Blessing Joseph lies on a sofa, her eyes fixed on the butt of a rifle that she says she won’t hesitate to use if Fulani herdsmen come back to her remote village in central Nigeria.
The 19-year-old student isn’t the only one. Teenagers and even young boys carry machetes and daggers in villages in the Agatu area of Benue state.
“My father told me not to go out without holding a cutlass with which I can defend myself if attacked,” David Inalegwu, a nine-year-old primary school pupil, told AFP.
As Blessing watches, youths pass around a jerrycan of local gin, discussing a spate of attacks in February blamed on heavily armed Fulani herdsmen from neighbouring Nasarawa state.
Community leader James Ochoche Edoh said more than 20 Agatu villages were affected near the river Benue that forms the border with Nasarawa.
“Approximately 500 people or more could have been killed,” he claimed, in an unverified figure repeated by the former leader of Nigeria’s Senate, David Mark, who represents the district.
“The recent attacks took us by surprise,” said Edoh in the main Agatu town of Obagaji. “Families have been separated or killed.”
– ‘No just cause’ –
Violence blamed on Fulani herdsmen has given Nigeria’s government another security headache in addition to Boko Haram Islamists in the northeast and militants in the oil-producing south.
The worst affected villages in February’s attacks were Okokolo, Adagbo, Akwu, Aila and Odugbeho. Residents told AFP nearly 50 people were killed and more than 1,000 properties ransacked or razed.
“The Fulanis killed our kinsmen, burnt or destroyed 327 of our houses in this village and for no just cause,” said Christopher Onah, the chief of Okokolo.
Onah picked up spent cartridges from the ground and showed the damage to his rice and yam barns, a motorcycle and generator. His home was ransacked, as were the churches, mosque and schools.
“There’s nothing left for us again after the the attack,” said Anyebe Peter, a farmer in Adagbo, where seven people were killed and 250 houses were burnt down.
In Akwu, 30 people died and more than 600 houses were destroyed as well as a medical clinic.
Peter, whose 27-year-old son was shot and is still in hospital, said locals face food shortages.
Despite the presence of troops, residents said they were still afraid.
“Soldiers told us to leave our homes and gather in one place for better protection. So, now we sleep in the Catholic church,” said Onah.
– Revenge attack –
According to the Global Terrorism Index 2015, “Fulani militants” killed 1,229 people in 2014, up from 63 the previous year, making them “the fourth most deadly terrorist group” in the world.
Boko Haram, whose insurgency has left at least 20,000 people dead since 2009, heads the list, followed by the Islamic State group and the Taliban.
But attacks blamed on Fulani, driven more by a need for increasingly scarce resources such as land and water rather than radical ideology, are not a new phenomenon.
There have been frequent clashes between the semi-nomadic people and sedentary farmers because cattle have strayed onto land planted with crops.
A total of 847 deaths were recorded in five states, including Benue, in the religiously mixed “Middle Belt”, where Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north meets the largely Christian south.
With Fulani Muslim and farmers mostly Christian, religion adds an extra dimension to longstanding ethnic tensions and mutual suspicion.
Edoh said February’s attacks appeared to be in revenge for the death of a Fulani leader and the theft of his cattle, which was blamed on the mainly Christian Agatu.
– Grazing reserves –
Police in Benue say Agatu has now returned to “relative calm”, while President Muhammadu Buhari, himself an ethnic Fulani, has belatedly ordered a crackdown on raiders.
“The government will not allow these attacks to continue,” Buhari said in late April, ordering security forces to “secure all communities under attack by herdsmen”.
Agriculture Minister Audu Ogbeh said “the ultimate solution to the Fulani farmers frequent clashes will be to establish grazing reserves for the herdsmen”.
But the main umbrella body of Fulani herdsmen’s groups has accused Benue state of opposing the proposal.
The national secretary of the Gan Allah Fulani Development Association, Saleh Bayeri, did not deny the Agatu killings were to avenge the 2013 deaths of some leaders and their families.
“Fulanis do not forgive such killings. The problem we have now is that the Fulani are being vilified, provoked, attacked and killed and when they retaliate they are accused of terrorism,” he said.