Herders against Farmers: Nigeria’s Expanding Deadly Conflict

Executive Summary

Violent conflicts between nomadic herders from northern Nigeria and sedentary agrarian communities in the central and southern zones have escalated in recent years and are spreading southward, threatening the country’s security and stability. With an estimated death toll of approximately 2,500 people in 2016, these clashes are becoming as potentially dangerous as the Boko Haram insurgency in the north east. Yet to date, response to the crisis at both the federal and state levels has been poor. President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration and affected state governments need to work together, taking immediate steps to shore up security for herders and famers,

strengthening conflict-resolution mechanisms and initiating longer-term efforts to reform livestock management practices, address negative environmental trends and curb cross-border movements of both cattle rustlers and armed herders.

Familiar problems – relating to land and water use, obstruction of traditional migration routes, livestock theft and crop damage – tend to trigger these disputes. But their roots run deeper. Drought and desertification have degraded pastures, dried up many natural water sources across Nigeria’s far-northern Sahelian belt and forced large numbers of herders to migrate south in search of grassland and water for their herds. Insecurity in many northern states (a consequence of the Boko Haram insurgency in the north east and of less-well-reported rural banditry and cattle rustling in the north-west and north-central zones) also prompts increasing numbers of herdsmen to migrate south. The growth of human settlements, expansion of public infrastructure and acquisition of land by large-scale farmers and other private commercial interests, have deprived herders of grazing reserves designated by the post-independence government of the former Northern region (now split into nineteen states).

Herders migrating into the savannah and rain forests of the central and southern states are moving into regions where high population growth over the last four decades has heightened pressure on farmland, increasing the frequency of disputes over crop damage, water pollution and cattle theft. In the absence of mutually accepted mediation mechanisms, these disagreement increasingly turn violent.

The spread of conflict into southern states is aggravating already fragile relations among the country’s major regional, ethnic and religious groups. The south’s majority Christian communities resent the influx of predominantly Muslim herders, portrayed in some narratives as an ‘‘Islamisation force’’. Herders are mostly Fulani, lending an ethnic dimension to strife. Insofar as the Fulani spread across many West and Central African countries, any major confrontation between them and other Nigerian groups could have regional repercussions, drawing in fighters from neighbouring countries.

As these conflicts increase in frequency, intensity and geographical scope, so does their humanitarian and economic toll. The increasing availability of illicit firearms, both locally-produced and smuggled in from outside, worsens the bloodshed. Over the past five years, thousands have been killed; precise tallies are unavailable, but a survey of open source reports suggests fatalities may have reached an annual average of more than 2,000 from 2011 to 2016, for some years exceeding the toll from the Boko Haram insurgency. Tens of thousands have been forcibly displaced, with properties, crops and livestock worth billions of naira destroyed, at great cost to local and state economies.

The reaction from Nigeria’s federal and state authorities, so far, has been wanting. Aside from the recent push against Boko Haram and military operations against cattle rustling, they have done little else to address rural insecurity in the north. Federal security and law enforcement agencies have established neither early-warning nor rapid response mechanisms; they have not arrested and prosecuted perpetrators of violence or offered redress to victims. Until recently, officials have paid little if any attention to improving livestock management practices to minimise friction with agrarian communities. State governments’ responses overall have been short-sighted; most have failed to encourage community-level dialogue. As a result, both herders and farmers are taking matters into their own hands, further aggravating conflicts.

