For years Nigeria has been beset by a rampage of terrorism perpetrated by Boko Haram. Yet in spite of government problems, the presence of the insurgents is dwindling. But a new and more pressing threat has emerged. The terrorist group’s notoriety has overshadowed another violent insurgency which has increasingly left devastation in its wake.
The conflict centres on an on-going dispute between Fulani herdsmen and local farmers over access to land. A spate of violent attacks has culminated in a national security crisis: according to a recent report by SBM Intelligence, in 2016 clashes between Fulani herdsman and local farmers killed more civilians than Boko Haram. The report also stated that unlike the Boko Haram insurgency where now most deaths are that of the terrorists themselves, in the herdsmen conflict the majority of killings are of residents of the attacked communities.
At its core, this is a pastoral conflict. During Nigeria’s dry season, nomadic herdsman travel from the northern states to central region of the country in search of pastures for their cattle to graze on. These herdsmen are exclusively associated with the Fulani ethnic group. But cattle rustling has lost its prominence over time due to urban development and agriculture expansion across the middle region of the country. As a result the once free pastures that Fulani herdsman used for grazing have been claimed by local farmers who use the land for their crops. It is this development that laid the groundwork for the current crisis – instances of violence are usually triggered when nomadic herdsman are prevented from grazing on crop farms.
Though these clashes have been occurring for years, they have received little media attention in Nigeria or abroad. Fulani militancy is not exclusive to Nigeria either; the issue prevails across the regions of West and East Africa.
But with the current rise in herdsman militancy across the “middle belt” the Nigerian government can no longer turn a blind eye to the lingering crisis. What were once low-level clashes have escalated to a rise in killings causing alarm amongst local Nigerian intelligence groups. Reports on the exact number of deaths are unclear, but according to SBM the clashes resulted in the deaths of 1,895 people in 2016, while the International Crisis Group estimated around 2,500 were killed in the same year. Either way, the scale of the attacks has exceeded the level of destruction of both Boko Haram and the militant actions of those in the Niger delta.
While initial reports determined the cause of the disputes to be the result of ethnic divisions, the reasons encompassing this security threat are multifaceted. The conflict has been exacerbated through the effects of climate change, urban expansion and modern land-use policies. The increasing desertification of grazing land – and lower rainfall – has made it harder for Fulani herdsman to rustle their cattle. The poor quality of land in the north has forced them to travel from traditional herding grounds in the hope they will gain access to more fertile land. Local farmers believe that the Fulani herdsman are intentionally encroaching upon their land and destroying their groups. But – originally at least – the Fulani herdsman were simply looking for alternative pastures in order to continue their way of life. The harsh droughts produced by climate change are creating a fight for land access and natural resources, costing the lives of thousands.
The government response to the conflict has been underwhelming. While the Nigerian security forces have been waging a militarised response to the threat of religious extremism in the north, many of the clashes between the herdsman and farmers have been ignored. For instance, in the northern state of Kaduna an upsurge of violent clashes left more than 200 people dead – but it took President Buhari a week to make a public statement on the incident.
The crisis has in part been able to thrive because of its geographical location. The clashes are highly localised rural incidences and because of the low presence of security in village communities, preventing or reacting to these sporadic attacks is difficult; in most cases by the time the police are informed it’s already too late. But these attacks affect a significant proportion of Nigeria’s population. According to the World Bank, 52% of Nigerians still reside in rural areas and are thus susceptible to these sustained attacks. The Nigerian press have widely criticised the government for their handling of the crisis, with some publications drawing correlations between President Buhari’s ethnicity (Fulani Muslim) and his administration’s inadequate response to the surge in violence.
But what proves to be particularly worrying is the association with terrorism. There have been reports that the weapons used by Fulani farmers are becoming increasingly more sophisticated, and that some groups have hired mercenaries to execute military style operations. The methods closely resemble a “scorched earth” policy that levels entire communities and sustains offence operations that last for months at a time. The 2015 Global Terrorism Index has placed Fulani militants as the fourth most dangerous terrorist group in the world.
Fulani militants have also exploited religious and ethnic tensions to further destabilise the region. In the states of Kaduna, Taraba, Plateau and Nasarawa, herdsman attacks have been discriminately focusing on non-Muslim communities, while in other states such as Kebbi and Zamfara, attacks have been focused on non-Fulani villages. These patterns suggest a religious and ethnic bias, heightening the complexity of the conflict. What was once a struggle for land has now evolved into a multifaceted conflict with ethnic, religious and socio-economic undertones.
Ultimately, the Fulani versus farmers’ conflict is a culmination of climate change, poverty and lack of political will to address the grievances of the Nigerian populace. Should the Nigerian government fail to act with policies that address the causes of the conflict, the country will be faced with a threat even greater than Boko Haram.