Prior to 2015, the conflict between sedentary farmers and nomadic Fulani herders in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region was explained by mainstream security analysts as a consequence of environmental developments in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin regions—namely climate change resulting in prolonged drought and environmental degradation. The central thesis of their analyses has been that unfavorable ecological conditions compelled a southward movement by nomadic herders from the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin regions in search of grazing fields and water resources across West Africa’s forest and coastal belts. These southward movements provoked violent conflicts between nomadic herders and farmers over land and water. Thus, a preponderance of extant literature describes the development either as climate conflict, land use conflict, or natural resource conflict.1Mark Moritz (2010). “Understanding Herder-Farmer Conflicts in West Africa: Outline of a Processual Approach,” Human Organization, 69(2): 138-148, Summer; Ciara Nugent (2018). Land Conflict Has Long Been a Problem in Nigeria: How Climate Change is Making It Worse, Time Magazine, June 28. Available at  https://time.com/5324712/climate-change-nigeria/ [Accessed January 2, 2020]

The Contending Narratives

The escalation of the conflict in 2015, including its changing character, dynamics, and trajectories, was fueled by the emergence of other contending narratives that differ significantly in content and context. One narrative is based on culture. It holds that the conflict is a consequence of the ancient and anachronistic cultural practice of irregular migration among nomadic Fulani herders along designated grazing routes that cut across regional and national borders, which have been obliterated by population growth and urbanization due to increasing human activities. The erasing of these routes over the years set the nomadic herders on a violent collision course with sedentary farmers across the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin regions, including Nigeria’s Middle Belt region.2Jerrywright Ukwu (2019). Farmers-Herders clashes caused by Blockage of Grazing Routes – Abubakar, Legit News, September 23. Available at https://www.legit.ng/1260881-farmers-herders-clashes-caused-by-blockage-grazing-routes—abubakar.html [Accessed October 18, 2019].

There is also the terrorism narrative, which suggests that the conflict is a continuation of the Boko Haram terrorism that is providing a fertile ground for its expansion.3Kaley Fulton and Benjamin Nickels (2017). “Africa’s Pastoralists: A New Battleground for Terrorism,” The Broker, March 13. Available at https://www.thebrokeronline.eu/africa-s-pastoralists-a-new-battleground-for-terrorism/ [Accessed October 18, 2019]. Following its “technical defeat” by Nigeria’s state security forces,  Boko Haram has found hiding places within the civilian population in remote and unprotected villages with little or no state presence, especially in Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, from where it has continued its attacks, some of which have been characterized as farmer-herder conflicts. Within the terrorist narrative is the perspective that the ongoing conflict is a result of the infiltration of the camp of the “professional and cultural nomadic herders” who are peaceful, accommodating, and law-abiding by a group of foreign elements described as “killer herdsmen,” who instigate violence to create a conducive environment for arms trafficking, kidnapping for ransom, cattle rustling, and expansion of terrorism.4Arinze Iloani and Simon Echewofun (2016). “Illegal Guns Flooding Nigeria, Fueling Violence, Cattle Rustlers,” Daily Trust, Sunday, March 12. Available at  http://www.dailytrust.com.ng/news/general/illegal­guns­flooding­nigeria­fuelling­violence/137537.html [Accessed January 9, 2010]; Evelyn Usman and Victor Arjiromanus (2019). “Nigeria: Killer Herdsmen” – That BBC Rating! “Story of Sorrow, Tears and Blood Across the Country,” Vanguard, July 20. Available at https://allafrica.com/stories/201907200117.html [Accessed January 9, 2020]; Michael Ihuoma Ogu (2019). “Killer-Herdsmen’ and the Nightmare in Northern Nigeria,” African Politics Group, Arkansas Tech University, Russellville, USA, February.

