Africa Eye, a documentary series by the British Broadcasting Service (BBC), employs a cutting-edge investigative approach to report complex issues in Africa. Since its debut, the findings and investigations have compelled state actors to take decisive action on issues they would have rather ignored. The focus in July 2022 was the raging conflict in Zamfara State, northwest Nigeria, that has resulted in many deaths, incidents of kidnapping, and wanton destruction for nearly a decade.1https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-fPEHUqhyA
The documentary generated interesting discussions about ethics and the responsibility of the media in conflict reporting. The critics of the video alleged it promoted terrorism and lacked consideration for Nigeria’s national interest.2https://www.premiumtimesng.com/opinion/545399-the-bbc-in-nigeria-between-reporting-and-propagating-terror-by-kadaria-ahmed.html?tztc=1 However, there are rich scholarly insights that can be drawn from the documentary and its implications for research on conflict and peacebuilding in northwestern Nigeria.
Despite criticisms of the video, it can be argued that the documentary provides a rich and rare account of the Zamfara conflict. A remarkable part of the project was the producers’ engagement with the leadership of the armed groups involved in the conflict. Seeing them and the victims freely express themselves was an opportunity to get alternative perspectives, not a state-influenced perspective that has been more popular in the public space. For conflict transformation, especially in societies affected by terrorism and insurgency, Critical Terrorism scholars such as J. Gunning and Harmonie Toros have consistently discouraged a state-dominated narrative to give room for negotiations and political settlements.3Gunning, Jeroen. “A case for critical terrorism studies?” Government and opposition 42, no. 3 (2007): 363-393; Toros, Harmonie. Terrorism, talking and transformation: A critical approach. Routledge, 2012.
Engagement with the bandit leaders provided space for a new understanding of the conflict and shows that the government has over the years not fully comprehended the nature and magnitude of the problem. The common narrative about the conflict is that of banditry, simplified to being the mere activities of marauders who raid homes and kidnap people for ransom. Yet, some other accounts link the violence and criminality to the illegal gold mining that began to thrive after the discovery of gold in the state.4Gunning, Jeroen. “A case for critical terrorism studies?” Government and opposition 42, no. 3 (2007): 363-393; Toros, Harmonie. Terrorism, talking and transformation: A critical approach. Routledge, 2012.
A badly managed relationship between ethnic groups
The BBC documentary narrated how the problem was far deeper and how the government’s attempts at resolving the issue might have been superficial. It revealed how the root cause of the problem lay in a deep conflict between the Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups. In popular discourse, both groups are widely seen as monolithic because they share some commonalities, fueling the view that the possibility of a conflict between them is almost impossible. There has not been any major conflict between them since the Sokoto Jihad led by Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio in the 19th century. Since that period, both groups are seen as having a common interest.
Given this long history of stable relations between the Hausa and Fulani, other ethnic groups in Nigeria believe there is a conspiracy between both ethnic groups to maintain a hegemony over the political space in Nigeria. This explains the usual allusion to “Hausa-Fulani domination” in reference to a perceived power-hungry northern political elite that has largely controlled federal power since independence in 1960.5Kukah, Matthew Hassan. “Religion, politics and power in Northern Nigeria.” Ibadan: Spectrum Books. (1993). The BBC documentary’s exposé of a protracted conflict between both groups is, therefore, a surprising revelation to analysts of Nigeria’s political sociology.
In the documentary, the Fulani are represented as the aggrieved and marginalized in the broken relationship between the ethnic groups in Zamfara state. This goes against the general perception of a supposed Fulani hegemony and expansionism in the north, nationally, and, as some have argued, the sub-region. The documentary revealed that the Hausas are mostly farmers, while the Fulani are the cattle herders. Although farmer-herder conflict has featured prominently in conflict discourses in Nigeria, many of the reported cases are between the Fulani and other ethnic groups in north-central and southwestern Nigeria.6https://www.accord.org.za/conflict-trends/understanding-the-herder-farmer-conflict-in-nigeria/ As revealed in the documentary, the Fulani feel aggrieved that enough protection is not given to their cattle, which is a major source of their livelihood, while their Hausa counterparts enjoy support from the state. Beyond this, the Fulani feel grossly marginalized in access to socio-economic opportunities in the state.
