Men march along a truck carrying the coffins of people killed in Makurdi, Nigeria January 11, 2018. 

© 2018 Reuters

(Lagos) – The death of at least 86 people in attacks on six villages in Plateau State, Nigeria, is the most recent in a shocking spate of reprisal violence between nomadic cattle herders and farmers. The government of President Muhammadu Buhari promised to end the violence and hold those responsible to account, but has so far failed to do so.

“The carnage in Plateau State is a clear indication that the decades-long conflict has reached new levels of brutality,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The frequency of these deadly attacks demonstrates the government’s failure to ensure safety and security in the region.”

This latest clash began when farmers allegedly killed five herdsmen whom the farmers accused of trespassing on their land. In apparent retaliation, herdsmen attacked villages in the area, killing and injuring villagers, including women and children. Local media reported a statement from Danladi Ciroma, North-Central zone chairman of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, an umbrella body for cattle herders, saying that the attack must have been retaliatory because of the unresolved killing of herdsmen and theft of hundreds of cows belonging to his members in the area.

Plateau is one of the states in Nigeria’s North Central region worst hit by decades of communal conflict between predominantly Christian farming communities and mostly Muslim cattle herdsmen. Local groups report that between January and March 2018, 1,078 people died in the violence in Plateau, Benue, Kaduna, Taraba, Nassarawa, Adamawa, Kwara, and Kogi states. In Benue State alone, 102,000 children, 60 percent of the 169, 922 people displaced by the conflict, have been forced out of school. Although the conflict is increasingly described in religious terms, competing claims to land and other resources are at its core.

In a 2013 report, Human Rights Watch found that the failure of authorities to bring those responsible to justice is one of the major drivers of the cycles of communal violence in Kaduna and Plateau states. In recent months, there have been no public reports on investigation by the police into the violence in the middle belt. Just five people in Adamawa State have been tried and sentenced for killings in the region since 2017.

Community leaders say that the inadequate deployment of security forces to protect lives and property has led them to advocate self-help defensive efforts, as well as retaliatory attacks against those responsible for, or perceived as being responsible for, previous attacks. In May, a former defense minister, Gen. Theophilus Danjuma, called on people in his home state of Taraba to stop depending on government security forces, who he said were not neutral, for protection, and instead to defend themselves against attackers.

In response, the federal government described General Danjuma’s call as an “invitation to anarchy” that should be disregarded. Following the recent Plateau killings, the Nigerian Police announced the deployment of a Special Intervention Force to restore peace and security in the area.

“Nigerian authorities need to do more than debunk self-help calls if they want people to trust and cooperate with them,” Segun said. “Even-handed, prompt, and thorough investigations, followed by fair trials of those responsible for the violence, are effective ways to unequivocally send this message.”