President Buhari’s government, which is increasingly viewed with misgivings by many in central and southern states, should make it a priority to take firm and transparent steps to ensure better protection for both herders and farmers. Affected state governments also should better coordinate with federal authorities to reduce risks of violence. The federal government’s failure to define a clear and coherent political approach to resolving the crisis, or even acknowledge its scope, is putting Nigerian citizens at risk. Federal and state authorities should implement five steps. In the short term, these include:

  • Strengthen security arrangements for herders and farming communities especially in the north-central zone: this will require that governments and security agencies sustain campaigns against cattle rustling and rural banditry; improve early-warning systems; maintain operational readiness of rural-based police and other security units; encourage communication and collaboration with local authorities; and tighten control of production, circulation and possession of illicit firearms and ammunition, especially automatic rifles, including by strengthening cross-border cooperation with neighbouring countries’ security forces;

  • Establish or strengthen conflict mediation, resolution, reconciliation and peacebuilding mechanisms: this should be done at state and local government levels, and also within rural communities particularly in areas that have been most affected by conflict;

  • Establish grazing reserves in consenting states and improve livestock production and management in order to minimise contacts and friction between herders and farmers: this will entail developing grazing reserves in the ten northern states where governments have already earmarked lands for this purpose; formulating and implementing the ten-year National Ranch Development Plan proposed by a stakeholders forum facilitated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in April 2017; and encouraging livestock producers’ buy-in through easier access to credit from financial institutions.

In the longer term, federal and state governments should consider the following:

  • Address environmental factors that are driving herders’ migration to the south: this will require stepping up implementation of programs under the Great Green Wall Initiative for the Sahara and the Sahel, a trans-African project designed to restore drought-and-desert degraded environments and livelihoods including in Nigeria’s far northern belt; and developing strategies for mitigating climate change impact in the far northern states;

  • Coordinate with neighbours to stem cross-border movement of non-Nigerian armed herders: Nigeria should work with Cameroon, Chad and Niger (the Lake Chad basin countries) to regulate movements across borders, particularly of cattle rustlers, armed herders and others that have been identified as aggravating internal tension and insecurity in Nigeria.

Although some of the proposed steps will not yield immediate results, Nigeria’s federal and state authorities, as well as other relevant actors, need to take remedial actions with a greater sense of urgency. Failure to respond, decisively and effectively, would allow Nigeria to continue sliding into increasingly deadly conflict.

Abuja/Brussels, 19 September 2017


Although Nigeria chiefly is known for its oil and gas production, agriculture employs about 70 per cent of its labour force. Small-holders in the country’s centre and south harvest most of the country’s tuber and vegetable crops while pastoralists in the north raise most of its grains and livestock. Over 90 per cent of pastoralists reportedly are Fulani, a large ethnic group straddling several West and Central African countries.Pastoralists own approximately 90 per cent of the national herd, estimated at 19.5 million cattle, about 975,000 donkeys, 28,000 camels, 72.5 million goats and 41.3 million sheep. Livestock represents between 20 and 30 per cent of total agricultural production and about 6 to 8 per cent of overall Gross Domestic Production (GDP). About 30 per cent of live animals slaughtered in Nigeria are brought in by pastoralists from other countries.

Historically, relations between herders and sedentary farming communities have been harmonious. By and large, they lived in a peaceful, symbiotic relationship: herders’ cattle would fertilise the farmers’ land in exchange for grazing rights.

But tensions have grown over the past decade, with increasingly violent flare-ups spreading throughout central and southern states; incidents have occurred in at least 22 of the country’s 36 states. According to one report, in 2016 over 2,000 people were killed and tens of thousands displaced in Benue and Kaduna states alone. According to another, incidents involving herders accounted for 44 per cent of all fatalities in the country in 2016. These conflicts are, by every measure, complex and multidimensional. Formulating appropriate responses requires a clear diagnosis of their root causes, evolution, impacts and implications.

This report analyses the factors that help cause or aggravate these conflicts, their evolution and spread, and their human toll. It further assesses responses, especially by the federal government and its security agencies, and outlines possible strategies to reduce or prevent violence. The report is based on interviews conducted in September 2016 and July 2017 with a range of actors and stakeholders, including leaders and representatives of pastoralist and farmer organisations, officials of federal and state governments, security officers, leaders of civil society organisations and local vigilante groups, as well as victims of the violence in Adamawa, Benue, Borno, Ekiti, Enugu, Kaduna and Nasarawa states.