Another narrative rooted in the Middle Belt region is the politico-religious narrative,5Krista Mahr (2019). “Guns, Religion and Climate change Intensify Nigeria’s Deadly Farmer-Herder Clashes,” Los Angeles Times, February 21. Available at https://www.latimes.com/world/africa/la-fg-nigeria-farmer-herder-violence-20190221-story.html [Accessed December 29, 2019]. which suggests that the conflict is a resurgence of the 1804 Fulani jihadist campaign. There are two related sides to this narrative. The first is that the conflict was resuscitated after the 2015 general elections in Nigeria that ended in favor of the Fulani oligarchy driven by the quest to continue the Fulani jihad against certain ethnic nationalities, namely, the Numan in Adamawa State, the Tiv and Idoma in Benue State, the Igala in Kogi State, the Jukun in Taraba State, the Bajju6The Ba̠jju are an ethnic group in the Middle Belt area of Nigeria, found mainly in the Southern part of Kaduna State, especially in Kachia, Zangon Kataf, Jama’a and in Kaduna South Local Government Areas. They are predominantly farmers, hunters, blacksmiths, and petty traders. in Southern Kaduna, and the Berom in Plateau State. One thing common with these ethnic nationalities is that they predominantly practice Indigenous or Christian religions and also resisted the 1804 Islamic Jihadist invasion.7Interview with Comptroller of Nigerian Prisons Iorbee Ihagh (rtd); President General Mdzough U Tiv (MUT), on September 23, 2020, in Makurdi, Benue state.

The second is that the conflict is a “state-sponsored land-grabbing invasion” by foot soldiers of the Fulani oligarchy, which has been given impetus by the outcome of the 2015 general elections in Nigeria that brought Muhammadu Buhari, a former military head of state (December 1983 – August 1985) and retired army general, to power as an elected president.8See Emmanuel Terngu Vanger and Bernard Ugochukwu Nwosu (2020). Institutional Parameters that Condition Farmer–Herder Conflicts in Tivland of Benue State, Nigeria, African Security Review, 29(1): 20-40; This position was reiterated during an interview with Rev. Fr. Solomon Ukeyime    , Parish Priest and Spokesperson for Movement Against Fulani Occupation (MAFO), on September 24, 2022, in Makurdi. Benue state. This is supported by the fact that the states of these ethnic nationalities—Adamawa, Benue, Kogi, Taraba, Southern Kaduna, and Plateau—have been the epicenter of the conflict since 2015 and  that conquered communities have been taken over and renamed by the Fulani herdsmen.9See Mark Amaza (2018). A Widening Conflict between Herdsmen and Farmers is Redefining Nigeria’s Geopolitics, Quartz Africa, February 12. Available at https://qz.com/africa/1204744/nigeria-fulani-herdsmen-clashes-are-redefining-its-geopolitics/ [Accessed December 29, 2019]; Interview with Dr. Emmanuel Venger, Lecturer, Benue State University, on September 24, 2020, in Makurdi, Benue state.

Supporting Peacebuilding Among Farmer-Herder Communities in the Middle Belt

In 2020, I received an African Peacebuilding Network (APN) Individual Research Fellowship award for a project on “Dominant and Emerging Narratives in the Farmers-Herders’ Conflict in Nigeria’s Middle Belt Region: Implications for Peacebuilding.” During my fieldwork, I crisscrossed the forests and farmlands of communities in the Middle Belt states of Benue, Kaduna, and Plateau and interacted with over seventy-one respondents in six local government areas of the states. These included traditional and religious leaders, members of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) and the All Farmers Association of Nigeria (AFAN), youth groups, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) such as the Mercy Corps, the Forum on Farmers-Herders Relation in Nigeria (FFARN), and Search for Common Ground (SFCG), and academics, scholars, and policy analysts focused on conflicts and peacebuilding.

Among other things, I learned that the contending narratives have had implications for conflict dynamics and trajectories, the management of the conflict, and peacebuilding efforts in the affected region. The distortions embedded in the various narratives of the conflict informed the culture of aggressive behaviors by both herding and farming communities in the region. Secondly, such narratives fueled discordant patterns of responses to the conflict by state actors, resulting in the inability of the state to find a common ground for dialogue and reconciliation among the conflict actors. The study also found that peacebuilding agencies suffer from several institutional and policy challenges including limited funding and the absence of enabling legal frameworks to secure the legitimacy of their operations.