In the statement of Ado Haliru, one of the Fulani warlords interviewed in the documentary,
“Tell me, where can we rear our animals now? In your investigation, (confirm) are the cattle routes still there? How have the Fulani become so worthless in Nigeria? Even in the forests, warplanes chase us and kill our animals. There is no veterinary hospital for our cattle. We have nowhere for them to drink. Many Fulani have university degrees, the government never considers them. I swear if 1,000 Hausas sit in an exam alongside a single Fulani man, they will pass all the Hausa and fail the Fulani man. There is no one supporting us except God.”
It is against the backdrop of their accumulated grievances that the Fulani appear to have taken up arms against the state in Zamfara. This might be related to the belief that violence is the only language that will draw the attention of the government to their plight. The warlord told the reporter in the documentary that:
“We only protest with guns. We know no journalists. We don’t know where to protest. Our protest is to take up arms and storm villages. That’s when the government will wake up and acknowledge our problems.”
This narrative about marginalization resonates with the claims that are popular with Sheikh Abubakar Gumi, a Kaduna-based Islamic scholar, who attempted to resolve the crisis personally before giving up, voicing frustration over the government’s refusal to work with his recommendations. Gumi said:
“Government should focus more attention on these people because they always say that they are aggrieved. What I expect from the government is nothing less than what it did when the Niger Delta youth were vandalizing the economy. The least they need is the Ministry of Nomadic Affairs that will look into their affairs.”7https://dailytrust.com/treat-fulani-herders-like-niger-delta-militants-gumi-tells-fg/
The documentary also paints the grim reality of climate change and its effects on access to natural resources, which has increasingly driven conflicts in Africa. The Hausa farmers and Fulani herders have lived peacefully for centuries, but the growing depletion of resources as a result of massive environmental changes has badly deteriorated the relationship. Zamfara State is affected by climate change because of its geographical location, being on the southern border of the Sahel. Being a part of the northwestern region of Nigeria, the area has seen a decline in rainfall and this has negatively impacted the livelihood of both farmers and pastoralists. A study by Abubakar Ismail and Isaiah Oke presents empirical evidence demonstrating that the northwest has seen downward trends in rainfall over a thirty-year period.8Ismail, Abubakar, and Isaiah Adesola Oke. “Trend and frequency analyses of rainfall in North West geopolitical zone of Nigeria.” Journal of the Institute of Science and Technology 4, no. 2 (2014): 65-77. https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/article-file/417206 Shortages in water supply and crop losses have speedily depleted resources and escalated stiff competition over the shrinking and limited resources.
The role of vigilante groups
The documentary also brings to the fore the perils of vigilantism in civil conflict. Community-based militias have rapidly become significant in Nigeria following the state’s failure in the provision of security. The documentary shows that vigilante groups can also become a security threat because they can easily be compromised and take sides with parties during conflicts while claiming to be supporting the state to promote peace. In the Zamfara case, the Hausa mostly constituted the vigilantes, popularly known as Yan Sakai. Rather than collaborating with the state security agencies for peace, the vigilante groups are actually perceived as fighting for the cause of the Hausas. Therefore, the aggrieved Fulani herders perceive the state as being biased and arming their rivals against them. This has generated more resentment toward the state and has eroded trust in the ability of the state to mediate the conflict.
Economy of the conflict
Africa Eye further proves that there is a growing economy around conflicts in not only Zamfara but in other parts of Nigeria. The fact that many actors are making huge financial gains from the conflict has become a major driver of the situation and frustrating all efforts for a peaceful resolution. Abu Sani, one of the interviewed warlords who masterminded a major abduction of schoolgirls in their dormitory at Government Girls Science Secondary School in Jangebe on February 26, 2021, was quoted in the video as saying that the conflict has become protracted because “everyone wants money, from the big to the bottom. The government gets money. Everyone is benefitting.”
