Nigeria’s farmer-herder conflicts have generated considerable interest in recent times largely due to some dominant narratives influencing policy debates, position papers, news headlines, and academic literature. The problem has manifested as full-scale violence between communities of farmers and herders, cattle rustling, displacements, land grabbing, and food insecurity. Interestingly, media attention and discussions have focused largely on the clashes between the farming communities and herders. Does this mean that incidents involving pastoralists (IIPs) are on the increase as newspaper headlines and discussions suggestand is there credible data to support this?
While there is a growing body of literature on various aspects of farmer-herder conflicts in other African countries, including cattle rustling, land grabbing, etc., little research has been done in these areas in Nigeria. Most of the studies and discussions have been dedicated to the clashes between herders and farming communities, leaving out associated problems, such as predatory cattle rustling, which receives little scholarly or media attention. Even the few studies carried out on cattle rustling have been largely descriptive rather than empirical, and little has been done to illuminate the issue except data derived from studies carried out in East Africa. The current level of violence associated with cattle rustling begs consideration, especially in Northern Nigeria. This article will consider discussions on the clashes between communities of farmers and herders in Nigeria by probing the data, evidence, causes, and possible solutions.
While we may argue that there has been an overall increase in incidents of violence across Nigeria, a recent study carried out by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in sub-Saharan Africa (including Nigeria) found no credible evidence to support the narrative that farmer-herder conflicts are increasing at a faster rate than any other forms of violence, for example, armed robbery or insurgency, since 2014. The study further observed that the “[Nigerian] media [is] jumping to conclusions before any investigation has taken place.” This is where most of the problems seem to emanate from.
Some of the dominant narratives in the Nigerian media concerning the farmer-herder conflicts include the partisanship of the Federal Government in the disputes and ethnoreligious tensions coupled with contentious land disputes. While there are several other narratives, these have been the most popular in the Nigerian media. While these narratives are convenient for many Nigerian commentators because they have been allowed to fester unchallenged for too long, they hide more than they attempt to illuminate in the discussions around the conflicts. Apart from the convenience of these narratives, there has been no workable, eco-friendly, and acceptable solution(s) informed by these narratives and there possibly will never be. Also, these narratives exclude, rather than bring, the much-needed collaboration required to mitigate or resolve the conflicts for good.
This piece challenges the dominant narratives in the media and attempts to come up with inclusive and eco-friendly solutions.
There is increasing interest in farmer-herder conflicts in recent times, yet generating data on IIPs can be daunting. This is because newspaper reports about sensitive issues like the farmer-herder conflicts may not be fully accurate or fair to all sides. In Nigeria, there have been many instances of reports involving “Fulani herdsmen” which have very little connection to the farmer-herder conflicts. While, admittedly, an issue as old as Nigeria’s farmer-herder conflicts could have developed criminal aspects, such as kidnapping, armed robbery, cattle rustling, etc., reporting all these as relating to the farmer-herder conflicts is a gross exaggeration. The international media seems to be interested in the religious dimension of the conflicts rather than its socioeconomic and security implications.
According to the Nigerian Security Tracker (NST), a database that catalogues and maps violence based on a survey of the Nigerian and international press, there were a total of 6 274 cases of violence from January 2014 to December 2019. 309 relate to the farmer-herder conflicts, leading to 3 087 deaths, which represent about 5% of violent conflicts in Nigeria. The data nearly corresponds with the Nigeria Watch (NW) database for the same period.  The patterns of these conflicts show a duration of a few hours to about 273 days, as the 2018 case records from the NW database show. During the period under review, 2015 witnessed the lowest conflict level, while the violence peaked in 2018. The NW database shows that the farmer-herder conflicts spanned 534 days in the years under review. Conservative estimates indicate that the country suffers US$13.7 billion in losses annually due to the conflicts.
