In the fertile grasslands of central Nigeria the roar of a motorcycle is enough to instill fear in the Christian cattle herders stalked by an increasingly bloody conflict.
The rev of an engine is the first warning sign that gangs of kidnappers have emerged from the forest for their latest sortie in a battle over diminishing farmland that appears to be drawn along sectarian lines.
Across Africa’s most populous country, an undeclared war, triggered in part by climate change and fought over cattle, has turned Muslims and Christians against each other in a confrontation so bitter it threatens to tear Nigeria apart.
Warring over cattle is almost as old as human history in parts of Africa. But across a swath of the continent, cattle-related violence is unleashing more bloodshed than at any time in living memory.
Fights over cattle have claimed thousands of lives in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, worsening the humanitarian crises in two states devastated by civil war. Militias raised by armed cattle herders have brought anarchy to parts of northern Kenya, killing farmers white and black.
But nowhere are the consequences more potentially dangerous than in Nigeria, Africa’s richest, most populous and arguably most important country.
Hundreds of thousands have fled their homes; farms and villages in many states have been abandoned, raising fears of hunger, economic collapse and the spread of disease in camps for the displaced.
The perceived aggressors are mostly semi-nomadic cattle herders from the Fulani, an ethnic group numbering 20 million people with territory across West and Central Africa.
Nigerian Fulani, who are mostly Muslim, have traditionally pastured their cattle mostly in the north of the country.
But water and pasture are both disappearing thanks to climate change.
In some northern states, up to 75 percent of grassland has been swallowed up by desert. More frequent droughts, the disappearance of water sources and attacks by Boko Haram have combined to drive the Fulani and their herds into Nigeria’s fertile central farmlands, the country’s so-called Middle Belt — where much of the population is Christian.
Attempts by local officials and farmers to protect their crops and husbandry have led to gruesome reprisals.
In recent months solitary farmers tending their crops have returned to their villages, their severed hands stuffed into their pockets, in attacks meant to terrify others into abandoning their fields to the herders.
The villages themselves have come under attack by suspected Fulani gangs on motorcyles. Last month, 71 people were killed in a village in Kaduna state when the men on motorcycles roared in, opened fire on its fleeing inhabitants, before setting fire to homes and hacking children to death.
Nor are all the attacks carried out by Fulanis with cows. Speaking to the lawlessness that has gripped northern Nigeria, Fulani youths believed to have lost their herds have set up kidnapping camps in the vast Rugu forest, from where they emerge on motorcycles to prey on pedestrians walking along isolated roads.
At least 100 people were kidnapped in a two-day kidnapping spree in Kaduna state last month, according to local officials.
But whatever the motivation, the conflict is increasingly being perceived as one between Muslims and Christians, a view only reinforced by an attack on a church in Benue state in April when two priests and 17 of their congregation were killed as they said Mass.
That attack has had a profound effect on Nigeria’s Christians, persuading many, justifiably or otherwise, that the Fulanis’ real intent is dispossession, territorial acquisition and the expansion of Islam — all to be achieved by the ethnic cleansing of Christians.
“The reverend fathers were not farmers,” said Samuel Ortom, Benue State’s Christian governor. “They were not in the farm. The church where they were holding the Mass had no grass.
“The armed herdsmen have moved the narrative of the current crisis from search for grass to other obvious motives.”
As anger has mounted, Christian tribesmen have formed armed vigilante groups to take on the herders when they attack — and carry out reprisal attacks as well. In one recent moment of vengeance, Fulanis say 50 of their members, including children, were slaughtered.
Deepening the sense of crisis, prominent Christians have accused Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president, of turning a blind eye to the attacks because he too is a Fulani Muslim.
“The nation is now, more than ever so, divided along ethnic-religious configurations,” said Emmanuel Onwukibo, the coordinator of the Christian-dominated Human Rights Writers’ Association of Nigeria.
“Nigerians in their thousands have been gruesomely despatched to the Great Beyond by armed Fulani herdsmen who are being protected by the powers that be.”
While diplomats concede that President Buhari’s response been slow, there is no evidence to suggest he is siding with the herders, whose representatives insist they are being grossly misrepresented and are as much victims of the conflict as the Christian farmers.
The president has ordered the army to take action to restore order, but so stretched are the armed forces and so well armed their opponents — thanks to vast quantities of weapons flooding into the country after Libya’s civil war — that a military response is unlikely to work.
Instead, experts say, peaceful resolution is the only answer.
Under British rule, migration routes and grazing zones were set aside for the Fulani herds but these have disappeared through a mixture of corrupt land allocation and a soaring population of sedentary farmers in the Middle Belt. Opening them up is crucial, the experts maintain.
But such steps are unlikely to satisfy increasingly angry Christian officials and activists. Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian Nobel laureate and author, has warned that the country could descend into Yugoslavia-style ethnic bloodshed unless the Fulani attackers are tamed.
Mr Buhari is running out of time to take action that will convince Christians that there is not a “grand mischievous plan for territorial conquest, ethnic cleansing and religious imposition” by the Fulanis, warns John Onaiyekan, the Catholic archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.
“The very survival of our nation is now at stake,” he said.