There is a growing trend towards episodic, low-intensity conflicts across Nigeria, particularly in its north-central and southern zones. These conflicts often involve nomadic Fulani herdsmen and sedentary agricultural communities,1There has been the notion that the conflicts are between herders and farmers. However, attacks are often against a whole community, a few of whom are farmers. and result in the unmitigated decimation and sacking of rural communities. Herder-farmer conflicts have escalated in the last decade and assumed a deadly dimension over the past two years. As far back as the 1960s, cattle routes and grazing reserves were created by law in Nigeria.2U. S. Abdullahi, H. N. Daneyel, and Y. H. Aliyara, “Grazing Reserves and Pastoralism in Nigeria: A Review,” Vom Journal of Veterinary Science 10 (2015): 137-142. Herdsmen who went outside these areas were arrested and fined, and the money used to compensate farmers for damaged crops. But with rapid urban expansion, increased population pressure on land, and climate change, the cattle routes and grazing reserves have been encroached upon. In some cases, they have even ceased to exist, as a result of land speculation, physical development, and commercial agriculture.

Given the increased competition for land, transhumant herdsmen have increasingly trespassed into farmlands while searching for pasture for their cattle, destroying crops and triggering conflicts with farmers. Many affected farming communities have resisted such incursions, preventing the herdsmen’s cattle from entering their farmlands. In some cases, this violence has resulted in injuries, or in the worst cases, deaths, on both sides. There have also been reports of poisoning of both crops and cattle.3Okechukwu Edward Okeke, “Conflicts between Fulani Herders and Farmers in Central and Southern Nigeria: Discourse on Proposed Establishment of Grazing Routes and Reserves,” AFRREV IJAH: An International Journal of Arts and Humanities 3, no. 1 (January 2014): 66-84. Hardly a day passes without media reports of attacks by herders armed with sophisticated weapons, including AK-47 rifles, against sedentary agricultural communities. Such attacks are timed for when communities are at their most vulnerable (usually at night) and involve wanton violence, including destruction of property and violence against children, women, and the elderly, with some fatalities.4Reuben Abati, “Fulani Herdsmen as the New Boko Haram?” African Spotlight, April 29, 2016, http://africanspotlight.com/2016/04/29/fulani-herdsmen-as-the-new-boko-haram-by-reuben-abati/. In some cases, people have also been kidnapped and ransomed by people suspected to be herdsmen. Although exact figures are hard to come by, it is estimated that thousands have been killed, with many more displaced by the spiraling violence across predominantly rural communities in Nigeria.

However, while the escalating violence is essentially about competition for access to land, a particularly explosive element is the “ethnification” of the identities of the conflict’s parties. The framing of the conflict as ethnic struggles between nomadic, Fulani herdsmen “strangers” and autochthon, agricultural “indigenes” has contributed to its intractability, particularly within the context of Nigeria’s rather volatile identity politics. Given the proliferation of ethnic (and vigilante) militias and tense communal relations, more attention must be paid to the drivers of the conflict and its resolution, as it continues to pose a threat to peace and security in the country.

Many questions arise in relation to the “new” phenomenon of armed herdsmen, with various theories proposed to account for the sources of their arms. While some analysts point to the proliferation of small arms across the Sahel, as a result of arms smuggling rings and transnational criminal gangs selling weapons used in wars as far away as Mali, Chad, Sudan, and Libya,5Ibid. others focus on the role of local weapons dealers, politicians, and business people who are patrons of herders and/or owners of cattle themselves.6Jide Oluwajuyitan, “Patrons of Fulani Herdsmen,” The Nation, March 24, 2016, http://thenationonlineng.net/ortom-petals-forgiveness/. Many of the latter are suspected to be members of an ethnic Hausa-Fulani political elite, believed to constitute a power bloc within Nigeria’s central government. Some also believe that the backing of this powerful elite explains the impunity with which herders attack sedentary communities. Although no real evidence has been produced to back such claims of Hausa-Fulani elite complicity in these attacks, it must be mentioned that this “conspiracy theory” has gained traction in parts of the country that remain suspicious of a particular hegemonic ethnic plot. With this in mind, many of the communities that have been, or fear being, attacked have resorted to building and arming communal militias to attack and defend themselves and their land from “invaders.”

