The Nigerian government said on Wednesday that it planned to start repatriating more than 17,000 people who fled from eastern Nigerian into Cameroon following ethnic clashes two years ago.
The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), in a statement obtained by IRIN, said that the return of the mainly pastoralist Fulani people to a mountainous frontier area in Taraba state would start next week.
Salisu Makarfi, the director general of NEMA, said in the statement that four reception centres for the returnees had already been set up in the towns of Mbang, Dorafi, Mayo Bule and Kan Iyaka in the Sarduana local government area.
“The process of repatriating the people includes the establishment of reception centres, meeting the local people and informing them of the desire of the federal government to bring back their brethren and soliciting their cooperation in ensuring that no hostility resurfaced again in the areas,” he said.
At least 23,000 Fulani herders fled into nearby Cameroon to escape clashes which broke out with farming communities on the Mambilla plateau between 1 and 7 January 2002. More than 100 people were killed in the clashes.
Some of the Fulani refugees later returned to Nigeria, but the majority have remained in Cameroon until now.
The Miyetti Alla Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria accused sedentary farmers from other ethnic groups in the region of targeting the Fulani pastoralists in clashes that led to the death of several dozen herders and the loss of 53,791 of their cattle.
However, ethnic Mabilla, Kaka, Panso and Kambu ethnic groups, who are mainly farmers, have accused the Fulani pastoralists of taking over 85 percent of the land on the Mambilla plateau where they account for only 10 percent of the local population.
This land dispute fell into the pattern of other deadly conflicts between pastoralist settlers and indigenous farming people that have rocked much of central Nigeria in recent years.
Often such disputes also assume the dimensions of a religious conflict between Muslims and Christians.
Last month, several hundred people died in religious clashes in Plateau State, which adjoins Taraba to the northwest. At least 60,000 people were displaced from their homes following a Christian massacre of Muslims in the small town of Yelwa. President Olusegun Obasanjo subsequently declared a state of emergency in Plateau State to prevent further trouble.
Makarfi said NEMA would provide infrastructure for the refugees returning from Cameroon and would take steps to bring about reconciliation between the rival communities on the Mambilla plateau.
"Peace rests with the people,” Makarfi said. “If they are not ready to live in peace, the government may not be able to force them together through the barrel of the gun, but peace is sure once they decide to live together.”