II.Drivers of the Violence

For centuries, pastoralists drove their cattle east and west across the Sahel, the semi-arid zone south of the Sahara Desert that includes Nigeria’s far northern belt. In the early 20th century, some herders started shifting their migratory routes farther south, pushed by a series of droughts in the far north, but also attracted by heightened security in central and southern Nigeria and by better control of parasitic diseases (such as trypanomiasis or sleeping sickness) in the central and southern zones. Herders also wanted to evade the much-hated cattle tax (jangali) imposed by the British colonial government in the northern region. As cattle herds migrated southward, so did conflicts between pastoralists and farmers.

Among the principal causes and aggravating factors behind this escalating conflict are climatic changes (frequent droughts and desertification); population growth (loss of northern grazing lands to the expansion of human settlements); technological and economic changes (new livestock and farming practices); crime (rural banditry and cattle rustling); political and ethnic strife (intensified by the spread of illicit firearms); and cultural changes (the collapse of traditional conflict management mechanisms). A dysfunctional legal regime that allows crime to go unpunished has encouraged both farmers and pastoralists to take matters into their own hands.

A.Drought and Desertification

Nigeria’s far north is arid and semi-arid, with a long dry season from October to May and low rainfall (600 to 900 mm) from June to September. In 2008, the National Meteorological Agency reported that over the preceding 30 years the annual rainy season dropped from an average of 150 to 120 days. In the last six decades, over 350,000 sq km of the already arid region turned to desert or desert-like conditions, a phenomenon progressing southward at the rate of 0.6km per year. In Bauchi, Borno, Gombe, Jigawa, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara states, estimates suggest that 50-75 per cent of the land area is becoming desert. These environmental changes have wrecked agriculture and human livelihoods, forcing millions of pastoralists and others to migrate south, in search of productive land.

Migration initially was seasonal, with herders spending December to May in the central zone before returning north. Over the last two decades, however, as available pastures shrank in the far north, herders have been staying in the central zone longer – from December to June or July. More recently, some have chosen to graze their herds there permanently. This has triggered increasing disputes over land and water use with central Nigeria’s growing populations of sedentary crop farmers.

B.Loss of Grazing Reserves

Most of the 415 grazing reserves established by the northern regional government in the 1960s have since been lost. Only 114 were formally documented or demarcated, though the government failed to back these agreements with legislation guaranteeing exclusive usage or take active measures to prevent encroachment. The rest succumbed to pressure from rapid population growth and the associated demand for farmland, were overrun by urban and other infrastructure, or appropriated by private commercial interests. With the Northern region’s division into nineteen states, reserves straddling two or more state jurisdictions lost collective management. The cumulative effect has been to significantly reduce the availability of designated grazing reserves, forcing herders to seek pasture elsewhere.

C.Changes in Pastoralism and Farming Practices

Changing practices among both farmers and pastoralists have also strained relations. Over the last three decades, some cattle herders have gradually adopted sedentary lifestyles, leaving cattle herding increasingly to young men or boys, aged nine to 25 years, who often lack the civility and maturity to resolve disputes amicably.

For their part, crop farmers, with federal government help, have expanded into previously uncultivated land. Agricultural Development Projects (ADPs) in the 1970s encouraged the use of water pumps while National Fadama Development Projects (NFDPs) have helped farmers exploit wetlands (river valleys and flood plains) for dry season irrigated agriculture since 1993. More fertile, well-watered land, coupled with improvements in rural-urban transportation and an expanding urban market, has boosted farmers’ incomes and dry-season employment.

But cattle herders lost access to grass-abundant wetlands, which they had previously used with little risk of livestock straying into farms.Furthermore, high-value crops promoted by the National Fadama Development Projects, notably tomatoes and onions, produce little residue for livestock feeding, further diminishing available fodder. In this changed environment, relations became more competitive and confrontational, especially in the absence of negotiations between farmers and herders to ensure access to grazing grounds and livestock routes.

