ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria's president on Thursday denied that government proposals to share out land to end a wave of violence over grazing rights amounted to "colonisation" of fertile areas by his own ethnic group.
Clashes between semi-nomadic herders, mostly of the Fulani ethnic group, and settled farmers in central states have killed around 100 people in recent weeks. President Muhammadu Buhari's critics accuse him of favouring the herders because he is Fulani.
Thousands of herders have moved southwards in the last few years to flee spreading desertification in the north, putting pressure on dwindling fertile land.
A government proposal to provide them with grazing areas has been called a plan to create "cattle colonies" in Nigeria's press. Opponents say it could disrupt the country's delicate balance among around 250 ethnic groups roughly evenly split between Muslims and Christians.
Buhari, in a meeting with Catholic bishops on Thursday, "explained that the policy proposed by federal government in response to the frequent clashes between herdsmen and farmers in the country is not meant to colonize any part of the country", his spokesman said in an emailed statement.
The president, who is a Muslim, told them "the intention of government is to create grazing locations for cattle rearers, which has now been misconstrued as another form of colonisation".
The central states - where religious and cultural differences frequently ignite conflict - have been at the epicentre of clashes for decades. Rapid population growth has added to the pressure.
But the deaths of at least 83 people in such conflicts in the first week of the year has made the violence politically explosive.
Lawmakers began a two-day meeting, described as a "security summit", on Thursday in the capital Abuja to discuss the unrest.
"The sharp increase in murderous violence ... has jolted us out of any last vestiges of complacency or denial," Bukola Saraki, the Senate president, tweeted after the talks.
Buhari, elected in 2015 after vowing to improve security, has not stated whether he will seek a second term in elections next year.
Nigeria's army said on Wednesday it would deploy troops to the states worst hit by the unrest from Feb. 15 to Mar. 31.
(Reporting by Felix Onuah and Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos; editing by Andrew Roche)