Nigeria’s Farmer-Herder Conflicts: Time to challenge the dominant narrative(s) to create solutions

Nigeria’s farmer-herder conflicts have generated considerable interests in recent times largely due to some dominant narratives influencing policy debates, position papers, news headlines, and academic literature. The problem has manifested itself in the form of full-scale violence between communities of farmers and herders, cattle rustling, displacements, land grabbing, and food insecurity.

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Photo by LUIS TATO/AFP via Getty Images
Photo by LUIS TATO/AFP via Getty Images

While we may argue that there has been an overall increase in incidents of violence across the country, a recent study in sub-Saharan Africa found no credible evidence to support the narrative that farmer-herder conflicts is increasing at a faster rate than other forms of violence. The study observed that the “[Nigerian] media was jumping to conclusions before any investigation has taken place.” This is where most of the problems with the narrative seem to be coming from!

The dominant ethno-religious narratives does no one any good in a nation with about 200 million people to feed, an 18 percent youth unemployment rate and other security challenges @MrLekanAdigun

Some of the dominant narratives in the Nigerian media with respect to the farmer-herder conflicts include the partisanship of the President Buhari-led Federal Government in the disputes and the ethno-religious tensions coupled with contentious land disputes.

Evidence and data

With the increasing interest in the farmer-herder conflicts in recent times, generating data on incidents involving pastoralists (IIPs) can really be daunting. Newspaper reports about such a sensitive issue may not be fully accurate or be fair to all sides.

The Nigerian Security Tracker recorded a total of 6274 cases of violence from 2014 to 2019 of which about 5 per cent deal with IIPs. Furthermore, the Nigeria Watch (NW) database indicates that the conflicts lasted for about 273 days. Conservative estimates show the country records 13.7 billion dollars of losses annually due to the conflicts.

Even though it is a dominant narrative among media practitioners and politicians, the argument that the Nigerian President – being ethnic Fulani (culturally associated with pastoralism) and a cattle owner himself – takes sides with “his kinsmen” and has no credible evidence to back it up. However, this does not shy away from the fact that the state has historically demonstrated considerable weakness in rising up to its responsibilities. Despite this, the presence of large ungoverned spaces and the rise in the number of small arms has slowed down the government’s response to the threats.

Some of the biggest triggers of the clashes in recent times are the challenges of fake news and misinformation @MrLekanAdigun

The ethno-religious narrative is complex. Nigeria’s multi-ethnic and religious divide makes this narrative dangerous. This is one reason why the problem appears to have defied solutions. Even the recently launched National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP) has suffered heavily from issues related to funding.

Looking at the socio-economic importance of the problem, the cattle industry alone is valued at about $66 billion. The continued dominance of the ethno-religious narrative does not do anyone good in a nation with about 200 million people to feed, an 18 percent unemployment rate amongst the youth, and other security challenges. This narrative has firmly represented cattle herding as an unproductive, hopeless, and needless industry attempting to “take over our land.”

Emerging Dimensions, Unintended Consequences

There appear to be some new, emerging triggers of the conflicts. These triggers include the enforcement of anti-grazing law, local politics, and fake news.

There are indications that the new waves of disturbances could be described as backlashes of the Anti-Grazing Law hurriedly passed by the Benue State House of Assembly (in May 2017) which had ripple effects in neighbouring states. With the commencement of the implementation of the Law, herders reportedly moved to the neighbouring states in large numbers. This migration had serious consequences on the dynamics of the conflicts. The enforcement of the Law saw the establishment of the Livestock Guards or state-sanctioned militia reportedly hostile to the herders fuelled by local politics.

The build-up and aftermath of the hotly-contested 2019 elections was crucial to the conflicts. There have been accusations of politicians sponsoring the conflicts for some benefits. In Nasarawa, a former Governor (now Senator) allegedly used the conflicts to his electoral advantage in the 2019 elections. According to this perspective, if the crisis persists and voters from unfavourable locations are internally displaced, victory is sealed at the polls.

Some of the biggest triggers of the clashes in recent times are the challenges of fake news and misinformation. This led the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to conclude that most of the tensions arising from conflicts were fuelled by fake news on social media. Minor disagreements between members of the herding and farming communities get spread as rumours before turning to full scale communal violence for matters which could have been easily resolved. For example, there was the widely-circulated story of five students of the College of Education, Gidan Waya, who were allegedly murdered by Fulani herdsmen. It was later confirmed to be untrue.

Suggested Solutions

The dominant ethno-religious narrative about the farmer-herder conflicts promoted by the Nigerian media has clearly not helped or benefited anyone, including the farmers and herders. It simply serves to expose the weaknesses of the state to deal decisively with the conflicts. Since both sides seem to have powerful political support with access to small arms which has complicated the crisis in recent times, the continuous ethno-religious narrative maintains the vulnerability and inability of the state to achieve any meaningful solution(s).

The over-reliance on security forces to deal with the issues has been shown to be counter-productive and a clear waste of resources. Alternative solutions, such as government-funded irrigation systems and ranches may be a better way to solve the problem.

The state and the media should be fair to all parties – avoid the perception of taking sides – as this has been shown to aggravate the conflicts in recent times. The media should do more to educate people about the gains – job opportunities, value chains, food production, etc. – of both parties embracing peace, rather than the continuous divisive narrative which benefits no one in particular.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) should be part of the peacebuilding especially in the rural areas through sensitization, public education, and mass enlightenment of the populace on the fact that both farmers and herders need each other in the agricultural ecosystem. Communication channels between both parties should be established to curb instances of rumours, trespassing, etc.

States that have passed the anti-grazing laws like Benue, should consider incorporating the interests of herders by amending objectionable or contentious provisions in those laws as was done in Taraba state. Ranching remains the most effective and workable solution to these conflicts. The herders or pastoralists who feel genuinely short-changed by the anti-grazing laws of some state governments should approach the courts and discourage their members from seeking self-help or retaliatory attacks. There is ample evidence that most of the attacks between the factions are retaliatory.

We have talked about this problem for too long and it is becoming tedious. It is time to start finding workable solutions that benefit all the parties.

Olalekan W. Adigun, a political analyst and researcher, writes from Lagos, Nigeria. He tweets at @MrLekanAdigun

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