The farmer-herder violence has largely escalated due to the use of guns since 2014, which has been more lethal than machetes, knives, broken bottles and the likes, according to the NW and NST databases. The most notable examples of violence between the two groups are the 2018 New Year’s Day attacks by herdsmen on a community in Benue State in North-Central Nigeria and later attacks on the Mambilla Plateau, on a Fulani community in Taraba State by local militias killing 20 persons and stealing of over 300 cows in the process.
The author relied on the NST and NW databases because they have proven reliable data since their commencement in 2006 for NW and 2011 for NST. Also, they have a rich history of non-partisanship and credibility which are two essential requirements for this study. The databases depend on several sources to generate the data in addition to their field staff. The coding schemes adopted by both databases firmly tally with the design of this study. The databases’ overt reliance on newspaper reports has obvious limitations, however. First, even by the NST’s admission, the media can be overtly and covertly partisan, especially duringelection periods. There is the tendency to over (or under) report particular incidents or events and ignoreothers or to portray events in ways that can be prejudicial for various economic or political motives. Therefore, newspaper reports about sensitive issues like the farmer-herder conflicts may not be fully accurate. To further ensure the quality of the data, extra steps were taken to independently verify the sources provided anddetermine the veracity of the reports. In doing so, some of the reports were discovered to be untrue, improperly coded, or deleted from websites in about 5% of cases.
Even though it is a dominant narrative among media practitioners and politicians, the argument that theNigerian President – being ethnic Fulani (a tribe culturally associated with pastoralism) and a cattle owner himself – takes sides with “his kinsmen” has no credible evidence to back it up. However, the Nigerian government has historically demonstrated considerable weakness in meeting its responsibilities when it appears “the ominous signs to anarchy are glaring”. The government only started to respond to cattle rustling in 2014. The presence of large ungoverned spaces, pastoralism, the rise in small arms, and climate change have further slowed the government’s response to the threats.
The ethnoreligious narrative is as reductionist as it is complex, and Nigeria’s multi-ethnic and religious divides make this narrative a considerably dangerous one. Credible data shows that Adamawa, Benue, Kaduna, Kogi, Nasarawa, Plateau, and Taraba states account for 77% of the incidents of farmer-herder conflicts, which led to 71% of deaths in the period between 2014 and 2019. These states are in areas of Nigeria where religious identities are complicated by ethnicity. Most of these states have a history of ethnoreligious conflicts.This seems to explain why the conflicts have often been referred to as “Fulani herdsmen killings”, “invasions”, “attacks”, and so forth in the media, which appears to complicate the problems. This is one key reason it appears the problem has defied solutions. Virtually every attempt – such as ranching, and setting grazing routes and grazing reserves, among others – has been rejected by both parties with ethnoreligiously motivated arguments. Furthermore, the recently launched National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP) has suffered heavily from issues related to funding.
There are an estimated 37 million heads of cattle in the industry alone, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), with significant contributions made to the gross domestic product (GDP) by the industry. The industry has great potential in terms of achieving improved food security and economic growth, especially in the post-COVID-19 era. Considering the socioeconomic importance of the industry, the continued dominance of the ethnoreligious narrative is not helpful, especially as the nation has about 200 million people to feed, faces a 33% youth unemployment rate, and other security challenges. However, the dominant narratives represent cattle herding as an unproductive and needless industry attempting to take over the land.
While several studies have been conducted on the causal factors, such as climate change, land disputes, and the availability of small arms, there appear to be some new, emerging conflict triggers, including the enforcement of anti-grazing laws, local politics, and fake news.
There are indications that the new waves of disturbances could be described as backlashes in response to the hurriedly passed Open Grazing Prohibition and Ranches Establishment Law (also known as the Anti-Grazing Law) by the Benue State House of Assembly in May 2017. The law has had ripple effects in neighbouring Nigerian states and was passed despite heavy protests by herders. As the law was implemented, herders reportedly moved to the neighbouring states in large numbers. This migration had serious consequences for the conflict dynamics. It partly explains why the conflicts peaked in 2018, with the herders having limitedtime to adapt to the new situation. The enforcement of the Anti-Grazing Law saw the establishment of Livestock Guards or state-sanctioned militia reportedly hostile to the herders, and conflict between them isfuelled by local politics. There have also been reports of significant increases in cattle rustling since the implementation of the law, but they have gone largely unmentioned in the media.
