As a member of a collaborative research team awarded a research grant by the African Peacebuilding Network (APN) of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) to carry out a study on “Herders-Farmers Conflicts in Africa: Historical Trajectories: New Issues, Responses and Lessons for Peacebuilding,” I conducted fieldwork in the conflict-affected Plateau state, in North Central Nigeria in the summer of 2019. This project came with a number of challenges given the volatile context marked by violent conflict1Kwaja, C.M.A and Ademola-Adelehin, B.I. (2018). Seeking Security and Stability: An Analysis of Security Responses to Farmer-Herder Conflict in the Middle Belt Region of Nigeria. Search for Common Ground Publication. Washington DC. Majekodunmi, A.O, Dongkum, C., Langs, T., Shaw, A., and Welburn, S. (2016). Improved productivity and sustainable pastoral systems in an era of insecurity—Fulani herds of the southern Jos Plateau, North-Central Nigeria. Trop Anim Health Prod, 48: 1719–1728; Uhembe, A.C. (2015). The State and the Management of Conflict between Nomadic Herdsmen and Crop Farmers in North Central Nigeria: Implications for Sustainable Development. International Journal of Liberal Arts and Social Science, 3, 7: 20-28. over land for grazing and farming. This article shares some of my insights and reflections on my experiences in the field.
As a researcher, I was apprehensive and concerned about my safety given the daily news of violence, arson, and killings in series of attacks and counterattacks involving pastoralists and farmers. Recent reports by the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) have depicted the high level of violence linked to the pastoralist and farmers’ conflict in Nigeria. In the GTI 2015 report, pastoralist Fulani militants were identified among the deadliest terrorist groups in the world.2Global Terrorism Index 2015. Available at https://www.revolvy.com/topic/Global%20Terrorism%20Index. Also, the Human Rights Watch (2017) report on pastoralist-farmer conflict in North central Nigeria estimated that between 2,000 to 3,000 people had been killed, and thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) resulting from the violent clashes.3Human Right Watch (2017), World Report on Nigeria. Available at World Report 2017: Rights Trends in Nigeria. In another related report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), it was noted that in 2018, pastoralist-farmer conflicts in Nigeria had resulted in more deaths than attacks by Boko Haram Islamic extremists.4Human Right Watch (2017), World Report on Nigeria. Available at World Report 2017: Rights Trends in Nigeria.
There were initial difficulties in gaining access to the field because of the highly charged situation at the time I planned to commence my research. I had to postpone my trip to allow for things to settle down. When I eventually started fieldwork, I faced challenges in four major areas: contact persons, research assistants and interpreters, cultural sensitivity, and ethical considerations. They are discussed in the sections below.
It took a while for me to locate reliable contact persons. Sometimes the challenge lay in the difficulty in telling the difference between contact persons and gatekeepers who tend to be rather entrepreneurial and exploitative. A reliable contact person is someone with a good knowledge of, and strong connections with the local communities, people, and the research site. Some of them are staff of local Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)/Community Based Organizations (CBOs) who have done substantial work in the communities and are well respected. Such contacts facilitated my connecting to youth trained as Peace Ambassadors by one of the local NGOs based in Jos, the Institute of Governance and Social Research, who contributed to the success of the fieldwork.
Research Assistants and Translators
My fieldwork involved visiting communities made up of diverse ethnic groups (Hausa, Fulani, Berom, Ron, Mushere, and Kulere) with different languages and cultures. At the heart of the conflict was the issue of identity between those who considered themselves indigenes and owners of the land (predominantly belonging to farming communities), and the Fulani (who the “indigenes” either considered to be settlers, ‘outsiders,’ or pastoralists). I had to work with local interpreters because many of the respondents had limited formal education. In some cases, research assistants from the communities, who could also communicate in the local language as well as English played both roles. It was also important to me that research assistants were reasonably compensated for their time, while explaining that research is not primarily about pecuniary gains.
During interviews the researcher had to pay attention to the responses transmitted through the interpreter, to verify that he or she understood the researcher’s questions and passed them on accurately to the interviewee. It was also important to allocate enough time to interviews as the use of an interpreter slowed down the process.
Closely related to the language issue is the importance of being culturally sensitive when entering local communities. When I visited predominantly Muslim communities, I was mindful of dressing appropriately, so as not to offend my respondents, or look out of place in a volatile environment. Also addressing local people in a respectable manner is very important to gaining their trust and cooperation.