He confirmed that the group received a sum of 60 million naira from the state government, despite demanding 300 million naira as ransom for the kidnapped girls.
The government being mentioned as an active participant and stakeholder in the conflict is telling because of the constantly increasing defense budget in recent years. The fact that there is seemingly no correlation between the increased security expenditure and the security of the state is grounds for concern, as are reports of top-ranking security officers who have been found guilty of stealing security funds. An investigative report by Premium Times revealed the shady dealings involving defense budgets led to a staggering estimated loss of 3.1 trillion Naira between 2008 and 2017.
The more instructive aspect of the ransom money generated from kidnapping is its usage to fund and prolong the conflict. The warlord, Abu Sani, confessed to using the money acquired from the ransom collected from the government to purchase arms and could provide evidence to support his actions.
State peacebuilding approach
In 2020, the Zamfara State government, under the leadership of Bello Matawalle, introduced amnesty programs and cash incentives for armed groups to surrender their weapons and embrace peace. The BBC video shows evidence of certain individuals who may have benefitted from these initiatives and returned to banditry because of their lack of trust in the state. Similarly, some community leaders who are important stakeholders in the conflict resolution process voiced frustrations that their recommendations for peace were often disregarded by the government.
Ultimately, the conflict may become a generational and protracted one as children are growing up in this violent environment, ready to be combatants. Clips in the video showed young children carrying guns and uttering messages of violence. One of the interviewees in the BBC film remarked: “We have now reached a point where some don’t know the meaning of peace. They were born into conflict. Some children don’t know where their parents are, for others their parents and brothers have been killed.”
The documentary produced by the BBC has provided significant and insightful perspectives on the intricate factors surrounding the conflict and peacebuilding efforts in Zamfara state. It has demonstrated the urgency for a thorough evaluation of the underlying factors contributing to the conflict and the appropriate strategies to address them. The documentary has also illustrated that the root cause of the violence extends beyond the materialistic pursuits of the armed bandits. Therefore, it is imperative for the government to shift its focus away from an excessive military approach and instead prioritize engagement and dialogue with the parties involved.
Despite the valuable insights offered by the BBC documentary, we should not ignore concerns that have been raised about the approach of Western media towards reporting Africa. Particularly, the BBC has frequently faced criticism for alleged violations of local broadcasting rules and the production of reports that seemingly perpetuate a negative portrayal of Africa. Wole Soyinka once condemned a BBC program in 2010 focusing on Lagos for being “condescending” and “colonialist.”9https://www.theguardian.com/media/2010/apr/28/soyinka-bbc-lagos-documentaries-criticism The present documentary’s special attention on the armed groups may have inadvertently downplayed some historical factors linked to ethnic cleavages, “divide and rule” policies embedded in the colonial past, and the heinous atrocities committed by these groups. It also exhibited a lack of respect for the local people affected by their actions.
- 3Gunning, Jeroen. “A case for critical terrorism studies?” Government and opposition 42, no. 3 (2007): 363-393; Toros, Harmonie. Terrorism, talking and transformation: A critical approach. Routledge, 2012.
- 4Gunning, Jeroen. “A case for critical terrorism studies?” Government and opposition 42, no. 3 (2007): 363-393; Toros, Harmonie. Terrorism, talking and transformation: A critical approach. Routledge, 2012.
- 5Kukah, Matthew Hassan. “Religion, politics and power in Northern Nigeria.” Ibadan: Spectrum Books. (1993).
- 8Ismail, Abubakar, and Isaiah Adesola Oke. “Trend and frequency analyses of rainfall in North West geopolitical zone of Nigeria.” Journal of the Institute of Science and Technology 4, no. 2 (2014): 65-77. https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/article-file/417206