The political power play in the build-up and aftermath of the 2019 elections was a crucial aspect of the farmer-herder conflicts. The tightly contested 2019 presidential election saw Nigeria’s two main political parties – the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and All Progressives Congress (APC) –battle for the soul of the North-Central, which have been the worst-hit by farmer-herder conflicts. The stakes were obviously high in the region, which has been called the “swing states” in the presidential elections since 1979. The battle for votes by the two leading parties during the election was the fiercest in the country’s six geo-political zones, with many politicians using ethnoreligious narratives as campaign propaganda. There have been accusations of politicians sponsoring the conflicts for some political benefit.
In Nassarawa – one of the seven states in the North-Central – for instance, a former Governor (now Senator) allegedly used the conflicts to his electoral advantage in the 2019 elections. Accordingly, if a crisis persists and voters from certain locations are internally displaced, victory can be sealed at the polls. The fact that the main opposition party won four out of the seven hard-hit states during the 2019 presidential election suggests the political significance of these disturbances. Also, in 2014, there were several attempts to assassinate the Benue State Governor, Gabriel Suswam, in the build-up to the 2015 elections. The assailants reportedly attacked the Governor on two occasions within a week, killing 22 persons in his village, Anyii, in Logo Local Government Area. The main opposition candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar – himself a Fulani cattle owner – reportedly said that killings by herdsmen would continue in the country unless President Muhammadu Buhari is voted out of office in 2019. According to Abubakar, it was clear that “the Federal Government under President Muhammadu Buhari has displayed gross incompetence and has failed in its duty to protect the lives of its people who have witnessed many preventable deaths”.
While it is easy to dismiss the opposition candidate’s statements as mere campaign rhetoric, it is clear there are political agendas in the conflicts. In the build-up to the elections, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) said that the farmer-herder conflicts will determine the “outcome by those running and participating in the polls”.
A contributing factor to the clashes in recent times is fake news and misinformation. This observation was also made in a 2018 BBC study which concluded that most of the tensions arising from farmer-herder conflicts were fuelled by fake news circulated on social media. In many cases, minor disagreements on matters which could have been easily resolved between members of the herding and farming communities are spread as rumours before escalating into full-scale communal violence. The fact that many online news platforms publish rumours on social media as news quickly compounds the problem. For example, in 2017, there was a widelycirculated story (originating from social media) about five students from the College of Education, Gidan Waya, Jema’a Local Government Area, who were ambushed and murdered by Fulani herdsmen in Southern Kaduna. The College explained that no students had been killed, as claimed by the reports, and the story was found to be untrue.
The dominant ethnoreligious narrative about farmer-herder conflicts promoted in the Nigerian media has evidently not helped the situation or benefited anyone, least of all the directly affected parties, namely, the farmers or herders. On the contrary, it further exposes the government’s weaknesses in dealing with the conflicts decisively. Both sides seem to have powerful political support and access to small arms, which has complicated the crisis in recent times. The ongoing ethnoreligious narrative is related to the vulnerability and inability of the government to achieve meaningful solutions. The seeming over-reliance on security forces to deal with either of the groups – when both parties may be equally guilty – is counter-productive and a waste of resources. To deal with this situation, the recommendations described in the rest of this section should be considered.
The government should avoid the perception of political bias, as this has proven to aggravate the conflict in recent times. Since both parties often fight over resources, government-funded irrigation systems and ranches will go a long way to solve the problems amicably. States that have passed anti-grazing laws, such as Benue, should consider incorporating the interests of herders by amending objectionable or contentious provisions, as done in Taraba State. Ranching remains the most effective and workable solution to these conflicts. Ranchingappears to face some legal constraints, including the Land Use Act (1978), which grants state governors the power to allocate land, and the question of tribal lands therein. There will less likely be problems if all parties can be brought on board to find solutions that are acceptable to all parties.
