in Buhari’s successful 2015 presidential election campaign. The 75-year-old has not yet said whether he will seek re-election next year.
“Security of life and property continues to be top of our agenda, in line with our election pledge and promises,” said Buhari in a tweet, which linked to a list of ways in which the government responded to the killings.
He bolstered the police presence in Benue and ordered the head of police to relocate to the state.
The violence is likely to further stretch security forces already contending with Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency in the north-east and the threat of attacks on oil facilities in the southern Niger Delta of the type that in 2016 helped to push Africa’s largest economy into recession.