Authorities in Plateau state, a hotbed of sectarian violence, told members of the mainly Muslim Fulani tribe to evacuate their villages while troops hunted for those responsible for killing more than 100 people this month.
Fulani spokesmen said the holding camps were inhumane and said that some of those kept there had already defied the military’s orders and left to celebrate Ramadan in their villages.
The issue could worsen tensions in the religiously divided state, where the Fulani say they face discrimination by the Christian groups who hold power.
The four camps were completely inadequate for almost 10,000 Fulani, said Ardo Mamuda, a Fulani chief in the Riyom area.
“There is inadequate food, water and other essentials the government promised to provide us,” he said.
But in any case, many people had already left the camps partly “to observe the (Ramadan) fast,” he added.
“Their return is illegal,” said Captain Salihu Mustapha, the military spokesman in the state.
“We don’t want any situation that could lead to collateral damage as we engage our targets.”
Members of the livestock-herding ethnic group were blamed for July 7 raids on Christian villages that killed more than 80 people.
Another 22 people, including two senior politicians, were killed the following day in an attack on the funeral of the victims, also blamed on the Fulani.
State leaders said this week that Plateau was “under siege”. A day later an unidentified assailant fired a grenade at an Islamic school in the capital Jos, killing a 10-year-old boy.
The spokesman for the Fulani organisation MACBAN, Saleh Bayeri, told AFP this week that the military’s plans to root out alleged Fulani gunmen would only inflame the situation.
He charged that Plateau’s political leaders, primarily members of the Berom Christian ethnic group, were trying to carry out “an ethnic and religious cleansing of the Fulani.”
The pastoralists are seen as “settlers” by the state’s Christian indigenous groups, even though the Fulani have been there for decades.
Violence in Plateau, much of it blamed on the Fulani and charged by the religious divide, has left thousands dead in recent years.