The years-long battle over land between herdsmen from Nigeria’s Fulani tribe and farmers in the central region known as the Middle Belt has grown dramatically this year. The dispute has led to the killing of thousands of persons in attacks often carried out with traditional weapons including arrows, bows, and machetes. According to a report released in late July by the International Crisis Group (ICG), as many as 1,300 people have been killed as a result of the conflict in the Middle Belt since January, making the fighting between herders and farmers six times deadlier than Boko Haram-related attacks so far this year.
The root of the conflict lies in the forced southern migration, owing to drought, of herdsmen from their traditional grazing grounds, mostly in the northeast of Nigeria. Lake Chad began to shrink in the 1960s due to changes in climate patterns and was once the sixth largest lake in the world, providing freshwater to over 40 million people across Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. The lake has decreased in size from 22,000 square kilometers in the 1960s to fewer than 1,500 today; and it may even completely dry up within 20 years according to the Nigerian government. As the lake shrank, large numbers of herders had to search for alternative pastures and sources of water for their cattle, leading to encroachment on settlements and farmlands. These encroachments have brought on disputes over crop damage and cattle theft that mostly turn violent. And because the herders are predominantly Muslim and the farmers largely Christian, religious radicals have exploited the conflict.
Before drought began to suck up Lake Chad more than five decades ago, the best grazing land was in the Sahel area of the lake’s basin. An article published by the Guardian noted that an estimated seven hectares of land in the basin could feed one Tropical Livestock Unit for six months of the year at the time. The drought, the report explains, “led to the loss of pasture and the initiation of the transhumance migration towards the guinea savanna in the south of the basin.”
But this migration into the savannah and rainforest of the Middle Belt did not just increase pressure on the land and pave way for the conflict in the region, it also created an opening for militant groups to establish themselves in areas around the Lake Chad Basin.
Boko Haram, for instance, moved in and created a base in the area, as most of the traditional populations moved out. The group’s activities in northeast Nigeria have also had an effect on the conflict in the Middle Belt. ICG report noted that the “growing availability of illicit firearms—locally produced, circulating from other Nigerian conflict zones in the North East and Niger Delta or smuggled in from other countries—has also enabled the carnage.”
Over the years, Nigeria has struggled to find a simple solution to the herdsmen-farmers crisis as it gradually expanded deeper into southern portions of the country. Peace initiatives at local levels have failed to yield tangible results, attempts by Nigerian authorities to establish grazing areas in the north-central and in southern states have been opposed by the locals, and new laws banning open grazing in some states in the Middle Belt have made matters worse, as the efforts of the government to clamp down on erring herdsmen have only escalated the conflict.
The most regular, but often inadequate, response from the Nigerian government to the conflict in the Middle Belt has been the deployment of police and army units to affected areas to address the problem. But even Operation Whirl Stroke—unveiled by the military in May—has not stemmed the violence in the region. Moreover, as a consequence of the military operation, soldiers have been among the casualties. Clearly, a purely military response is not the most effective solution to the crisis.
On the other hand, it is also clear that this conflict that will not simply disappear on its own. As long as herdsmen keep moving their cattle southwards in search of pastures, there are bound to be encroachments into farmlands that could lead to clashes with farmers. And if nothing is done to deal with this problem, the violence could go far beyond the Middle Belt into areas in the Niger Delta region. A number of suggestions have been made on how to end conflict. For its part, ICG proposed a few steps for the government to implement including strengthening security arrangements for herders and farming communities in the north-central zone, building conflict mediation and peacebuilding mechanisms, and establishing grazing reserves in consenting states.
But history has shown that these steps, though useful, are not alone enough to deal with the conflict. In fact, constant debating about them could trigger renewed conflict, as has been the case in the last two years. Between January 2016, when the government announced a plan to appropriate land for grazing areas across the country, and November 2016, when the government inaugurated a railway-based arrangement for transporting cattle from north to south—plans which were later shelved—more than 2,000 people were killed as the debate between the federal and state governments over how and where herders can take their cattle for grazing created even more tension. The increasingly ethnic and religious tone of the clashes has also made any permanent resolution more complicated. While the social dimensions of the violence will no doubt require longer-term measures, in the short term the most pressing concern is to save lives, and an effective means for achieving this goal is to recharge Lake Chad.
In February, Nigeria’s Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, at a conference in Abuja, admitted that the foray of herdsmen deeper southwards has “led to deadly clashes” with farmers and that saving Lake Chad is paramount to the “security of the fastest growing population in the world.” In other words, replenishing the lake will boost vegetation and ensure that herders do not move southwards in search of already available water and pastures, which could also exacerbate food security issues in a region where more than three million people are currently facing malnutrition.
But recharging the lake will not be easy. Plans by the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC) to replenish it entail pumping water through a 2,500 kilometer navigable channel from the Ubangi River in the Congo Basin at a reported cost of $23 billion, a project that, as Osinbajo affirmed, will “require greater regional, continental, and international support” to achieve. Since the plan to boost the lake was announced by the LCBC in 1984, however, very little progress has been made, a sign that complete replenishment of the lake is far from a certainty. The sum of $5 million dollars donated by Nigeria in 2004 for a feasibility study that took about eight years to achieve has been the highest amount so far invested into the project. But recent interest by leaders of affected countries in discussing the project gives hope of wider action in the near future.
While recharging Lake Chad will not solve the crisis permanently, it will address drought mitigation, control desertification, and could even act as a catalyst for the establishment of fisheries and irrigation activities. These together could ultimately provide a livelihood and home for displaced herders and, most importantly, save thousands of lives.
Philip Obaji Jr. is a journalist based in Nigeria. His work on jihadist groups, terrorism, and Africa has appeared in numerous publications including The Daily Beast, The Hill, IRIN News, and The Guardian.