At the policy-making level, there is more that should be done, especially in the area of communication. The recently launched NLTP, which seems to have the support of the local government, should be adequately promoted in the media. The Plan encourages pastoralists to switch to ranching and other sedentary livestock production systems by 2028. Under the Plan, the Nigerian government hopes to establish about 119 ranches in the country. The Plan is anchored to six viable stanchions: economic investment, conflict resolution, law and order, humanitarian relief, information education and strategic communication, and cross-cutting issues. According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), the NLTP appears to be the most comprehensive effort to date to overhaul Nigeria’s inefficient and grossly underperforming livestock system. If well-implemented, the NLTP will create more mechanised forms of livestock production that will bolster the industry.
The media should de-escalate the conflicts by carrying out proper investigations before reporting on incidents. The media seems to be more interested in the narrative of “ethnic” conflicts rather than promoting a greater understanding of the real issues. For instance, several media stations reported the killing of two clergymen and 17 parishioners at St. Ignatius Catholic Church in the Ukpor-Mbalom community in Gwer East Local Government of Benue State in April 2018. Although “suspected herdsmen” were accused of the crime, it was discovered that the killers were, in fact, not in any way ethnic Fulani or herdsmen upon their arrests and prosecution some months later. By this time, most online platforms that reported on the murders had deleted the articles from their websites quietly or with apologies.
In removing the ethnoreligious lens, the media should do more to educate people about the benefits of both parties embracing peace, rather than the continuous divisive narrative which benefits no one in particular. The benefits of peace between the parties include job opportunities, value chain creation, and food production, among others.
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) should be part of peacebuilding, especially in rural areas, through sensitisation and public education regarding the fact that both farmers and herders need each other in the agricultural ecosystem. Community-based solutions should include conflict resolution within local contexts, communication, and education, all of which must be anchored on the inclusion and participation of all parties. This traditional but somewhat modified means of resolving similar disputes was effective in the past before it broke down a few decades ago under intense political pressure. This should include encouraging regular and productive dialogue between farmers and herders at all levels, especially in villages. Communication channels between both parties should be established to curb rumours, trespassing, and other potent triggers of the conflict.
In response to the various anti-grazing laws, herders and pastoralists who feel aggrieved by some localgovernments should approach the courts. The herders’ association, Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, should discourage their members from resorting to vigilante or retaliatory attacks. There is ample evidence that most of the attacks between the factions are retaliatory or backlash.
Future studies should examine the impact of ethnoreligious polarisation on government incapacities in African conflicts and farmer-herder violence. These studies may further illuminate the complexities of the incidents.
There have been many discussions about the perennial farmer-herder violence in Nigeria. It also seems the issue has defied solutions, largely due to both factions not finding common ground. Escalations in recent times are the result of the role the online media has played and the interests of politicians. The dominance of the ethnoreligious narrative in the media and academic literature has not helped matters to a conflict as old and complex as farmer-herder violence.
The lack of workable, eco-friendly solutions created for this seemingly solution-defying problem shows a clear lack of careful planning among Nigeria’s policymakers and intelligentsia. That is because the problem has existed for decades and all that has come forth is the dominant ethnoreligious narrative, which does not even solve the problem in any way.
Olalekan W. Adigun, a political analyst and researcher, writes from Lagos. He can be followed on Twitter and Koo @MrLekanAdigun or contacted by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 Ibid, p. 19.
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 The states include: Adamawa, Benue, Kaduna, Kogi, Nasarawa, Plateau, and Taraba. The opposition won Adamawa, Benue, Plateau, and Taraba states. The ruling party won Adamawa and Benue four years earlier.
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