Author (s) : International Crisis Group (ICG)
Type of publication : Report
Publication date : July 2018
The conflict between herders and farmers in Nigeria, centred in the Middle Belt but spreading southward, has escalated sharply. Since September 2017, at least 1,500 people have been killed, over 1,300 of them from January to June 2018, roughly six times the number of civilians killed by Boko Haram over the same period. The first half of 2018 has seen more than 100 incidents of violence and more fatalities than any previous six-month period since the conflict started worsening in 2014. The surge of violence is concentrated in Plateau, Benue and Nasarawa states in the North Central geopolitical zone and in the adjoining Adamawa and Taraba states in the North East zone.
Why Are There More Killings?
The sparks for herder-farmer clashes tend to be disagreement over the use of land and water, livestock theft or the obstruction of traditional migration routes. But the conflict’s roots lie in the often forced migration of herders south from their traditional grazing grounds in northern Nigeria.
As drought and desertification have dried up springs and streams across Nigeria’s far northern Sahelian belt, large numbers of herders have had to search for alternative pastures and sources of water for their cattle. Insecurity in many northern states, due to the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East and under-reported rural banditry and cattle rustling in other areas, has also driven herders southward.
As the herders migrate into the savannah and rainforest of the central and southern states, they enter regions where high population growth over the last four decades has increased pressure on land. Not surprisingly, disputes over crop damage, water pollution and cattle theft have become more frequent. With the decline of traditional mediation mechanisms and in the absence of mutually accepted alternatives, such quarrels increasingly turn violent.
Two additional factors have aggravated the conflict. While the jihadist Boko Haram indiscriminately killed both Christians and Muslims, it also heightened religious sensitivities, leading mostly Christian southerners to resent the influx of predominantly Muslim herders, which some southern and Middle Belt Christian leaders portray as an Islamising force. 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. Against this backdrop, the 2018 escalation is the result of three more immediate developments: the rise of militias, the persistence of impunity and the passage of grazing bans that are anathema to herders.
Humanitarian and Economic Toll
The surge of attacks and counter-attacks has exacted heavy humanitarian and economic tolls, with potentially serious political and security repercussions. The humanitarian impact is particularly grave. From September 2017 through June 2018, farmer-herder violence left at least 1,500 people dead, many more wounded and about 300,000 displaced an estimated 176,000 in Benue, about 100,000 in Nasarawa, over 100,000 in Plateau, about 19,000 in Taraba and an unknown number in Adamawa.
Some of the displaced are staying with kin in safer parts of their home states, but many are taking refuge in IDP camps, many located on school and church premises, and run by state emergency management agencies. The camps are overcrowded and lack safe drinking water; poor sanitation is compounded by open defecation.
In early April, at least seven children died from an outbreak of measles at the sprawling Abagena camp on the outskirts of the Benue state capital, Makurdi, which houses an estimated 35,000 people. Others have died of malaria and diarrhoea.
The growing humanitarian challenge has almost overwhelmed the capacities of state emergency management agencies. Particularly in Benue and Plateau, the state governments’ resources are badly overstretched, undercutting their ability to provide medical care, food, clothing and infrastructure in the camps. Dickson Tarkighir, the member of the House of Representatives from the Makurdi/Guma constituency, said:
“Our people are starving to death in their own land, and the irony is that we are farmers”
On 18 July, the World Health Organization announced plans to build makeshift clinics and provide routine immunisation for children under five years old in the Plateau state camps. But much more needs to be done to meet the IDPs’ food, health care, water and sanitation needs, particularly in Benue and Plateau states.
If the escalating violence has brought a heavy human cost, its impact on local economies is also significant. Population displacements and continuing insecurity have disrupted agriculture in parts of Adamawa, Benue, Nasarawa, Plateau and Taraba states.
Thousands of herders displaced from Benue state cannot find enough fodder for their herds in Nasarawa state, as the cattle multiply and graze all the pastures bare. Thousands of farmers, fearing attacks, are unable to work their farms. In Benue, Nasarawa and Taraba states, food production is variously estimated to drop by 33 per cent to 65 per cent in 2018 as a result of attacks and population displacement in farming villages. This predicament, in states that make up much of Nigeria’s breadbasket, could affect food production nationwide, drive up already high food prices and imperil businesses related to agriculture. It may also deepen already widespread rural poverty in the North Central geopolitical zone.
Deepening Ethnic Divides and the 2019 Elections
The violence has solidified conspiracy theories around the farmer-herder conflict, stirring charges and counter-charges of pogroms and even worse. The Fulani youth group, JAFUYAN, said the killings in Numan were:
‘‘The latest in a coordinated agenda to wipe out our people systematically through ethnic cleansing’’
Many Fulani believe that other groups across the country have hatched a grand plot against them. Parallel accusations swirl among agrarian groups. Following the early January attacks in Benue state, the pre-eminent Tiv traditional ruler, His Royal Majesty James Ortese Ayatse, said they were:
‘‘Well planned … nothing short of ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Tiv nation’’
Many people, not just farmers, across the Middle Belt and southern states believe herders are intent on seizing their lands. The welter of accusations is undermining national cohesion and complicating prospects for resolving the conflicts.
The escalation is further polarising Nigerians along ethnic, religious and regional lines. Particularly in Benue state, more people say they have lost confidence in the country’s unity. In the South East, secessionist agitators point to the killings as vindication of their contention that the country is “a fraudulent arrangement for extending Fulani dominance to all other groups”. Heightened violence, particularly increasing attacks on farmers, has hardened anti-Fulani sentiment. In Kogi state, for instance, the legislature called on the executive to establish a program for capturing the biometric data of all herders in the state for security planning and other purposes. Enmity is deepened by the claims of some Fulani elites, such as Professor Umar Mohammed Labdo, that:
“A large chunk of what is today’s North Central or what some people prefer to call the Middle Belt today were actually territories belonging to the Sokoto caliphate”
Such claims only reinforce fears of Fulani territorial expansion.
The continuing bloodshed is damaging inter-religious relations. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) denounced the Benue attacks, alleging that prominent Muslims were egging on herders to conduct a disguised jihadist campaign. In response, the foremost Islamic group, the Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA) charged that CAN was spreading ‘‘venom, hatred, calumny and unimaginable malice that smacks of intolerance and political brigandage’’. The recent killings could also alter northern political dynamics. Historically, the Hausa and Fulani dominant in the north have promoted unity with the Middle Belt, which has worked to both regions’ advantage in Nigerian politics. The killings have sent ripples through that relationship. Many Middle Belt residents believe Fulani and Hausa elites are soft on, if not supportive of, the herders’ attacks.
Massive protest rallies held by Catholics in Abuja and other major cities on 22 May, and by civil society coalitions in Abuja on 28 May and 4 July, underscored public disenchantment with his responses to insecurity. On 18 July, a Summit of National Elders and Leaders of Nigeria, convened by the Northern Elders Forum, the Yoruba group Afenifere from the South West, the Igbo group Ohaneze Ndigbo from the South East, and the Pan-Niger Delta Forum, condemned the “unprecedented” and “incessant killings”. With the presidential election seven months away, the leaders resolved “to insist on the emergence of a visionary and dynamic leadership which will deal effectively with our security and economic challenges”
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