Muslim Fulani herdsmen, believed to be buoyed by Boko Haram insurgents posing as the nomadic cattlemen, continue to occupy farmland in Benue state, Nigeria, two weeks after killing more than 300 Christian farmers there in a longstanding land dispute.
Heavily armed Fulani herdsmen massacred the farmers and displaced thousands of others in an onslaught of attacks that began as early as Feb. 22 and, despite some reports that the assailants have retreated, the herdsmen have remained in Benue as thousands of their cattle eat crops and graze cultivated land, Morning Star News reported March 11.
According to the Senate of Nigeria, the marauders included Boko Haram insurgents posing as Fulani in a tactical maneuver to intensify attacks against Christians while evading detection, the Lagos news service Information Nigeria reported.
The victims are members of the Agatu tribe, a group of about 154,000 farmers who live on ancestral farmland in Benue. About 81 percent of them are Christian, according to the Joshua Project. About 7,000 displaced Christians and villagers have scattered to refugee camps in five neighboring communities, Morning Star News reported.
Fulani leaders have said the massacre was in retaliation after farmers killed 10,000 of their cows, but eyewitnesses only reported human corpses.
“Such a mass slaughter would take weeks, and the skeletal remains of the cows would completely dot the landscape of Agatu, and the stench would permeate the air,” Morning Star News quoted human rights lawyer Emmanuel Ogebe, who visited the affected villages with a fact-finding team. “If they are there on reprisal as they claimed, since they are not [indigenous to] the villages, why have they not left after the attack – and why have they occupied the villages?”
Ogebe described the assaults as a “jihad of a sort to take over the villages.”
Fulani targeted Christians and church buildings in the massacre, but left mosques untouched, Morning Star News said.
Fulani herdsmen have clashed with Christian farmers in northeastern and middle Nigeria for more than 100 years, but the latest attack is perhaps the deadliest recorded of late. Previously, the slaughter of at least 200 farmers in May, 2014 in Galadima village, just 10 miles southwest of the capital city of Abuja, had been listed as Fulani’s deadliest attack to date, included in the 2015 Global Terrorism Index (GTI) as the 10th deadliest terrorist incident of 2014.
Fulani militants are accused of killing 1,229 people in 2014, up from just 63 the previous year, and are a growing threat to the stability of particularly Nigeria’s Middle Belt where most of the deaths occur, the GTI reported. Most of the attacks are confined to just six of the Nigeria’s 36 states, including Benue, Kaduna, Nasarawa, Plateau and Taraba in the Middle Belt.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, himself a Fulani, said in January that he planned to recommend a portion of land be set aside for Fulani to graze their livestock, but no progress has been noted. The Fulani tribe numbers about 20 million people, 70 percent of them nomadic, spread across at least seven West African countries.
Buhari claimed a technical defeat of Boko Haram at the end of 2015, but the ISIS-aligned militants have continued to use suicide bombers, grenades and guns to attack villages. Boko Haram has killed an estimated 17,000-20,000 in the past six years, including Christians and moderate Muslims.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ general assignment writer/editor.)