The recent escalation in violence in the farmer-herder conflict poses a serious threat to peace and security across Nigeria. These incidents have claimed an estimated annual average of two thousand lives between 2011 and 2016, led to massive destruction of property, and tens of thousands of displaced persons. The attacks are reportedly carried out by militant pastoralists belonging to the Fulani ethnic group. 1

Efforts by state governments to manage these conflicts have yielded few results. Current measures used include peace dialogue, payment of compensation to victims, judicial commissions of inquiry to offer redress to victims, arbitration in courts of law, and the use of military force. This essay, based on empirical evidence generated from fieldwork in Plateau, Adamawa, and Benue states, brings to the fore the need to re-evaluate the current peacebuilding interventions, which have proved ineffective and unsustainable, in order to ensure the effective management of farmer-herder conflicts in Nigeria and across Africa.

Of Snakes and Hedgehogs: Perspectives on Farmer-Herder Relations in Nigeria

The story based on the metaphor of the snake and the hedgehog has been used to describe the historical relationship between farmers and herders in Plateau state, Nigeria. While the snake represents the ‘indigenous’ communities in Plateau state, the hedgehog represents Fulani herders.

“The snake and the hedgehog were friends. One day, there was a strong wind. The snake ran into the hole where it lived to avoid the dust. The hedgehog had nowhere to go; so, it asked the snake to allow it to put its nose in the hole to protect it from the dust. The snake agreed. As the wind intensified, the hedgehog began to push its body into the hole causing the spikes on its body to pierce and injure the snake. When the snake complained, the hedgehog asked the snake to get out of the hole if it felt uncomfortable.” 2

As the analogy suggests, the relationship between farmers and herders was once symbiotic and cordial. Herders migrated from the northern Sahel-savanna part of Nigeria towards the south at the onset of the dry season in November which coincided with the harvest/post-harvest period. The herders offered labor in exchange for permission to graze their cattle on the fields after harvest. Cow dung would serve as manure and boost soil fertility. When farmers commenced preparations for the planting season at the beginning of the rainy season in March, the herders would begin their movement back to northern Nigeria.

Though there were skirmishes resulting from encroachment on cultivated farmlands and cattle rustling—a function of their divergent livelihoods (farming and cattle rearing)—these were amicably resolved through dispute resolution mechanisms overseen by traditional rulers, which determined what the aggrieved party was owed as compensation. When the alleged offender was unyielding, the case was handed over to law enforcement agencies for investigation and prosecution in a court of law.

The Changing Dynamics of Farmer-Herder Conflicts in Nigeria

There are indications, however, that the causes of conflict between farmers and herders go beyond the competition for grazing fields and incidences of cattle rustling. Representatives of the Fulani Community in Plateau state have listed as some of their grievances: the alleged killing of herders by members of the Berom community; the closure of stock routes and grazing reserves by farmers; the exclusion of members of the Fulani community in the affairs of government; and the denial of “indigeneship” status by the local government authorities which implies that the Fulani herders do not have equal citizenship rights to other ethnic groups in the state.

As portrayed in the analogy of the snake and the hedgehog, the Berom, who are predominantly farmers and Christian, have accused the predominantly Muslim Fulani herders of forcefully annexing their land. Thus, in their narratives, both groups referred to the conflict as one between the Berom and the Fulani and not between ‘farmers’ and ‘herders.’ This highlights the role of ethnicity, and by extension religion, as well as the settler/non-settler dichotomy, in defining the changing dynamics of these conflicts.

Historical accounts show that Othman Dan Fodio led the Fulani jihad (Islamic religious war) of 1804-1808 which conquered most of what is now northern Nigeria but was disrupted by warriors of Tiv descent in what is today known as Benue state. 3 In light of the historical context of inter-group relations, the current resurgence of violent conflict between the Muslim Fulani herders and Christian farmers is perceived by local farmers and the elite as a renewal of the aborted Fulani conquest. The Fulani herders, on the other hand, have laid claim to ownership of all the land in the Benue Valley—arguing that they were the first inhabitants of the region before the arrival of other ethnic groups. 4

In Adamawa state, the conflict was attributed to the influx of a ‘new breed’ of herders who were referred to as Fulani daji (literally translated as “bush Fulani”) in a bid to distinguish ‘legitimate’ herders, who were inhabitants of the local communities, from the unrecognised itinerant herders who were new entrants. These itinerant herders migrated from other states in Nigeria and neighboring countries such as Mali, Niger, and Chad. In Benue, Adamawa and Plateau states, it has been reported that the emergence of foreign itinerant herders has led to more violent and brutal killings, the use of sophisticated weapons such as Ak-47 guns, and midnight attacks that leave no trace of the attackers by daybreak.

New wine, old wineskins? Changing dynamics but old peacebuilding strategies

In spite of the noticeable changes in the drivers of conflict (emergence of new actors, the proliferation of weapons, quest for territorial control, the forceful annexation of land and denial of equal rights), the same peacebuilding mechanisms—dialogue, mediation and the enforcement of restorative justice—have been adopted. While these interventions have worked to bring momentary peace—as was experienced in some farming communities in Benue state throughout 2017—more holistic and sustainable measures are required.

The Benue State government recently enacted a law that prohibits open grazing and imposes ranching as a “best practice,” even though there are no established ranches in the state. Since the law came into effect in November 2017, most of the Fulani herders in Benue state have reluctantly migrated to neighboring states. While ranching may be appropriate in dealing with conflicts that are related to crop destruction, it may be ill-suited for issues related to the proliferation of weapons, the emergence of new actors, and the quest for territorial expansion and control.

The federal government has responded to the conflicts in Plateau and Benue states by deploying military personnel and equipment to the affected communities. The military’s activities, which are temporary and short-term measures, include raids, cordon and search tactics, shows of force and patrols to combat armed attacks, arresting offenders, and providing security to encourage the return of displaced persons. In the event of the withdrawal of the military, these communities will be unprotected and vulnerable to attacks.

To achieve sustainable peace, the ambiguities in the Nigerian constitution regarding the definitions of ‘settler’ and ‘non-settler’ status, and the clause on freedom of movement across internal and international borders, need to be removed. This will help forestall further misinterpretations that may fuel conflicts and ensure that the rights of other citizens are not infringed upon or jeopardized.

  1.  Global Terrorism Index (2016), Institute for Economics and Peace
  2. Interview with a representative of Berom Community in Plateau State.
  3. Interview with a Traditional Ruler in Benue State.
  4. Interview with a member of the Fulani Community in Benue State.