Men carrying coffin during the mass burial in Makurdi, Benue on Thursday

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Dozens of people have been killed in fighting in central Nigeria since the start of the year

A mass burial was held for them on Thursday

Lagos, Nigeria CNN  — 

A mass burial was held on Thursday for 72 people killed in fighting between nomadic herdsmen and farmers in central Nigeria.

Thousands of residents turned out at the ceremony held in Makurdi, Benue State capital. Many were seen sobbing as the coffins of their loved ones were lowered to the ground.

The clash between the herders and the farmers happened on New Year’s Day when the cattle herders, widely believed to be from the Fulani tribe, went on a rampage wielding machetes, the governor of the state told CNN.

Governor Sam Ortom said the clashes occurred following the enforcement of a new anti-grazing law.

Ortom told CNN: “They had threatened to wipe out the whole state if we did not repeal the law, and allow their cattle to graze wherever they like. They say cattle are more precious than human beings.”

“The rule of the law should be respected and punishment should be meted out on those who violate it,” Ortom added.

Coffins of dead people buried in Nigeria's Benue state

However, Bello Bodejo, head of the cattle herders association, who spoke to CNN, denied the group’s involvement in the attacks.

He accused the governor of enforcing the law, which prohibits cattle grazing in some parts of the state, without consulting the herdsmen.

“How could the governor have ordered the arrest of Fulani herdsmen? Most of them live in the bush and they are not aware of the law. They are not even educated enough to understand it,” he said in an interview with CNN.

“We are contesting the law in court,” Bodejo added. “We have also written to security agencies. This is because we want to abide by the law. We are not responsible for the attacks.”

Priest administers burial rites at the mass burial

The conflict between the Fulani herdsmen, who are mostly Muslims and the farmers, who are predominantly Christians, dates back to 2013, according to local media reports.

Cattle herders have forcefully evicted farmers from villages by initiating deadly attacks in Nigeria’s middle belt, media reports say.

Crowd at Benue's mass burial

However, some believe the conflict does not have a religious or ethnic bias. Garba Shehu, the President’s spokesman, said that it had roots in Nigeria’s booming population.

“These conflicts are more often than not, as a result of major demographic changes in Nigeria. At her independence, the population of the country was estimated at about 63 million.

“Today it’s close to 200 million while the land size has not changed and will not change. Urban sprawl and development have simply reduced land area both for peasant farming and cattle grazing,” he said in a statement

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, who is ethnically linked to Fulani herdsmen, has been widely criticized on social media for his perceived silence over the previous attacks.

Peter Fayose, one of the governors in the country, tweeted, “I am deeply sad about the killings going on in Benue State. When will these killings by Fulani herdsmen stop? When is President Buhari going to act? Isn’t the silence of the President suggestive? ”

They have expressed concerns over the increasingly frequent ethnic clashes in the state and fear that the situation could escalate like the Boko Haram crisis in the north-east of the country.

International human rights group Amnesty International also sent a tweet: “That herdsmen, ethnic militias and cult groups kill Nigerians with ease should be a wakeup call for the Nigerian government to ensure accountability for every violation of human rights.”

President Buhari said he has responded to the latest attacks by sending troops to Benue and neighboring states to prevent further attacks.