Their only crime was to have “light skin and look like Fulanis”, said a police officer, referring to the herders blamed for deadly violence against farmers in recent months.
For the last week, lack of street lighting has plunged Gboko into virtual darkness.
Residents have shut themselves away at home and nervous police on patrol threaten to shoot at any vehicle defying a 6:00 pm to 6:00 am curfew.
Near the scene of the crime, the faces of traders give away nothing and become hostile at approaches. They “weren’t there” that day, and know “nothing” about what happened, they say.
Early on January 31, a group of young men carrying sticks, stones and machetes attacked travellers waiting at the Gboko bus station.
The travellers were then set on fire, witnesses told AFP.
“They were on their way to (neighbouring) Taraba state and were about to board on another vehicle when someone suddenly raised the alarm, shouting, ‘Fulanis have come to kill us!'” said the police officer.
“A mob of irate youths attacked them. We came to rescue them but before we could do anything they were set ablaze.”
– Spiralling violence –
The old door of the local road transport union is padlocked. Its president was arrested with 15 other people on suspicion of involvement in the violence.
The gruesome story says much about the ill feeling between the local, mainly Christian Tiv farmers and the Muslim Fulani cattle herders.
Cattle are moved every year from the arid north to the fertile pastures in central Nigeria, where they are accused of ruining crops.
What began as a competition for access to land has been aggravated by global warming and Nigeria’s demographic explosion.
Nigeria is currently home to some 180 million people — the most in Africa — and is expected to become the world’s third most populous country by 2050.
The herders-farmer conflict has transformed into a bloody conflict, with tit-for-tat attacks and communal clashes.
Amnesty International said on January 31 that 168 people have been killed in communal violence since the start of the year. More than 100 of them have been in Benue state.
– ‘People are panicking’ –
Gboko’s bus station is normally teeming with people and goods leaving for neighbouring towns but is now virtually empty.
Minibuses from a company called Sunshine Express wait for travellers who are unlikely to come.
Victoria Ate, who sells cassava, is about to shut her stall even though it has just gone midday.
“The business is not moving, everybody is afraid to come through here, it’s the first time something like that happens here so people are panicking,” she said.
People in Gboko had escaped the violence that hit a number of communities in Benue in the last few weeks.
But frustrations are high in the town, which is home to about 500,000 people and whose only industry providing jobs is a cement factory owned by Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote.
In the traditional capital of the Tiv people, illiteracy is high and most young people grow oranges, yams or plantain to survive.
– ‘Jungle law’ –
As elsewhere in the state, there is condemnation of attacks by heavily armed Fulani against farming communities, as well as the perceived apathy of the federal government, which took a month to denounce the killings.
The Benue state governor Samuel Ortom — a Tiv — openly criticises how President Muhammadu Buhari — himself a northern Fulani Muslim — is handling the crisis.
Last week, he called for the head of the federal police to resign.
According to Ortom, the eight police units and some 200 soldiers sent to reinforce troops already stationed in Benue are not enough to stop the violence.
At nearly 35,000 square kilometres (13, 500 square miles), Benue state is bigger than Belgium.
“Gboko was peaceful until now, but tensions increasingly spill over from one area to another,” said one Nigerian security source.
“People are responding to the attacks perpetrated on their brothers. This is very sad, but jungle law now prevails.”