By Rafiu Ajakaye
Over 1,000 protesters on Wednesday blocked major highways in the capital city of Nigeria's north-central Benue state Makurdi, calling on the government to end periodic killings by herdsmen.
The protest comes a day after over 20 people were killed across Benue villages in what authorities described as herdsmen's reaction to an anti-grazing law which bans herders from open grazing in the volatile state.
"We need to make this clear that what is going on is not 'herdsman/farmer clashes'," said Collins Uma, a protest leader.
"These Fulani herdsmen entered communities unprovoked and burned down houses while maiming unarmed Nigerians, especially women and children. How is this a 'herdsman/farmer clash'?"
Protesters said the government was treating the herdsmen with kids' gloves.
Attempts by Benue Governor Samuel Ortom to calm the protesters were rebuffed, prompting police to "disperse them with smoke", according to local police spokesman Moses Yamu.
Yamu said at least eight herdsmen suspected to be behind the latest violence were arrested across the region. He confirmed 17 dead in the violence, although Ortom had said over 20 people were killed.
'No serious policies'
Helen Teghtegh, head of a local NGO, Community Links, claimed that President Muhammadu Buhari, himself a Fulani, had made no serious effort to halt the violence, which dates back many decades.
"There have been no policies implemented to slow down the attacks by Fulani herdsmen," she said in a statement.
Teghtegh said another protest was planned for Thursday.
In a statement on Wednesday, Buhari condemned the violence and called for an immediate crackdown on the attackers.
"One of our pledges to Nigerians is that we will ensure the safety and security of lives everywhere in the country. We will keep this promise. Let me assure that security agencies are working to arrest those behind the regrettable attack in Benue State, and prevent further attacks," he said.