D.Rural Banditry and Cattle Rustling

Rural banditry also is driving herders south. Over the last decade, cattle rustling has grown in scale and organisation in several northern states where large bandit groups operate with mounting audacity.While this occurs throughout the north, the main theatres have been the Kamuku forest in Kaduna, Falgore forest in Kano, Dansadau forest in Zamfara and Davin Rugu forest stretching through Kaduna, Katsina and Zamfara states. Cattle theft reportedly also has been a major source of funding for Boko Haram in the north east.

The loss is hard to estimate: many thefts, especially those occurring in remote villages or forests with limited state security presence, go unreported. One report estimated that in 2013 more than 64,750 cattle were stolen and at least 2,991 herders killed in states across the north-central zone. From 2011 to 2015, bandits, cattle rustlers and other criminals killed 1,135 people in Zamfara state alone, according to the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC). Vigilante groups formed to combat bandits (variously known as Yan Banga, Yan Sa Kai and Kato da Gora) have compounded insecurity in some areas where the arrest and summary execution of rustlers sometimes has invited massive retaliatory violence. Elsewhere, vigilantes have turned into predators themselves, extorting cash and cattle from herders as “protection levy”.

E.Escalating Conflicts across Northern Nigeria

In recent decades, northern Nigeria’s various conflicts also have displaced herders southward. These conflicts – linked to poverty, inequality and religious extremism – have forced large populations to migrate, devastating local economies and livelihoods, including cattle rearing. In Borno state, the north east vice chairman of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN), Alhaji Mafindin Danburam, claims association members lost over one million cattle to the Boko Haram insurgency.The economic losses and insecurity have compelled many herders to move south.

Easy access to small arms, including assault rifles, makes the situation more dangerous. Weapons come from various sources, some local, others from black markets across West and Central Africa, including from Libya’s looted stockpiles. Herders say they carry weapons to defend themselves and their herds against heavily armed rustlers and other criminal gangs in farming communities. Local vigilantes also say they procure weapons for self-defence. Whatever the motivations and justification, the increasing prevalence of weapons has amplified the human cost.

F.Erosion of Traditional Mechanisms

In earlier decades, herders and community chiefs agreed on stock routes (burti or butali), sometimes under local government auspices. Disputes over wandering stock or damaged crops typically were resolved by village chiefs and herders’ leaders (Ardos). Those that defied the decisions of these community-level mediators were referred to local authorities. This system started crumbling in the 1970s, undermined by the involvement of the police and courts. Pastoralists hated these new institutions: corrupt police at times extracted fines and bribes while alien and protracted court processes immobilised their herds. Furthermore, local political leaders have tended to favour sedentary farmers, whose votes they crave, over itinerant herders, who may not be around at election time. Consequently, herders feel increasingly marginalised and are largely distrustful of local political leaders as conflict mediators.

The absence of effective mediation mechanisms, including sustained community-level dialogues, can encourage violence. In many instances, local governments do not implement recommendations of commissions charged with investigating the conflicts, due to lack of will and widespread governmental lethargy. Over time, both herders and farmers have lost confidence in the ability of authorities to mediate and conciliate. Aggrieved parties have turned to violence to seek redress or revenge.

III.The Toll and Impact

These conflicts have exacted a heavy humanitarian toll with thousands killed and tens of thousands displaced. Some estimates suggest about 2,500 were killed countrywide in 2016 – a toll higher than that caused by the Boko Haram insurgency over the same period. In Benue, one of the hardest-hit states, Governor Samuel Ortom reports more than 1,878 people were killed between 2014 and 2016.

Tens of thousands also have been displaced. From January 2015 to February 2017, at least 62,000 people were displaced in Kaduna, Benue and Plateau states; in the absence of Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, most seek shelter in other poor, rural communities, straining their already scarce resources. The fear of conflict alone can drive residents to relatively more secure urban and semi-urban areas. Since both authorities and donors often ignore these conflicts, affected localities receive far less support from the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and international agencies than those impacted by the Boko Haram insurgency.

