Abuja: An age-old conflict over grazing land in Nigeria that’s exploded into widespread violence may be threatening President Muhammadu Buhari’s chances for re-election in February.

Buhari’s administration has been unable to calm a crisis that saw at least 200 people killed in a June 23 attack blamed on mostly Muslim ethnic Fulani herders on a mainly Christian crop-farming community in a central region known as the Middle Belt. It was the latest in a string of violent incidents this year that have claimed more than 1,000 lives and undermined public confidence in the government.

“Buhari’s lacklustre response to the killings in the Middle Belt will haunt him in the next election,” Leena Koni Hoffmann, an Africa researcher at London-based Chatham House, said by email.

Buhari, 75, won the presidency on his fourth try in 2015 by building a coalition that delivered in addition to his northern base swing areas in the southwest and the Middle Belt, including some of the states worst hit by the violence such as Plateau and Benue. Carrying the central region may be more difficult this time.

‘Weak spot’

“The Middle Belt killings certainly create a major weak spot for Buhari,” Amaka Anku, head of Eurasia Group’s Africa practice, said by email. “If he loses the Middle Belt, as is looking likely, he’ll have to win more votes in the south to win the election.”

Buhari has also drawn criticism because he is an ethnic Fulani like most of the semi-nomadic herders, who are increasingly competing with farmers for land and water. The conflict, sharpened by climate change and the southward advance of the Sahara desert, has heightened divisions in a nation of almost 200 million people that’s evenly split between a mainly Christian south and a largely Muslim north and has at least 250 ethnic groups.

“People are even blaming me for not talking to them because maybe I look like one of them,” Buhari said in a reference to the Fulani herders last month when he met with family members of the victims in the central city of Jos in Plateau state. “There’s some injustice in these aspersions.”

Urging prayers

During the visit, his first to any of the scenes of the recent killings, Buhari said the security forces had done everything in their power to stop the raids, “but the way this situation is now, we can only pray.”

Opposition parties latched onto the statement to portray Buhari, a former military ruler who came to office pledging a crackdown on violence, as an incompetent leader who doesn’t deserve to be re-elected.

In the incident, hundreds of armed men descended on 11 villages in a seven-hour killing spree and then disappeared before the arrival of security forces, maintaining a pattern with previous killings, according to London-based Amnesty International.

The Nigerian police said its officers have detained about a dozen people for questioning and recovered five AK-47 assaults rifles believed to have been used in the attack. “Peace and normality has been restored in the affected areas in the state,” it said in a statement on Tuesday.

Military overstretched

A key problem is that the 180,000-member army is overstretched. It has to deal with the nine-year-old Boko Haram Islamist insurgency in the northeast, which has left more than 20,000 people dead, and armed militants in the southern Niger River delta who threaten Africa’s biggest oil industry. Troops are currently deployed in at least 30 of the country’s 36 states.

“There is a real concern that given the multiplicity of conflicts in Nigeria, there may be no troops left to deploy,” said Cheta Nwanze, an analyst at SBM Intelligence in Lagos, the commercial capital.

Critics of the government say the security forces aren’t neutral, a perception fuelled by Buhari’s decision to keep key commands in the hands of fellow Muslim northerners. Defence Minister Mansur Dan Ali has condemned some state laws designed to curb open grazing of cattle, blaming them for the violence and appearing to take sides with Fulani herders.

“The pervasive loss of confidence in the federal government and its security forces as neutral arbiters is also a key factor in this escalation, as it encourages communities to adopt vigilantism with catastrophic results,” Nwanze said by email.

For the main opposition People’s Democratic Party, the situation creates an opportunity as well as a challenge. But like the ruling All Progressives Congress, it’s riddled with divisions and many of Nigeria’s security challenges emerged during the 16 years it held power. Key to its chances is nominating a candidate with widespread appeal to challenge the president.

“I don’t think losing the Middle Belt will be completely fatal to his chances, but a lot depends on who the ultimate opposition candidate is,” Anku of Eurasia said. “If the PDP can come up with a credible candidate that can excite the south and be competitive in the north, we’ll have a real electoral battle.”