When 60-year-old Ladi Habila heard gunshots ring around her village in Nigeria’s Kaduna state on Christmas Eve, she cast aside the meal she had been preparing, and ran for her life.
Habila returned the next day to find her house razed to the ground, and the burnt body of her husband.
“My children lost their school books and certificates, all our clothes are gone and we are not sure where we will live,” said Habila, whose children have been begging for food, and staying with relatives and even strangers in nearby towns.
“We lost everything and we cannot even go to the farm, so there is nothing for us to do,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a tiny room in a neighbour’s house, where she and her two youngest children sleep on newspapers and old clothes.
Habila is among 27,000 people in Kaduna who have been forced to flee their homes due to violence between Muslim herdsmen and largely Christian farmers which has killed at least 800 people since September, according to church leaders in the region.
For years, the semi-nomadic, cattle-herding Fulani and more settled farming communities have clashed over land use as lower rainfall, advancing desertification and overgrazing drive the herdsmen towards more fertile land in the south of Nigeria.
But violence has soared in recent months between the herdsmen and farmers — due to the ongoing harvest season — and the worst bloodshed the region has witnessed in years could worsen unless the state intervenes, security analysts say.
The national disaster agency NEMA, which puts the death toll at around 200, said it had donated food and building materials to some of the affected communities in December, while the Kaduna state government said it was investigating violence.
Yet the displaced say they have received no compensation from the government, and insufficient aid, fuelling fears of a spiralling yet neglected humanitarian crisis in a nation already struggling with the Boko Haram insurgency and the threat of more attacks on oil pipelines by the Niger Delta Avengers militants.
“If the root causes of the violence are not addressed, if suspected perpetrators are not investigated and prosecuted, existing tensions will simmer and manifest in the form or more reprisal attacks,” said Sola Tayo of think-tank Chatham House.
“This could increase the likelihood of internal displacement among affected communities,” the associate fellow added.
Fears over farming
Local communities say the violence grew out of festering disputes over land towards the end of last year, then escalated sharply, exacerbated by north-south, Muslim-Christian tensions.
While farmers lay the blame squarely on the herdsmen, some experts and locals said the vilification of the Fulani had seen them also come under attack, fuelling a cycle of revenge.
This violence has ruined harvests and disrupted the livelihoods of hundreds of farmers across the region.
Half of people in Nigeria work in agriculture, which accounts for around a quarter of its gross domestic product (GDP), according to the World Bank and Central Bank of Nigeria.
Conflict between farmers and herdsmen in just four Nigerian states could cost the country at least US$14 billion annually in lost potential revenues, aid agency Mercy Corps said last year.
Ayuba Rasong, a neighbour of Habila, turned to farming just a few years ago after retiring as a school principal. But his newfound joy was cut short when the Fulani attacked in December, destroying the 67-year-old’s farm, crops and equipment.
“I don’t know how to raise money to get back to farming or pay my children’s (school) fees,” the father of four said. “These herdsmen have taken my livelihood away from me.”
Other farmers nearby are fearful of raids by the gun- and machete-wielding Fulani, in this ethnically charged conflict which may have claimed more lives in Nigeria than the jihadist group Boko Haram over the past year, security experts say.
Around 1,300 deaths have been caused by sectarian violence — mainly involving herdsmen and farmers in Kaduna — since January 2016, compared with some 850 inflicted by Boko Haram, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Nigeria Security Tracker.
Further violence could have dire consequences for a region which is responsible for a large amount of the beans and maize produced in Nigeria, said Lagos-based research firm SB Morgen.
“Only a major intervention can prevent acute food shortage in these communities,” SB Morgen said in a report last month.
Women hit hardest
The escalating violence has left tens of thousands of people relying on their neighbours, wealthy individuals and churches for shelter, enough to eat and ultimately, to survive.
While some of the displaced are staying in schools used as temporary camps, most people are living with their relatives.
Clergyman Gideon Agwom said that while his church had organized a feeding program to help more than 200 people, the demand for food was rising amid a lack of outside assistance.
“We need help because in the coming months, there could be food scarcity even in this recession,” he said, referring to Nigeria’s first recession in 25 years as oil prices fall.
Women and girls have been hit hardest by the violence, with some having suffered rape and others struggling to survive having been orphaned or widowed, local communities said.
“My poor wife and child,” said 25-year-old Audu Gambo as he recalled coming home from a trip to the capital Abuja in September last year to find the corpse of his eight-months-pregnant wife, who had been shot, disembowelled and burned.
Local activists and groups, bemoaning a lack of aid from humanitarian organizations and the government, are using social media to raise awareness of the plight of the displaced, and appeal for items including blankets, sanitary pads and food.
Young women are having to use makeshift pads and reuse rags during their periods, said local human rights activist Ndi Kato.
“Women and children can’t afford sanitary pads,” she said. “Most have to defecate in the bush and newborns are in precarious situations because their parents can no longer afford health care.”