Given the security threats posed by what has become an explosive situation, there is debate around the various options for diffusing existing tensions and eventual conflict resolution. One school of thought views transhumant pastoralism as outmoded and inefficient, and has proposed cattle ranching as a “modern” alternative.7Seun Opejobi, “Fulani Herdsman Attack: Creation of Cattle Ranches Will End Crises – Lawmaker Advises Buhari,” Daily Post, April 26, 2016, http://dailypost.ng/2016/04/26/fulani-herdsman-attack-creation-of-cattle-ranches-will-end-crises-lawmaker-advises-buhari/. Another has proposed the establishment of grazing reserves, which would cover large swaths of land across the country for herdsmen to provide pasture for their animals. Three grazing bills have been introduced to the National Assembly for consideration, including an executive bill backed by the president.8Damilola Oyedele, “A Divisive Grazing Bill,” This Day, May 1, 2016, https://www.thisdaylive.com/index.php/2016/05/01/a-divisive-grazing-bill/. Many northern leaders and the Cattle Herders’ Association have supported this bill, but it has met with condemnation and resistance from other parts of the country, particularly those suspicious of a hegemonic Hausa-Fulani plot or hidden agenda.9Indeed, many have also alluded to the idea that there is “an Islamization agenda” to this proposition. At present, this bill has not gained much traction, and deliberations have been suspended. In its place, the Nigerian government is considering several options. These include the import of grass or cattle fodder from Brazil, as well as the establishment of ranches across the country to “sedentarize” herdsmen and discourage the culture of transhumant pastoralism. This would thereby eliminate the basis for herder-farmer conflict.

This proposal has prompted the Nigerian government to send soldiers to Argentina to learn ranching skills, a decision that is already courting some controversy.10“Army’s Cattle Ranch Initiative as Masterstroke,” The Nation, December 24, 2016, http://thenationonlineng.net/armys-cattle-ranch-initiative-masterstroke/. There were also many contentious debates on both national and local television and radio stations over this issue. This is not unrelated to the concern in some circles that these soldiers may not impartially manage the ranches, and may indeed favor one ethnic group over others. Even before its implementation, the ranching option is being dogged by concerns over fair play, equity, safety, and justice.

Clearly, there is a need for community-based, regional, and national peacebuilding initiatives to address the root of the ongoing and complex conflicts between herdsmen and farmers. As similar conflicts are replicated at various levels across the countries of West and Central Africa,11Abati, “Fulani Herdsmen”; Okeke, “Conflicts between Fulani Herders.” a multi-level solution is essential. Within Nigeria, there is a need to demonstrate greater political will to address and resolve conflicts within communities across the country. The responses so far have been ad-hoc, uncoordinated, reactive rather than proactive, and completely framed in a law and order framework; they seem completely oblivious to the deeper socio-cultural, historical, structural, and economic dimensions of the conflicts. Indeed, the prevailing situation—characterized by pent-up frustration, distrust, and the manipulation of identities—will further complicate the situation if urgent steps are not taken to systematically address the drivers of the conflict. Stakeholders and affected communities must be brought together through dialogue directed towards easing existing tensions and building trust and reconciliation, without compromising justice and equity. Existing local templates of conflict management and resolution should be identified and utilized, to identify best practices that can be made more visible and scaled up. Traditional authorities, local associations, and security actors could play key roles in mediation, reconciliation, and reconstruction as well. A clearly thought-out, proactive peacebuilding intervention is critical to stop further escalation of these low-intensity conflicts and to prevent any further slide towards full-blown conflict.

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