No fewer than 74 people including children have been killed in two separate attacks by gunmen this week in Benue State, local officials and Police have said.
Violence has increased in the region in recent years as population growth leads to an expansion of the area dedicated to farming, leaving less land available for open grazing by nomads’ cattle herds.
Benue State Police spokesperson Catherine Anene said 28 bodies were recovered at a camp for internally displaced people in Mgban local government area between Friday evening and Saturday morning.
Meanwhile, the traditional ruler of Nyiev community in Guma Local Government Area of Benue state, Chief Bernard Shawa, has confirmed the murder of 39 of his subjects, including his two children by suspected herdsmen who attacked the Internally Displaced Persons, IDPs, camps in the community on Good Friday.
The monarch also disclosed that 38 other victims of the attack sustained severe injuries but were evacuated to the Benue State University Teaching Hospital in Makurdi.
Chief Shawa made the disclosure when he received Governor Samuel Ortom and his Deputy, Benson Abounu who visited the community for an on-the-spot assessment of the incident.
Amid wailing and crying from families in the community, the monarch narrated how armed herdsmen stormed the community between 9 and 10 pm Friday saying: “I was sitting outside with my children when we started hearing gunshots from across the road.
“We started running but two of my children, a boy and a girl did not make it they were gunned down by the Fulani people.
“And because we have a point checkpoint on the road, displaced persons normally take shelter at the LGEA Primary School, they opened fire on the IDPs and people in the community, shooting and killing our people as they spoke the language.
“And before today they also attacked our community on February 25, 2023. On that day they killed 12 people.”
He urged the opposition to wait till 29 May when it would assume leadership of the state, “then they can do whatever they want with the law that was made by the people themselves but for now I remain Governor of the state.”
It was not immediately clear what triggered the attack but witnesses said gunmen arrived and started shooting, killing several people.
The attack followed a separate incident in the same state on Wednesday in the remote Umogidi village of Otukpo local government area, when suspected herdsmen killed villagers at a funeral, Bako Eje, the chairman for Otukpo, told the Reuters news agency.
Paul Hemba, a security adviser to the Benue state governor, said 46 bodies were recovered after Wednesday’s attack.
President Muhammadu Buhari in a statement on Saturday condemned “the recent bout of killings in Benue State in which tens of people were killed in Umogidi community” and directed security forces to increase surveillance in affected areas.
He said he saw the condolence message of President Muhammadu Buhari over the killings saying, “Condolence messages cannot be enough, the President must issue marching orders to security agencies to fish out these terrorist groups and bring them to justice.”
The Governor said “Anything that needs to be done must be done because our people have suffered for too long. How can you explain that people you chased from their ancestral homes decided to take refuge in a camp in a primary school and you did this to them? How do you explain the deaths and pains, this is not right. The people doing this must be punished according to the laws of the land.”
While recalling the recent killings in Umogidi and other parts of the state, the Governor said he had always appealed to the people to remain calm even when all manner of things were done during the last election: “I restrained myself because I want peace and my political ambition is not worth the blood of even an infant.”
The Governor who berated the opposition for blaming him over the unending attacks and killings in the state said: “Castigating and vilifying me and putting the blame on me when our people are being killed by terrorists is not right.”
Many attacks in remote parts of Nigeria go unreported as thinly stretched security forces often respond late to distress calls by communities.
Benue is one of Nigeria’s Middle Belt states, where the majority Muslim north meets the predominantly Christian south.
Competition over land use is particularly intractable in the Middle Belt, where fault lines between farmers and herders often overlap with ethnic and religious divisions.
Benue has been one of the states hit hardest by years of disputes between nomadic herders and pastoral farmers who blame herdsmen for destroying farmland with their cattle grazing.
Those conflicts have often spiralled into broader criminality and tit-for-tat revenge attacks between informal armed groups established to protect rival communities.
A spokesman for the national herders association this week urged officials not to blame herders for every attack before carrying out proper investigations.
Separately on Saturday, gunmen abducted at least 80 people in Zamfara State, a hot spot for kidnappings for ransom by armed gangs targeting remote villages.