During my time in the field, I was always alert and security conscious. I monitored the news and called contacts ahead of time and was always accompanied by several people familiar with the community. In the course of my research, some interviewees in communities described how they faced frequent attacks from cattle rustlers who unleashed violence on people. While such attacks cannot be anticipated in advance, it is always useful to familiarize oneself with the everyday realities in conflict-affected settings.
Conducting field research among people from diverse ethnic and religious groups requires that the researcher is not seen to be biased or sympathetic towards a group, by any of the groups. When interviewees from different communities made allegations and accusations against one another, I did my best to listen without betraying any emotion or passing comments. Rather, I asked questions and offered comforting words without indicting or blaming any of the parties to the conflict.
I also devised ways of separating falsehoods or exaggerations from facts and tried as much as possible to get verifiable evidence to check claims made by respondents. Many respondents in farming communities often blamed attacks on the Fulani, while those in Fulani communities accused farmers of encroaching on grazing routes. To verify some of the claims and counter-claims, I visited some farms to evaluate the extent of damage as a result of encroachment by herders and their cattle, and also visited some cattle grazing routes to investigate to which claims by pastoralists that farmers had encroached on such spaces.
I often faced the dilemma of deciding if I should follow my sense of curiosity, or carefully weigh the risk of traveling on motorcycle taxis through difficult terrain, including facing the possibility of running into an on-going attack. After studying the situation in some “safe” communities, I decided to take motorcycle taxis with the community leader, some farmers and one of the research assistants to visit some sites. I also spoke to Fulani herders using the same approach. All the time, I was conscious of adhering to the “do no harm” ethics of fieldwork-based research, being mindful of the realities in the field and not putting myself or the respondents at risk, or in danger.
The palpable fear of sporadic attacks in the communities heightened when a stranger visited them. For example, before I got to a community of the Berom ethnic group that had allegedly been attacked by Fulani pastoralists been recently attacked at night on July 2018, I was informed of initial misgivings among some community members who were hesitant to speak to us. However, with the help of locally-based contact persons, research assistants, and interpreters, we were able to dispel such fears, and I was able to conduct interviews in Berom and Fulani communities.
In conducting fieldwork in conflict-affected settings, it is important to have good knowledge of the situation in the field, connect with reliable contact persons, and work with experienced research assistant and interpreters. In North central Nigeria, elements of timing, consent, security consciousness, and sensitivity to ethnic, religious, and cultural differences were key factors in ensuring the success of my fieldwork. It is also important for researchers to focus on their objectives of their study, and try not to become involved in, or be identified with one of the parties to the conflict. However, there are situations where concern for the plight of the inhabitants of conflict-affected communities may draw the researcher into seeking to assume a role in mitigating suffering or mediating between the conflicting parties. It is always important to leave such tasks to highly experienced mediators, and refrain from raising unrealistic expectations. Overcoming the researcher’s dilemma, while conducting fieldwork in conflict-affected settings, poses some challenges, but carefully balancing the quest for knowledge with sound research ethics, and considerations for personal safety are very useful guiding principles as we seek to collect data for producing knowledge about complex conflicts.
- 1Kwaja, C.M.A and Ademola-Adelehin, B.I. (2018). Seeking Security and Stability: An Analysis of Security Responses to Farmer-Herder Conflict in the Middle Belt Region of Nigeria. Search for Common Ground Publication. Washington DC. Majekodunmi, A.O, Dongkum, C., Langs, T., Shaw, A., and Welburn, S. (2016). Improved productivity and sustainable pastoral systems in an era of insecurity—Fulani herds of the southern Jos Plateau, North-Central Nigeria. Trop Anim Health Prod, 48: 1719–1728; Uhembe, A.C. (2015). The State and the Management of Conflict between Nomadic Herdsmen and Crop Farmers in North Central Nigeria: Implications for Sustainable Development. International Journal of Liberal Arts and Social Science, 3, 7: 20-28.
- 2Global Terrorism Index 2015. Available at https://www.revolvy.com/topic/Global%20Terrorism%20Index.
- 3Human Right Watch (2017), World Report on Nigeria. Available at World Report 2017: Rights Trends in Nigeria.
- 4Human Right Watch (2017), World Report on Nigeria. Available at World Report 2017: Rights Trends in Nigeria.