For women and girls, the impact is frequently magnified. The relatives of men killed in the violence often evict widows from their farmland. Moreover, post-conflict economic and social disenfranchisement renders women and girls even more vulnerable to sexual and economic predation.

The economic toll has also been huge. According to a 2015 study, the federal government was losing $13.7 billion in revenue annually because of herder-farmer conflicts in Benue, Kaduna, Nasarawa and Plateau states. The study found that on average these four states lost 47 per cent of their internally-generated revenues. In March 2017, Benue state Governor Samuel Ortom asserted that attacks by herders coming from more northerly states, and possibly also from Cameroon and Niger, had cost his state N95 billion (about $634 million at that time) between 2012 and 2014.

Communities and households also pay a heavy price. The ethnic Nzor-Tiv Global Association estimated its Agatu communities in Benue state lost N65 billion in property ($204 million) during the early 2016 herder attacks. The loss of large cattle herds, crops (due to population displacements and damage to irrigation facilities), as well as increases in transport and labour costs in post-conflict environments all increase poverty and food insecurity in affected communities – and beyond.

The conflicts, particularly herder attacks on farming communities, have spawned dangerous political and religious conspiracy theories. One is that the attacks are part of a longer-term Fulani plot to displace indigenous populations and seize their lands. Among Christian communities, herder attacks are widely seen as a subtle form of jihad. In March 2016, the prelate of the Methodist Church of Nigeria, Dr Samuel Uche, said: “We are aware there is a game plan to Islamize Nigeria, and they are using the Fulani herdsmen to initiate it”. In the south east, Biafra separatist groups describe the attacks as part of a northern plot to overwhelm the peoples of the south and forcefully convert them to Islam. Some southerners accuse President Buhari of deliberately failing to stop herder aggression, pointing to his pastoral Fulani background and his position as life patron of the cattle breeders’ association (MACBAN) to buttress their charges.

These charges are not supported by any solid evidence, but they are aggravating inter-faith distrust and, undermining the country’s fragile unity. The Sultan of Sokoto, Mohammed Sa’ad Abubakar III, spiritual head of Nigerian Muslims and a prominent Fulani, has repeatedly stressed that Fulani herders who kill should be prosecuted as criminals and even terrorists, but many remain unconvinced in a country with deep inter-faith suspicions.

Communities in the middle belt and south have formed self-defence vigilante groups, some of which have threatened organised reprisals. In March 2014, Leonard Karshima Shilgba, an ethnic Tiv academic and thought leader, warned that if the federal government could not stop the attacks, “the Tiv people would also demonstrate that they equally have the right and also the capacity to raise a standing army of thousands from each ward and kindred”. Following an April 2016 attack on Nimbo, in Enugu state in the south east, the separatist Movement for Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) ordered “Fulani herdsmen to leave Biafra land or … face our wrath”. In May 2016, Ekiti state Governor Ayodele Fayose warned of possible attacks on Fulani herders if their alleged predatory behaviour vis-à-vis locals continued. And the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, Reverend Olasupo Ayokunle, warned: “If the government fails to stop the provocation by the Fulani (herdsmen), they should be prepared for war. No ethnic group has a monopoly of violence and no ethnic group should be a monster to others”.

To date, these reprisals against northern herders have not materialised. But signs are ominous. The interplay of herders’ attacks on farming communities and inflammatory rhetoric by ethnic and Christian leaders in the south could spark even more violence. The geographic spread or escalation of the conflicts could put Nigeria’s military and other security forces under greater stress, diverting the resources they need for operations against Boko Haram in the north east, militants in the Niger Delta and other security challenges.

There may also be wider regional implications. A major confrontation involving Fulani herders could draw in their brethren from beyond Nigeria. A retired Nigerian military officer told Crisis Group that the Fulani could mobilise support, including fighters, from several West and Central African countries, which would worsen the security situation in two already fragile regions.

