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(Abuja) – Escalating violence across five states in central Nigeria has killed more than 1,000 people since December 2013, Human Rights Watch said today. The failure of Nigerian authorities to investigate the attacks or bring those responsible to justice is likely to exacerbate the cycle of violence in the conflict-prone north central region.

Communal violence, stoked by competition between local farming communities and nomadic herdsmen, has plagued this region for many years and is spreading to other states in northern Nigeria.

“The lack of justice for years of violence resulting from inter-communal tensions has created a combustible situation,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to ensure full criminal investigations and provide justice for the victims and their families.”

Adding to the overall tension in the central region, a bomb explosion on April 14, 2014, killed more than 71 people and injured hundreds others in Nyanya, in the Abuja suburbs. The attack, occurring during an early morning peak period and at a usually crowded commuter motor park, appeared aimed at achieving a high casualty rate. Nyanya is in Nasarawa state, one of the states affected by communal violence, though it did not immediately seem to be connected to those conflicts.

The recent conflicts have taken a very high toll in lives and livelihoods and led to the displacement of hundreds of people, who have sought refuge in neighboring urban areas.

Human Rights Watch spoke to scores of displaced residents of affected communities camped at six locations in Makurdi, the capital of Benue, one of the affected states. The others are Kaduna, Plateau, Nasarawa, and Taraba. Other northern states to which the violence is spreading include Zamfara and Katsina.

In a December 2013 report, “‘Leave Everything to God’: Accountability for Inter-Communal Violence in Plateau and Kaduna States, Nigeria,” Human Rights Watch analyzed the pattern of violence that has engulfed two states in central Nigeria since 2010. The report documented how the lack of accountability for communal violence and mass murder led to preventable cycles of violence and reprisal killings in those states.

The main causes of the violence appear to include struggles around livelihood and identity, particularly between sedentary farmers and nomadic pastoralists over access to grazing lands. An activist working on peace initiatives in the north central states told Human Rights Watch that some affected state governments were failing to impartially protect residents, siding with one group against the other. In other cases, the advocate said, state governments were using force to restore peace, but, instead of quelling violence, seemed to exacerbate it.

Since mid-December, accusations of attacks by herdsmen against farmers in rural parts of Kaduna and Plateau states have intensified. On January 6, 2014, armed men described by residents as herdsmen attacked Bachit and Shonong communities in Riyom in Plateau State and killed an estimated 36 people. Attacks on Wase and Barkin Ladi communities in Plateau State killed 22 and 13 people respectively. In Kaura, part of Kaduna State, early morning raids by unidentified gunmen on February 3 and March 15 left 30 and 100 people dead respectively.

On April 2, Nigerian media reported that soldiers in the southern Kaduna town of Kafanchan killed two young men who were part of a group of youths protesting perceived unfairness in the justice system. The demonstrators had been protesting based on fears of the release of a group of men who had allegedly been arrested at a military checkpoint with a truckload of weapons. The killings of the two youths set off widespread violence in the town.

Benue State, with a majority agrarian population, has had some of the worst attacks, in Logo, Guma, Gwer West, Gwer East, and Agatu local government areas, where more than 321 people have been killed since early March. In a March 28 attack on several villages in Agatu, gunmen killed 19 people and abducted 15 others, including women and children. On March 25, gunmen killed more than 60 people in their beds in an early morning attack in Agena in Ikpayongo district of Gwer East local government area.

A resident who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that when herdsmen set their town on fire, his brother was asleep and died in their burning house.

Apparently in response to these attacks, on March 31 the Nigerian military announced a major internal security operation aimed at restoring peace in Benue, Nasarawa, and Plateau States. On April 3 security forces allegedly invaded the town of Keana in Nasarawa State, killing at least 30 Fulani people, mostly aged men who had gathered to pay their condolences at a home where a man had died three days earlier.

While moves to provide better protection and security are needed, security forces should also take adequate steps to investigate, arrest, and prosecute those responsible for the violence that has claimed so many lives. In addition, it should investigate the allegation that security forces invaded the homes of, and killed, unarmed residents in Keana. In responding to the violence, the authorities should be evenhanded and impartial, while ensuring that the right to life of all is protected and crimes are investigated and prosecuted.

“The security forces should not be creating greater insecurity in this volatile area,” Bekele said. “They should investigate violence by community residents and prevent their own forces from causing further harm.”

Accounts from Benue State
More than 1,300 people have taken refuge at the Local Government Education Authority (LGEA) primary school in Wurukum, Makurdi. They were displaced from Gbajimba, about 32 kilometers northeast of Makurdi, on the shores of the Benue River. Witnesses at the school told Human Rights Watch that on March 23, 2014, Fulani herdsmen and local Hausa/Kabawa residents razed their town. One said:

It was on a Sunday, as I came out of church I heard sounds of gunshots coming from the bush around the town. I began to run toward the river but I saw our Kabawa and Hausa neighbors shooting and cutting people with machetes as they came in my direction. My father-in-law at 85 years old was too old to run and was shot. My brother fell and died without any bullet or machete touching him. I do not know what killed him. I, with the rest of my family, are lucky to have escaped.

Officials of the camp said most of the 25 people killed in that attack were the very old and infirm who could not run.

Displaced residents, predominantly farmers, camped at Saint Mary primary school, in north bank Makurdi, told Human Rights Watch that the local government failed to protect them from repeated attacks from unidentified gunmen. The attacks had forced more than 852 people taking shelter there to leave their villages and farms since January.

About 270 people camping at the abandoned Otum Plastic factory fled the town of Adaka, near Makurdi, after more than three attacks in late 2013 in which much of the town was burned down. They told Human Rights Watch that herdsmen have seized their land. They have not been able to return to their homes or fields or even to bury the bodies of relatives killed in the attacks.

Local farmers have also been involved in revenge killings against herdsmen. On March 27, 2014, seven Tiv men were arraigned at a Makurdi magistrate court, accused of killing two Fulani men and burning the truck they were using to transport cows near Gboko, in Benue State.

Security Forces’ Abusive Response
One witness to the security force killings in the town of Keana recalled that at about 10 a.m. she was at home receiving visitors expressing condolences over her father-in-law’s death when four military trucks pulled up to the house and began to shoot into the crowd. She hid in the compound for a while, but then saw the soldiers break the hands of a pregnant woman even as she was pleading with them to leave her. At that point, the witness ran out and managed to escape.

The Nasarawa state secretary of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association told Human Rights Watch that the security forces came into town the previous night, but did not begin the killings until the following morning. He said he had personally attended the burials of the 30 people killed in the attack. He said that some criminal elements in the Fulani community have been involved in the violence and killings across northern Nigeria, but that “There is no reason why people should be killed in their houses by government troops who are supposed to protect them.”

Human Rights Watch renewed its earlier calls on the Nigerian government to:

  • Establish and publicize clear boundaries for international and regional cattle routes and grazing reserves;
  • Establish mechanisms to mediate between local farmers and nomadic herdsmen on the basis of recognizing and protecting the rights of all;
  • Ensure that those responsible for mass killings, including security forces, are promptly investigated and prosecuted;
  • Order a thorough review of the status and outcome of police investigations into communal violence in north central Nigeria; and
  • Establish and train a mass crimes unit in the police force that can be quickly deployed to investigate mass crimes.

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