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Cattle dispute spirals into 'crisis' in northern Nigerian town

By Patrick MARKEY
Nigeria Nigeria's northern town of Mangu is still in shock over violence last month in a community known for peaceful tolerance.  By Kola SULAIMON AFP
FEB 9, 2024 LISTEN
Nigeria's northern town of Mangu is still in shock over violence last month in a community known for peaceful tolerance. By Kola SULAIMON (AFP)

It began as an apparent quarrel over right of way when a motorbike taxi driver in north central Nigeria faced off with cattle herders whose animals were crossing into the rural road.

What exactly happened is a matter of dispute.

But the late January fight swiftly spiralled into one of the deadliest recent outbreaks of violence in Plateau State, long a flashpoint for intercommunal clashes.

Reprisals quickly escalated, residents and community leaders say.

Angry youths attacked a herder community and violence spread from rural areas to a mostly Christian village -- and for the first time, to the urban centre of Mangu town.

When calm returned, around 55 people were dead, thousands displaced from their homes and houses, schools, churches and mosques burned to the ground, according to the Red Cross and residents.

"What surprised us was Mangu," Mohammed Lawal Ishaq, Plateau secretary for the Muslim community group JNI, told AFP.

"Clearly we can't run away from it, it was a religious crisis."

Many of the conflicts in Plateau have their roots in tensions over land between Muslim herders and mostly Christian farmers, as the impact of climate change threatens agricultural livelihoods.

But the January clashes showed how quickly tensions escalate in a region where communities are increasingly at odds over land, grazing rights, water and other resources, including tin reserves beneath Plateau's rich soil, officials and residents say.

That sensitive mix is further complicated by the presence of armed gangs known locally as bandits in neighbouring states, who carry out mass kidnappings for ransom and raid and loot villages.

Plateau State lies on the division between Nigeria's mostly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south.  By Kola SULAIMON AFP Plateau State lies on the division between Nigeria's mostly Muslim north and predominantly Christian south. By Kola SULAIMON (AFP)

"A lot of factors trigger conflicts in Plateau. Some are ethnic, some are herder-farmer and some are bandits," said Nuruddeen Hussain Magaji, Nigeria Red Cross director for Plateau who has worked in the area for two decades.

"Most of them are attacks and reprisal attacks."

Tensions around central Plateau were already high after raids on mostly Christian villages in neighbouring Bokkos and Barkin Ladi districts over Christmas left nearly 200 people dead.

'Land grabbing'

Plateau is rich farming and grazing land on mostly accessible flat plains.

But the region is also scattered with former mining holes, now filled with water almost all year around and a key resource.

State capital Jos is also known as the "Tin City", a reference to the state's mining history, which these days is mostly confined to small-scale artisanal pits.

Farming villages and communities dot the landscape with their typical silver-coloured corrugated roofs glinting in the sun over brick walls.

Thousands were displaced from their homes after a cattle dispute spiralled into violence.  By Kola SULAIMON AFP Thousands were displaced from their homes after a cattle dispute spiralled into violence. By Kola SULAIMON (AFP)

Illegal and violent land grabbing is an increasing problem, said Plateau Information Commissioner Musa Ibrahim Ashoms.

Around 102 communities across the state have been taken over by people other than local residents, he said.

"The assailants are after land grabbing. We have been told reliably there are minerals there. They kill people and drive them away and take over their land," Ashoms told AFP.

"It is a collage of a lot of things, mining, grazing, resources... People don't trust each other anymore, we are creating cleavages, ethnic and religious."

Conflicting accounts

The divisions are never far from the surface in Plateau -- even accounts of the original incident between the taxi rider and herders differ.

Enoch Markus Gumwesh, a national officer with the ethnic Mwaghavul Development Association, a mostly Christian group, said Fulani Muslim herders attacked the taxi rider with a machete prompting a reprisal.

The deadly violence that also saw churches and mosques burned to the ground stemmed from an apparent quarrel over cattle.  By Kola SULAIMON AFP The deadly violence that also saw churches and mosques burned to the ground stemmed from an apparent quarrel over cattle. By Kola SULAIMON (AFP)

"When they attack our people, our youth responded. It spiralled into a full-fledged crisis," he said.

"All these things begin with Fulani militia, we have tried to control this to stop them reaching Mangu town... it is self-defence."

He said the origins of the current crisis dated back to April 2023 land grabbing attacks by gunmen in Bokkos area that left 100 people dead.

But Plateau Chapter chairman of Gan Allah Fulani Development Association of Nigeria (GAFDAN), Garba Abdullahi, said the recent upheaval that escalated from rural areas to Mangu came from herders trying to stop cattle rustling.

"Most of the problems are happening when our people resist any attempt at rustling their cattle," he said.

"Many of our people were forced to relocate from many villages around Mangu."

In Mangu, both communities are still in shock over the violence that rocked a town long known for its peaceful tolerance.

"We were living peacefully together," said Aisha Mohammed, 50, whose home was destroyed.

"We don't know anything about fighting, we are the same tribe, the only difference is religion."

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