“Bakin Kogi – Dalami Tukura stands with a long, hand-crafted musket slung over his right shoulder next to his brother’s freshly-dug grave, a mound of red earth marked with a cross made of woven grass.
The burly 40-year-old maize farmer’s brother was killed just days ago when suspected cattle herders attacked his home in northern Nigeria.
“He was shot,” Tukura told AFP, his voice hoarse with emotion. “I want to protect my home town and my entire family.”
Tukura’s defiance is increasingly common across southern Kaduna state.
On February 19, suspected herdsmen descended on Bakin Kogi village at dusk, firing guns, burning houses and stealing mattresses, television sets and food.
Tukura’s elder brother was one of seven people killed that night. In total, 26 people died in similar twilight raids over the span of two days on neighbouring villages.
The latest phase of a decades-long conflict over land has claimed at least 200 lives since October last year, according to conservative estimates – more than those killed by feared Boko Haram Islamists in the northeast in the same period.
The land wars have disrupted food production at a time when shortages caused by Boko Haram’s insurgency have brought some areas of the remote region to the brink of famine.
Without a national strategy in place, the tension between herdsmen and farmers has been building over the past year.
Experts blame a heavy-handed, militarised response by the government, and incendiary comments from political and religious leaders for fanning the flames of animosity.
Sola Tayo, associate fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House, said that with Boko Haram the conflict “is a lot more clear cut, you know the enemy”.
However, the fact that the land wars are “being manipulated by so many different players just fuels violence”, Tayo added.
Law and order ‘breakdown’
Most of the women and children in Bakin Kogi have left. They have been replaced by military and policemen, who are now stationed in the village and run checkpoints on the major roads.
The closest town, Kafanchan, is under a 24-hour curfew.
The village reeks of smoke and the spiced honey smell of ginger, one of the region’s staple crops heaped in charred piles around the burnt houses.
Groups of armed vigilantes hold meetings under the cool shade of broad mango trees, while others patrol the dusty dirt roads on motorbikes.
They look apprehensive, but also resolute. They have heard another attack is coming.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari – a Hausa-speaking Fulani Muslim – has faced intense criticism for only speaking out about the conflict following an attack in December last year.
He is now on indefinite sick leave in London.
Kaduna State Governor Nasir El-Rufai’s response has been to call in the troops and blame “conflict entrepreneurs” for stoking violence.
El-Rufai announced early in February a ramped-up security presence, including two battalions and 10 mobile units, as well as daily airforce surveillance.
But the politicians, who claim Fulani heritage, have struggled to convince the people of southern Kaduna that farmers’ interests are being protected as clashes continue to erupt.
Meanwhile in Nigeria’s largely Christian south, pastors and politicians are calling for farmers to defend themselves in the face of “rampaging herdsmen”.
“Neither the Kaduna government nor the federal government are perceived as impartial arbitrators,” Nigerian political analyst Chris Ngwodo said.
“It is more accurate to see the southern Kaduna conflict as a subset of a broader crisis of state failure and the breakdown of law and order.”
Fulani leaders are quick to accuse the farmers of hypocrisy, frequently pointing to attacks on herdsmen and their valuable cattle.
“It’s not in our nature to attack,” said Ibrahim Abdullahi, from the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN).
“A Fulani man has ‘Fulaku’,” he added, referring to an ancient moral code that emphasises honesty, humility and family honour.
“But we will do what we need to do to protect our lives and heritage.”
The conflict has often been characterised as a religious one but that ignores long-standing grievances and complex ethnic rivalry that dates back hundreds of years.
For Abdullahi, the real driver of the conflict stems from Nigeria’s booming population, which the United Nations has estimated to be one of the fastest-growing in the world.
Demand for land has chipped away at traditional grazing routes.
One suggested solution is to settle the herdsmen and introduce modern ranching techniques.
But with millions of Fulani still leading a nomadic life, that requires some kind of national government policy to address the resource scarcity.
Until then, peace will be elusive, predicted Moses Ochonu, an African history professor at Vanderbilt University in the United States.
“Unless a permanent solution is found to nomadic herding, herder-farmer conflicts will intensify. It may be time to rethink the entire paradigm of herding.” ”