Against the background of responding to the conflict in the region, the Plateau Peace Building Agency (PPBA) was established in 2016, the Kaduna State Peace Commission (KSPC) in 2017, and the Adamawa State Agency for Peace, Reconciliation, and Reconstruction (ASAPRR) in 2018. With the mandate to promote peace and harmonious coexistence in the region given the weakening of inter-group relationships and the growing insecurity in the region, the agencies worked to facilitate strategic partnerships, conflict resolution, and peacebuilding processes.10Telephone interview with Dr. Saleh Momale, former Commissioner, Kaduna State Peace Commission, and currently, Special Assistant (Technical) to the Hon. Minister, Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, on October 25, 2020. The agencies provided a non-kinetic response to conflict through dialogue and negotiations with the conflicting parties. For instance, in 2018, the PPBA developed a 5-year Plateau State Road Map for Peace which serves as a guide to the implementation of its peacebuilding activities, including the coordination and facilitation of several dialogues and mediation processes that resulted in the commitment to peace by conflicting parties. On December 21, 2020, the Aten, Takad, and the Fulani of border communities in Riyom and Kaura Local Government Areas of Plateau and Kaduna states signed a Commitment to Peace Agreement supervised by the peacebuilding agencies, which was the conclusion of a series of dialogues and interactions pursued by the agencies in the two states.11Maurice Ogbonnaya (2021). Peacebuilding Agencies and Farmer-Herder Conflicts in Nigeria’s Middle Belt Region: Successes and Policy Challenges, Social Science Research Council, APN Policy Briefing Note, Number 31, January, https://www.ssrc.org/publications/peacebuilding-agencies-and-farmer-herder-conflicts-in-nigeria-s-middle-belt-region-successes-and-policy-challenges/. Similarly, the ASAPRR designed an early-warning system and a situation room through which it monitors conflict and responds to daily developments that pose threats to security within the state.12Telephone interview with Dr. Bamiyi Agoso, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Adamawa State Agency for Peace, Reconciliation and Reconstruction, on November 1, 2020. In Kaduna, the KSPC serves as a platform through which conflicting communities, especially nomadic pastoralists and farmers, find solutions to conflict. The peacebuilding agencies have had to deal with the challenges of trust deficits based on the poor state of inter-group and state-citizen relationships and the perception by some parties to the conflict that these state agencies are not neutral arbiters in the conflict.13Interview with Dr. Pricilla Ankut, Executive Director, Kaduna State Peace Commission, on October 13, 2020, in Kaduna, Kaduna state.

Based on the research findings, two policy recommendations were made at the dissemination workshop held at the National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPPS), in Kuru on February 18, 2021. The workshop was organized in a hybrid format with over 60 participants from Nigeria (Adamawa, Abuja, Benue, Kaduna, Nasarawa, Plateau States, and Abuja), Dakar (Senegal), Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire), and Pretoria (South Africa). These participants included the Program Director of the APN, Professor Cyril Obi; the Director of Research, NIPSS, Kuru, Professor Pam Sha, who also represented the Director-General; representatives of Commissioners of Police of Benue and Plateau States; representatives of the Plateau State Commandant of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC); a representative of the Commander of Operation Safe Haven; academics; state policy actors; traditional rulers; and members of MACBAN and AFAN. The participants considered the findings and recommendations of the study relevant in finding a sustainable solution to the conflict.

First was the need for federal and state governments to synergize efforts and create a common ground for dialogue, negotiation, mediation, and reconciliation among conflict actors in the region. The second recommendation was that state governments in the Middle Belt region should direct more resources and funding towards peacebuilding processes and initiatives by ensuring that peacebuilding agencies are strengthened through the creation of appropriate legal frameworks to guarantee their legitimacy and the sustainability of their operations. It is instructive to note that, based on this recommendation, the Nasarawa State Government announced in March 2021 the establishment of “a peacebuilding agency to address cases of farmer-herder clashes and other communal conflicts across the state.” We worked through the peacebuilding agencies, state security officials, and state policy actors to influence the adoption of the policy recommendations by state governments.

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