Farmer-Herder Clashes Amplify Challenge for Beleaguered Nigerian Security

A Fulani herdsman waters his cattle. Malkohi, Nigeria, May 7, 2015. (Emmanuel Arewa/AFP/Getty Images)

Nigeria’s new president has made the task of finishing off the Boko Haram insurgency an immediate priority for his administration. Since his May 29 inauguration, Muhammadu Buhari has held multiple meetings with neighboring heads of state and relocated his anti-Boko Haram headquarters to the epicenter of the insurgency, in Borno State. Yet, while Nigeria’s security apparatus appears fixated on this group, large swaths of the country’s rural areas continue to experience armed clashes between farming communities and ethnic Fulani herdsmen, posing further challenges for already strained forces.

Since the 1999 establishment of the Fourth Nigerian Republic, violence related to this phenomenon has reached alarming levels, reportedly killing thousands and displacing tens of thousands more. Aside from the direct humanitarian toll, agriculturalist-pastoralist conflicts have led to a proliferation of ethnic/vigilante militias and aggravated inter-communal tensions, and have hindered the growth of Nigeria’s agrarian sector. As someone who aggressively ran on a presidential platform promising to tackle Nigeria’s security and economic woes, Buhari will also need to reduce farmer-herder violence in order to be judged a success.

The cause of this current bout of clashes remains an issue of debate among Nigeria watchers. Some have depicted the violence as a continuation of ethno-religious struggles that predate the colonial era. However, the relative absence of such widespread bloodshed throughout much of Nigeria’s post-independence history suggests more contemporary factors are to blame. Specifically, it appears the upsurge in farmer-herder violence stems from the confluence of four developments: the ongoing expansion of land under cultivation, environmental degradation across Africa’s Sahel region, the decline of traditional authority figures, and the recent rise of large-scale cattle rustling.

Historically, pastoralists and agriculturalists in Nigeria enjoyed a fairly symbiotic relationship. Herders’ livestock provided farmers with daily goods, as well as manure to fertilize their fields. In turn, pastoralists obtained grain and other farm products from agriculturalist communities. However, this system increasingly shows signs of breaking down as the growth of farming activities has drastically diminished Nigeria’s supply of grazing land. The herds and flocks of pastoralists now frequently encroach upon cultivated fields, much to the outrage of local agriculturalists. Ensuing confrontations can quickly degenerate into armed clashes that poison communal relations and lead to further instances of violence.

This volatile situation has been aggravated by an influx of herders escaping deteriorating environmental conditions in the Sahel, a semiarid belt of territory stretching from Senegal to the Red Sea. Soil erosion from destructive agricultural practices and overgrazing, along with shifting weather patterns attributed to climate change, has transformed vast tracts of grassland into desert, driving many pastoralists southwards. Those entering Nigeria’s savanna regions place additional pressure on land resources already being fought over by competing communities. Worse, these new arrivals generally lack any familiarity with local grazing routes or the surrounding populations, raising the likelihood of violent misunderstandings occurring.

In the past, traditional leaders could have played a key role in mediating land disputes involving farmers and herders. Unfortunately, most of these figures have seen their influence decline over the past two decades, as a consequence of changes in Nigeria’s political economy. Chief among these has been the devolution of political authority from the central government, which has spawned a new leadership class at the local level. This freshly empowered elite draws its support almost exclusively from sedentary (i.e., farming) communities and therefore has little incentive to serve as a fair arbitrator. Bereft of opportunities to peacefully resolve disagreements over access to resources, many pastoralists seem to consider violence as their only viable option.

The rise of cattle rustling, meanwhile, has followed the price of meat steadily increasing in West Africa’s booming urban centers, with crime syndicates increasingly targeting herds. The results have been devastating for pastoralists: according to Nigerian media reports, thieves stole approximately 60,000 head of cattle in 2013 alone. In response to this threat, many herders have armed themselves with semi-automatic weapons, a move that has frequently led to heavy casualties when they come into conflict with farmers. What’s more, victimized pastoralists often blame nearby agriculturalist populations for their loss of livestock, even in cases where the actual perpetrators were Fulani kinsmen. This frequently leads to bloody retaliatory attacks that can leave entire villages devastated.

The overall effect of rising farmer-herder violence has been nothing short of disastrous for Nigeria. Death tolls from clashes regularly number in the dozens; a spate of pastoralist attacks during the final days of former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan’s administration left approximately 100 individuals dead. One particularly violent period from December 2013 to mid-April 2014 witnessed over 1,000 deaths, according to Human Rights Watch. On top of the mounting number of fatalities, the bloodshed has contributed to Nigeria’s crisis of internally displaced persons. A single day of violence in Benue State this past January allegedly left thousands of people homeless.

In response to the mounting insecurity, many populations have formed self-defense forces. Although set up to protect vulnerable communities, these groups generally present another security challenge to Nigeria. The evolution of Ombatse, an ethnic militia founded by members of Nasarawa State’s Eggon people, illustrates this point. Initially formed to counter perceived herder encroachments, Ombatse transformed into a chauvinistic organization engaged in acts of political violence and criminality. At one point, it came into direct conflict with Abuja, reportedly killing over 70 Nigerian security personnel in a May 2013 ambush.

The fact that the majority of farmer-herder clashes pit Muslim Fulani pastoralists against Christian peasants has exacerbated ethnoreligious hostilities at both a national and local level. Prominent Christian clerics have claimed that the Fulani act as proxies for northern Nigeria’s elites and/or Boko Haram, while some Muslim organizations have bitterly denounced the alleged mistreatment Fulani herders suffer at the hands of empowered Christian communities and state agents.

Beyond undermining security and inflaming social tensions, agriculturalist-pastoralist clashes have also had a harmful impact on Nigeria’s agrarian economy. The violence disrupts farming activities, reducing crop yields and retarding desperately needed efforts to modernize Nigeria’s inefficient agricultural sector. Furthermore, it compels many herders to shift their migration patterns, to the detriment of a livestock industry identified by some informed observers as one of the keys to greater economic diversity and growth in Nigeria.

As daunting as the challenge may appear, Nigeria has options to address farmer-herder violence. The Buhari administration should follow through on previous pledges by the Nigerian government to actively support the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and Sahel Initiative, an African Union-backed project that seeks to arrest desertification in the Sahel through the aggressive planting of trees. In addition, Buhari and state-level officials must expand the number of functioning government-sanctioned grazing zones in Nigeria. Both of these developments would greatly reduce friction over land resources. Finally, Abuja should take steps to dismantle the armed cattle rustling rings wreaking havoc in Nigeria’s north.

Implementing these measures would inevitably prove both politically and financially costly. Besides having to contend with competing priorities, the Buhari administration and its allies could expect fierce resistance from entrenched interest groups vested in the sociopolitical status quo. Yet if Nigeria can muster the will to reduce farmer-herder conflicts, the resulting security and economic gains would greatly enhance the stability of Africa’s most populous country.

Michael W. Baca is a Washington, DC-based Africa analyst. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.