Long-standing tensions between herdsmen and farmers have flared up again in Kaduna state, northern Nigeria, leaving possibly hundreds dead in tit-for-tat violence.
Earlier this month at least 21 people were killed and several homes were destroyed when suspected cattle drivers attacked five farming communities.
Three districts in the predominantly Christian south of the state — Kaura, Jema’a and Zangon Kataf — have been riven by conflict for the last three decades.
But the clashes between the Muslim, largely Hausa-speaking Fulani cattle drivers and the mainly Christian farmers have escalated since December when a Fulani chief was killed.
The Roman Catholic Church last month claimed more than 800 local Christians have died in that time and 27,000 people have been forced to flee, while 16 churches and 1,500 homes were destroyed.
Police and the National Emergency Management Agency disputed the figures but still put the death toll at about 200.
Land and grazing rights have long been seen as the root of the fighting, although politics, religion and ethnicity are also driving factors.
The Kaduna state governor, Nasir el-Rufai, blamed the latest attacks on herdsmen from as far away as Chad in the east and Mali to the west.
Traditional cattle routes bring nomadic Fulani from about 14 African countries into southern Kaduna as they seek out pastures for their herds.
Ibrahim Abdullahi, from the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, said foreign-based Fulani lost cattle in post-election violence that hit Kaduna in 2011.
El-Rufai said he had to compensate them for their livestock to prevent further revenge attacks.
But Sunday Ibrahim, secretary of the Christian Association of Nigeria in northern Nigeria, disagreed with the payments and said they had been ineffective.
“Paying herdsmen who crossed into Nigeria and killed such a large number of people only emboldens them to carry out more killings for which they get paid,” he told AFP.
Fulani of the Jema’a emirate began ruling the pagan tribes of what is now southern Kaduna state in the early 1800s, as part of the Sokoto caliphate in northern Nigeria.
Solomon Musa, from the Southern Kaduna People’s Union, said the Fulani treated indigenous tribes as “second-class citizens” — and still do, putting “a wedge to peaceful coexistence”.
Benedicta Kato, the publisher of Minority Report Nigeria that documents the violence, said nothing changed even with the later conversion of tribes to Christianity and British colonial rule.
“The general feeling of oppression of our ancestors is there,” she said.
The Kaduna state government has tried to ensure equal rights but tensions remain. Last month, suspected Christian militia ambushed the Jema’a emir’s convoy. He escaped unhurt.
Kafanchan is the economic hub of southern Kaduna and the main town in the Jema’a local government area, where Fulani are seen as having a monopoly on jobs.
“There is institutionalised poverty in southern Kaduna where the indigenes have been denied equal opportunities and made not to think beyond low-income jobs,” said Kato.
But Abdullahi Sarkin Fada, head of the royal guards at the Jema’a emirate, dismissed the claim.
“While our people toil and struggle to make a living, they waste their time drinking and lazying around,” he said.
“This is why they keep burning our investments at the slightest pretext out of envy, with the intention of forcing us out of the town they so much want to take over.”
Kafanchan has seen repeated violence since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.
“Military rule kept everyone in check and discontent was bottled up for fear of repression by the junta,” said Sarkin Fada.
Politics and power
Since 1999, a Muslim from northern Kaduna has always been state governor and his deputy a Christian from the south. That changed in 2010 when Namadi Sambo became Nigeria’s vice-president.
Sambo’s Christian deputy governor, Patrick Yakowa, took over, heightening tensions. When he died in an air crash in December 2012, Muslim youth reportedly celebrated.
MACBAN’s Abdullahi said local politicians had long whipped up ethnic and religious sentiments to shore up support.
Sarkin Fada said all politicians had to do was “vilify the Hausa-Fulani” to get backing while Kato said genuine grievances were being exploited.
The affected areas are subject to curfew. The federal government wants to establish an army base in Kafanchan to deter unrest.
But Musa said: “The best way to stop the senseless killings… is for the government to end the culture of impunity and appropriately punish whoever is involved in the violence.”