YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – A Catholic-inspired group of researchers, criminologists, and human rights activists in Nigeria is accusing some authorities of planning to expand the activities of jihadists to the heavily Christian southeast under the guise of state ranching projects.

The projects have been promoted as a means to modernize agriculture and improve livestock management. The idea is to create designated areas where cattle can be raised and grazed, reducing conflicts between herders and farmers.

In 2019, the Nigerian government launched a 10-year National Livestock Transformation Plan designed to create 119 ranches across several parts of Nigeria in order to “quell the country’s herder-farmer conflict.”

The Catholic–inspired group, International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law (Intersociety) says this project is a ruse to populate the South East with Muslim herdsmen who have terrorized Christian communities for years.

RELATED: Report claims Nigeria security forces care more about cows than Christians

Intersociety says it has meticulously tracked recent developments in select farming communities across Nigeria. Their investigation has uncovered a disconcerting trend: Local leaders are being coerced into relinquishing parcels of land for these animal range initiatives. However, Intersociety contends that these seemingly innocuous projects may conceal a more ominous agenda.

According to their March 11 report, the ranching projects are a smokescreen for the resettlement of Fulani herders.

The primarily Muslim Fulani ethnic group has been at the center of longstanding tensions in Nigeria, particularly in regions where they clash with mostly Christian local farmers, often over land and resources.

These conflicts have escalated into violence, with thousands of Christians losing their lives and entire Christian communities being depopulated. One of the most egregious Fulani attacks on Christians was over Christmas, when about 200 Christians were massacred.

At least 52,000 Christians have been killed in Nigeria since 2009, according Intersociety.

Last year, Fulani herdsmen were responsible for the deaths of at least 3,500 Christians, the group said.

Intersociety has vowed to resist plans by the governors of Nigeria’s Enugu, Anambra, Abia, Imo and Ebonyi States to resettle Fulani herdsmen, who have been blamed for such  jihad-inspired attacks.

The concern, according to Intersociety, is particularly higher in the state of Enugu, where community lands have come under increasing threat of being grabbed “for Fulani ranching or settlements.”

“The State Government under Peter Mbah has strongly and widely been accused of coercing some communities in the State with large acres of farm/bush/forest lands into ceding or surrendering large part of them for mechanized farming or cow ranching,” Intersociety says in its report signed by its Board Chair, Emeka Umeagbalasi.

He described the plan as “a camouflage for Jihadist Fulani settlements” in the state.

RELATED: Senators chide Biden administration over the killing of Nigerian Christians

The report noted that the South East that is now being targeted by the government for ranching is “too tiny to grab for Fulani.” It claims the lands were ceded for Fulani settlements and may end up as “Jihadist Fulani settlements” disguised as ranches for cattle.

In their statement, Intersociety warned the governors of the interested states to “back off” from such moves, telling them to withdraw from “whatever disguises or camouflages aimed at establishment of herders’ settlements in any part of their respective states.”

“These moves must be done away with in the entire South-East or be lawfully and popularly resisted,” the organization said.

The cattle ranching plan has also registered pushback from locals who have suffered the pain of Fulani attacks.

Chief Johnson Okolo, an Enugu-based farmer who lost his crops to cattle and his farmland to marauding Fulani herdsmen, took exception to the cattle ranching plan.

“I am a victim, l lost over 6,000 palm trees in my plantation in Amofia Agu Affa in Udi Council of Enugu State to Fulani herdsmen who destroyed the palm plantation and took over the place for over four years now,” he told the media.

“I haven’t gone to my palm plantation in my community for the past four years because herdsmen have taken over the plantation as a settlement,” Okolo said, adding that giving herdsmen land to settle in the region is simply inviting trouble.

The Enugu government has openly acknowledged its intention to create modern ranches as part of its agro-industrial productivity agenda. According to their statement, these ranches will serve as a strategic measure to combat the activities of kidnappers and other criminals who disguise themselves as herders.

“It has become necessary to explain matters regarding the design to use ranching, a modern method all over the world, to rear cattle,” the government said.

“The recent viral messages and outcry of a few persons against what they construed as government intention to take over (…) land and give it out to the Fulani in the guise of RUGA (Fulani Settlements) is the unfortunate machination of those who wish to make a mountain out of molehill for political reasons,” it continued.

“The intention of the government is clear on the matter. Armed bandits and kidnappers in the name of herders have long taken advantage of our forests and farmlands to commit heinous crimes, abductions, rape, and killings. The Government of Enugu State has resolved to put a stop to these and introduce ranching, the most modern way of rearing cattle,” the statement explained.

“When established, no cattle herder or dealer shall be allowed to roam non-designated areas with their animals for grazing,” it claimed.

Nigeria has a population of over 230 million people, almost evenly divided between Christians mostly in the south and Muslims mostly in the north.

As the country grapples with complex socio-political issues, the delicate balance between agricultural development, security, and human rights remains difficult.

The Catholic group’s concerns serve as a stark reminder that seemingly benign initiatives can harbor hidden agendas, and vigilance is essential to safeguarding the well-being of all citizens.