A crying woman consoles another one who lost her husband during clashes between cattle herders and farmers, on January 11, 2018.
Lagos, Nigeria CNN  — 

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari has said it is unjust to blame him for the actions of herdsmen suspected to have carried out a wave of killings in the country’s Middle Belt in the past few months.

Buhari has faced immense criticism on social media from furious Nigerians for his perceived silence over the violence, which many believe is being carried out by cattle herders from the Fulani tribe.

They are angry at the relative ease at which the herdsmen repeatedly attack vulnerable communities across the country’s central region.

Many say few arrests have been made nor does anyone appear to have been brought to justice.

In the most recent killings over the weekend, police say 86 people were killed, however locals in Plateau State have said the number of deaths is much higher.

The Christian Association of Nigeria has issued a statement saying the current death toll stands at 218.

CNN has not been able to independently verify these claims.

The president, who is ethnically Fulani, on Tuesday visited Jos where the attacks happened and released a statement saying he should not be blamed for not talking to the herdsmen because he “looks like one of them.”

”…The present herder, I am told, carries AK47 and people are even blaming me for not talking to them because maybe (they say) I look like one of them. There is some injustice in these aspersions,” he said in a statement released by his aide Garba Shehu.

President Buhari added that his administration has made gains in the area of security.

“It is noteworthy that many Nigerians still acknowledge that despite the security challenges, this administration has made notable successes in the security sector,” he added.

Surge in attacks

Insecurity in the country is certain to be a defining issue in the upcoming 2019 presidential elections.

Nigeria is already grappling with a decade-long Boko Haram insurgency, which has killed thousands of people and displaced millions internally.

Violence between the Fulani herdsmen, who are mostly Muslims, and farmers, who are predominantly Christians in Nigeria dates back to 2013.

According to the Global Terrorism Index, Fulani extremists killed over 2,500 Nigerians between 2012 and 2016.

Cattle herders have evicted farmers by initiating deadly attacks in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, according to the report compiled by non-profit think tank Institute for Economics & Peace.

There has been a surge in attacks in Nigeria’s central states this year, more recently the killing of 19 people including two priests while in January, 72 people were killed in a New Year’s Day massacre, amid several outbreaks of violence in the region.

‘Retaliatory attacks’

Fingers often point in one direction when violence flares in this part of the country. And this time it is no different.

However, Danladi Ciroma, head of the northern arm of the Cattle Herders Association, Miyetti Allah, denied his herdsmen group was involved.

Ciroma said the herders group is just as invested in finding a solution to the pastoral and herdsmen conflict in the country.

He said military interventions have not stopped the wave of killings in the region, therefore all affected parties must work together for solutions.

“We are also affected by these killings,” he said. “We have called our Fulani groups and the farming community to come together to fish out the people carrying out these attacks. If we don’t end it, it is the innocent people that will suffer for it,” Ciroma told CNN.

“Farmers have been losing crops when cattle invade their farms. Many people have been rustling and killing our cows for many years, that is how the crisis started and and we can stop it,” he added.

He also denied media reports saying he described the killings as “retaliatory attacks” by herdsmen who had lost their cattle in the area.

“I did not use that word, I have not come across that word… I spoke about how the crisis started and how we can stop it. I am not that kind of person. I live in Plateau, why will I want problem there?” Ciroma said.

Land dispute

Experts say the conflict is driven by an increasing need for land in Nigeria’s central states – the nation’s food baskets.

Ryan Cummings, Director Signal Risk, told CNN that state legislation that prevent herdsmen from owning grazing lands have worsened disputes in the region.

“Herdsmen, who generally stem from the Fulani ethnic group of northern Nigeria, are traditionally nomadic and therefore not considered ‘indigenes’ of Nigeria’s Middle Belt states such as Benue, which complicates their ability to own land upon which the herds can graze,” Cummings said.

“This has led herdsmen to lead cattle onto land which is allocated to farming communities, leading to outbreaks of violence which are very much reciprocal in nature,” he added.

Cummings said the incessant attacks have left many of the country’s farmlands wasted in affected states.

He warned it could undermine Nigeria’s food security, adding that local government must provide more security resources to flashpoint areas to discourage violence.