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.