ABUJA, Nigeria — Clashes between armed herdsmen and farmers in Nigeria are escalating to increasingly violent episodes as a battle for scarce resources stirs long-held tensions over religion and ethnicity.
By some estimates the clashes have taken more than 500 lives this year.
In recent days, at least 86 people were killed in several villages in Plateau State in the middle of the country, among the deadliest of the episodes.
On Friday and Saturday night dozens of suspected armed herders, who are Muslim and of the Fulani ethnicity, descended from surrounding hills into several villages, opening fire, burning homes and shooting to death some people, most of them Christian and of the Berom ethnicity, as they slept.
The killings immediately triggered reprisals as young people from the villages set up road blocks and killed anyone suspected of being Muslim and Fulani. One police commissioner in the area said at least five people died at checkpoints.
Conflict between herders and farmers over natural resources has a long history throughout sub-Saharan Africa. In Mali, officials on Sunday said more than 30 herders and their children were killed in an area where disputes have raged over competition for land.
The issue has particularly polarized Nigeria, especially in the Middle Belt, the agrarian bread basket that stretches across the country.
As the nation’s population has soared and available grazing land has shrunk, farmers have settled on land that herders have used for hundreds of years as grazing routes to move their cattle seasonally.
Many parts of the country have been affected by the conflicts, including in the north, where Muslims constitute most of the farmers. But much of the recent surge in violence has taken place in the Middle Belt, where the herders are typically ethnic Fulani and Muslim, and mostly Christian farmers.
Many of the herders near the site of last weekend’s violence farm in addition to taking care of livestock, creating all the more competition for land.
It appears that many of those killed this year have been farmers, but the pastoralists have also been attacked in reprisals.
In January, seven Fulani died after being set ablaze by a mob in Benue State. Fulani pastoralists, which include not only herders but older women who sell milk from the livestock, are often referred to disparagingly in local media reports from the nation’s mostly Christian urban centers.
The attacks are testing the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, who came to office in 2015 vowing to instill security. Many Nigerians say that promise has been unfulfilled on a number of fronts — including a war with Islamist militants as well as rampant banditry in some areas.
Mr. Buhari, a Muslim and Fulani, has been accused of allowing the attacks to continue, and his vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, a Christian, has been faulted for failing to speak out.
After the weekend attacks on villages, Mr. Buhari tweeted, “We will not rest until all murderers and criminal elements and their sponsors are incapacitated and brought to justice.”
In Benue State alone, in the heart of the Middle Belt, more than 300,000 people have been displaced by violence this year, most ending up in government-run camps, according to official statistics. More than 50 villages have been attacked by armed men, and about as many more have been deserted by residents fearful of attacks.
Though most of the uprooted residents were subsistence farmers, some had produced enough that their displacement has cut food production and driven up prices in the region.
In Plateau, one of the most ethnically diverse states in Nigeria, disputes between indigenous and settler groups over resources and representation exploded into deadly conflicts for more than a decade; more than 7,000 people died between 2001 and 2011.
More recently, violence has been rare in Plateau. Yet the city and surrounding towns remain partly segregated along religious lines, with Muslims and Christians living in divided communities, and so the conflict over land is particularly explosive.
The killings over the weekend appeared to be revenge for attacks on pastoralists earlier in the week. On Thursday, five cattle-rearers riding in a truck full of cattle were ambushed, their cows stolen and truck set ablaze. The five men are still missing.
One of the cattle breeders associations in Plateau complained to the state government and security forces that more than 400 of their cattle had been stolen with their herders attacked or killed in recent months.
In late April, about 30 nomadic Fulani herdsmen were blamed for storming St. Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church in the rural Middle Belt and killing at least 17 worshipers and two priests.
Paulina Shimakaha had just slipped into the front row for the 6 a.m. Mass, when the quiet was shattered by shouting and gunshots.
“Several men came in, some of them from the back entrance, some from the altar,” said Ms. Shimakaha, 60, who teaches nursery school in the farming village of Mbalom. “They started killing straight away.”
The April attack triggered protests as thousands gathered to decry the violence in Catholic Church-organized rallies across Nigeria. Other Christian groups have pointedly cited religion in faulting the government. Adebayo Oladeji, a spokesman for the Christian Association of Nigeria, said that Mr. Buhari had overseen a period in which the safety of Christians had deteriorated.
“The emergence of President Muhammadu Buhari has emboldened the Fulani herdsmen who have been invading Christian communities, killing, maiming and destroying with impunity,” he said. “These criminals are being treated with kid gloves.”
Abiodun Baiyewu, the director of Global Rights Nigeria, a human rights group, said the government’s failure to combat the violence has deepened ethnic and religious suspicions and widened divisions.
“The religious dimension is being seized on because the government has failed to provide security while so many have died,” Ms. Baiyewu said. “So people are explaining the failings with what reasons they can.”
Mr. Buhari has condemned the killings, and the military had deployed more 1,000 troops in past weeks in a special operation intended to curb the violence, said Gen. John Agim, a spokesman.
Military officials have attributed the surge in killings, in part, to a migration of pastoralists from neighboring Chad, Niger and Cameroon that is being propelled by changing climate conditions and insecurity. Specifically, the war with Boko Haram has spilled into areas where nomadic herders typically roam, forcing them to find new terrain.
But they also note that criminals and militias are behind at least some of the recent attacks. Often, the Fulani are used as the scapegoat.
Many of the recent attacks attributed to pastoralists have been carried out by men armed with AK-47s, the police say, although herders have not traditionally carried such weapons.
Because many herders lead a nomadic culture, they have few advocates. One of them, Mohammed Bello, a former adviser to a local cattle breeders association, said pastoralists are routinely, and often wrongly, characterized as perpetrators.
“The conflict has become so politicized and driven by a specific narrative that the media no longer distinguish between banditry, other criminal factors and the traditional conflict,” Mr. Bello said.
An ineffective security structure in rural areas is fueling fears, said Sola Tayo, a fellow at the Chatham House research group.
“People in rural communities are incredibly exposed and response times to reports of attacks are poor,” Ms. Tayo said. “The police service in Nigeria is inadequate for the size of the population and is very much urbanized, leaving people in remote areas vulnerable.”