ABUJA (Reuters) - The Nigerian army on Wednesday said it will deploy troops to improve security in central states where a spate of communal violence has prompted criticism of President Muhammadu Buhari.
Clashes between semi-nomadic herdsmen and farmers over fertile land have killed dozens of people in the last few weeks. A mass burial was held for 73 people killed in the violence was held in January.
Nigerian troops are already battling the Boko Haram jihadist insurgency in the northeast and last year were deployed to the southern Niger Delta region and the southeast to prevent oil vandalism and curtail the influence of secessionists respectively.
The unrest in central states has become increasingly political ahead of elections in February 2019 with critics of President Buhari accusing him of failing to get tough with herdsmen who are mostly from his Fulani ethnic group.
The army said training exercises would be carried out in the central states of Benue, Taraba, Kogi, Nasarawa and Niger, along with the northwestern state of Kaduna, from Feb. 15 to Mar. 31.
It said the need for the deployment had arisen "due to upsurge in cases of armed banditry, kidnapping and cattle rustling" as well as the clashes between herdsmen and farmers and attacks by armed militias.
The exercise is "conceptualized to dovetail into real time operations, thereby fulfilling both training and operations objectives... providing an avenue to conduct operations against violent criminals when called upon", the army said in an emailed statement.
Buhari, a former military ruler, took office in May 2015 after winning an election in which he vowed to improve the security situation in the country, which has Africa's biggest economy.
He has not stated whether he will seek a second term by contesting the presidential election next year.
The central states - where differing religious, ancestral and cultural differences frequently ignite conflict - have been worst hit in the latest flashpoints.
The violence is, in part, due to long-term trends. Thousands of herdsmen have moved southwards in the last few years to flee spreading desertification in the north, putting pressure on dwindling fertile land amid rapid population growth.
Despite the recent outbreaks of violence, Nigerians, split roughly equally between Christians and Muslims from around 250 different ethnic groups, mostly live peacefully together.
(Reporting by Felix Onuah; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Toby Chopra)