IV.Deficient Responses

A.Federal Government

The federal government has, over the years, explored various responses. In April 2014, then President Goodluck Jonathan’s government inaugurated an inter-ministerial technical committee on grazing reserves, tasked with proposing strategies for ending the conflicts. Concurrently, the government set up a political Committee on Grazing Reserves, chaired by then Benue state Governor Gabriel Suswam. The report issued by Suswam’s committee called for the recovery and improvement of all grazing routes encroached upon by farmers and recommended that the Central Bank of Nigeria release a total of N100 billion ($317 million) to the country’s 36 state governments for ranch construction.

The National Executive Council (NEC) approved these recommendations but Jonathan’s defeat in the March 2015 elections interrupted their implementation. Although the central bank released N100 billion to state governments, they failed to construct any ranches. On 19 January 2017, the House of Representatives set up a committee to investigate accusations that the funds had been looted and report back within four weeks. The committee’s findings remain unpublished to this day.

Soon after assuming office in 2015, President Buhari directed the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (FMARD) to formulate a comprehensive livestock development plan including measures to curb farmer-herder clashes. In August 2015, a FMARD committee recommended short-, medium- and long-term strategies, including development of grazing reserves and stock routes. On 25 January 2016, the government announced it was presenting a plan to the Nigerian Governors Forum to map grazing areas in all states as a temporary solution for cattle owners until they could be persuaded to embrace ranching.

Most central and southern states, however, opposed the plan, which they viewed as favouring Fulani herders. On 3 March 2016, seeking to mollify this opposition, Agriculture Minister Audu Ogbeh announced the government was sending a bill to the National Assembly to prohibit cattle from roaming in cities and villages. He added that the government had ordered fast-growing grass from Brazil to produce “massive hectares of grasses”, which would be ready for consumption “within the next three months”. More than a year later, there has been no further word about the cattle banning bill and the promised grass.

B.Security Agencies and Judicial System

The federally-controlled Nigeria Police Force (NPF) and the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) are thinly deployed in rural areas and often lack early-warning mechanisms. Even when community and civil society groups get involved, both herders and farmers say the response to distress calls is often late. Herders say they sometimes have to seek revenge because security forces take no action against attackers who kill them and steal their cattle. Farmers say the agencies’ failure to respond promptly to distress calls and punish aggressors emboldens the herders.

The more typical response has been to deploy the police, and sometimes the army, after clashes take place. In a few cases, police have arrested and prosecuted both herders and vigilantes bearing firearms. More often, the country’s dysfunctional law enforcement and criminal justice system fails to arrest or prosecute any perpetrators. Moreover, authorities have generally treated these crimes as political rather than criminal acts, arguing that sanctioning suspects could spark further violence. Even if commissions of inquiry are established, they typically are used as instruments to temper tensions rather than pursue justice. These responses, however well meaning, create a climate of impunity.

Under the Buhari administration, the security response has been particularly questionable. In February 2016, following public outcry over attacks by herders that killed scores of people in ten farming villages in the Agatu area of north-central Benue state, Buhari ordered an investigation. Nothing has been heard about it since. On 24 April 2016, Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohammed said the government was working “silently” toward ending the violence, promising: “In few weeks from now, we will begin to see the result of that”. Again, there was no follow up. In April 2016, after widespread condemnation of an attack on Ukpabi Nimbo in Enugu state, the president ordered the police and military to “take all necessary action to stop the carnage”, pledging that stopping herder attacks had become a priority. Since then hundreds have died in more clashes. On 15 July 2016, the chief of defence staff, General Gabriel Olonisakin, announced “Operation Accord” to stop the violence.Nothing more was heard of that campaign. Following clashes in southern Kaduna in late 2016, which killed between 200 to 800 people, the army deployed troops to the area. Still, attacks have continued.

C.Federal Legislature

The federal parliament also has failed to respond effectively. In 2011, Niger state Senator Zainab Kure sponsored a bill to create a National Grazing Reserves Commission and establish national grazing reserves and livestock routes, but it was not passed and eventually expired when the Seventh Senate lapsed in May 2015. From 2015 to 2016, three new bills were introduced to create grazing reserves, l