Why Nigeria’s Herder-Farmer Conflict Is Spiralling Out of Control

Nigeria is in the middle of a conflict between armed herdsmen called Fulani and farmers in the country’s Middle Belt states. The conflict, which has been raging over centuries, is played out over land, water and other resources, as the Fulani, who would roam around northern Nigeria, migrate southwards in search of grazing lands.

What’s at the Core of the Conflict?

The Fulani tribesmen, who are a nomadic, pastoral ethnic group, are largely Muslim. They have been clashing with the locals in the Middle Belt, who are largely Christian, over centuries, according to Forbes.

But this conflict is more than just religious animosity; at the core of the conflict is land. Here are the complicating factors:

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  • Drought and desertification
    This has caused springs and streams across Nigeria’s northern belt to dry up, with the herders having to move further south in search of water and pasture
  • Boko Haram
    Violence and insecurity in many northern states, mainly due to the Boko Haram insurgency, have also forced herders to move
  • Increasing farmland
    The old pastoral routes of the herdsmen have been closed off by increasing numbers of farmers, as they expand their farms and settlements.
  • Crop damage
    As the herders move south, the farmers in the Middle Belt are distressed by damage caused to crops by indiscriminate grazing by herders’ cattle. These regions already face high pressure on land and resources, and crop damage by herders cause disagreements to turn violent
  • Influx of arms
    The herdsmen are now better armed, carrying AK-47s and other assault rifles and are sometimes even dressed in military fatigues. According to BBC, President Muhammadu Buhari had addressed the conflict, saying: "The problem of cattle herders is a very long historical problem. Before now, cattle herders were known to carry sticks and machetes… but these ones are carrying AK-47s
  • Grazing bans
    Bans in the states of Benue and Tabada, which is effect has outlawed the pastoralism of the Fulani, have also added to the pressure
  • Government apathy
    While the Nigerian government has taken some measures to stop the bloodshed and launched two military operations to curb the violence, it has not done enough to respond to farmers’ distress calls and failed to punish the perpetrators of violence, a report said.

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According to a report by non-profit “Open Doors”, the local tribes in the Middle Belt states have resisted Islam for centuries. Christians are the largest minority in this mainly Muslim part of Nigeria.

Bishop William Amove Avenya of Gboko Diocese, in Benue state of Nigeria had said in December 2018 that the Fulani attacks had become a greater threat than Boko Haram. “The Fulani have claimed far more victims during 2018 than Boko Haram, but no one is doing anything about it,” he said, reported Premier.org.

According to this report by International Crisis Group published in July 2018, more than 1,300 Nigerians were killed in the first half of 2018 and an estimated 300,000 people fled their homes owing to the growing threat of violence.

Recent Violence

Many local news reports talk about multiple attacks carried out every few days in the area, which leave many dead on both sides.

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On 11 March, reports said an attack by Fulani herdsmen left 52 people of the Christian Adara community dead, according to a statement by leaders of the Adara Development Association (ADA) of Kajuru Local Government area of Kaduna State in Nigeria. The Assistant National Secretary of ADA, Luke Waziri, said that multiple attacks were launched on the communities in the council by Fulani herdsmen.

The statement also said that 43 houses had been set on fire by those who had attacked three communities on the same day and also mentioned that the death toll of Adara after attacks in the area had risen to 118 in the last three weeks, since 10 February. According to non-profit group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), at least 120 people had been killed in a series of alleged attacks by the Fulani militia on Christian communities in the Adara area of Kaduna since February 2019.

The police however, were unable to confirm the number of those killed in this round of attacks in the area.

The Fulani also claimed that the Adara militia had killed 131 of their people in an attack in February. The leader of the Fulani coalition groups, Alhaji Saleh Hassan, had said, “The Adara militia came in the night to carry out one of the most barbaric killings in recent times which resulted to the death of 131 of our kinsmen and women including children.”

A report by Reuters, quoting Nasir el-Rufai, the governor of Kaduna state also confirmed that those killed in the attack mentioned were mainly Fulani, in retaliatory attacks by Christians.

Actual Death Toll Could be Higher: Journalist

The Quint reached out to Kemi Busari, a senior journalist who works for Premium Times, a website which covers Nigerian affairs and has reported on the conflict. He said that no official number had been released by the Kaduna police command after the attacks.

According to him, there have been a series of attacks in Kajuru (south Kaduna) since February, nearing about 7-8 since February. He noted that the first attack was on 11 February, in which 11 Adara people were killed.

“According to the Adara community, the attackers are Fulani Muslims. But nobody has been able to categorically confirm this – neither the authorities nor the police. The police has not been able to make any arrests either,” he told The Quint.

According to him, even the assumed death toll, as stated by the ADA, is probably wrong. “The death toll is wrong. It couldn’t be lesser than 100; in fact it’s probably more than 120,” he said.

Viral Twitter Post Uses Misleading Numbers, Old Photo

A viral post on Twitter claimed that media outlets had remained silent on the ‘mass slaughter’ of Christians by Muslims in Nigeria, even as the terrorist attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand, received wall-to-wall coverage.

To make its point, the post claimed that 120 Christians had been killed in an attack on Tuesday, 12 March, and that 140 of their homes had been burnt to the ground by Muslim attackers.

However, the photo in the post is actually from a funeral held after a weekend of “vicious ethnic violence” in Nigeria in March 2010 that left nearly 500 Christians dead, according to a New York Times report. The dead were Christians, who were attacked by the Fulani as part of an ongoing feud, according to police and witnesses.

The photo itself is a Reuters photo of the mass grave that was used to lay nearly 400 of the dead from the incident to rest in. It is captioned “Villagers stood at a mass grave in Dogon Na Hauwa, Nigeria”.

The statistics in the Twitter post are also misleading. The 11 March attack on 11 March left 52 Christians dead and 143 houses destroyed – the death toll of 118-120 quoted in the post is the cumulative number after three weeks of violence, not the numbers resulting from this one attack.

(With inputs from Nigerian Tribune, BBC, Reuters and Forbes.)

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