A Decade long denial: will Nigeria’s Farmers ever be safe?

12 December 2020


Despite Nigerian government’s premature claims of victory over Boko Haram’s defeat, brutal massacres continue to surface, and terrorism continues to remain a threat in the Northeast and middle belt of Nigeria. Boko Haram recently sent shockwaves through the country claiming responsibility for the brutal killings of 78 farmers on November 28th in a retributive move as farmers were suspected of cooperating with the Nigerian military.

Nigeria’s farmers have not only borne attacks from Boko Haram but also a sub-group of radicalised Fulani herdsmen. Fulani, or the Fula people are known to be the world’s largest nomadic group with almost 20 million dispersed across Western Africa and are the most populous and politically influential ethnic group in the country. Unlike Boko Haram, the Fulani are not terrorists by default, however, the last decade has witnessed a significant increase in the number of clashes between the Fulani herdsmen and farmers. As environmental changes forced the Fulani herdsmen to move southward and enter the settled areas south of Sahel, especially Nigeria’s so-called ‘Middle Belt’, the number of clashes significantly increased. A fraction of Fulani is believed to have been radicalised and has been causing unrest in Nigeria’s middle belt.


Terrorist Threat in Nigeria

Nigeria is ranked number 3 on the 2019 Global Terrorism Index, just below Afghanistan and Iraq and the primary driver of the increase in terrorist activity has been attributed to the Fulani extremists. The report also outlines that 78 percent of terrorist activities are dominated by only two groups in the country; Fulani extremists and Boko Haram. While the Fulani do not necessarily adhere to Boko Haram’s Islamist ideology and have been victims of Boko Haram themselves, some Fulani herders have adopted a comparable strategy to Boko Haram and demonstrated a clear intent to target Christians and symbols of Christian identity such as churches. Reasonably, some common interests favour their tactical convergence such as expelling Christian farmers from their land fits in both Boko Haram’s political and military strategy as well as the Fulani herdsmen’s need for new grazing lands.

According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), the farmers and herders’ conflict in 2018 was 6 times deadlier than the Boko Haram insurgency. The International Crisis Group reported that between 2010 and 2015, almost 6,500 were killed and 62,000 displaced as a result of the 850 recorded clashes between farmers and herders in the middle belt region. Amnesty International reported a further 3,641 people killed between January 2016 and October 2018 with 300,000 people fleeing their homes.

Overall, almost 10,000 people are believed to have been killed from the farmers and herders clashes in the last decade. The question is, why is the conflict falling short of international intervention?


Media Representations of the Conflict

In a rigorous comparative study; “media representations of the Nigerian herder–farmer conflict in the local and foreign press (2020)”, the discrepancy between the two media representations was uncovered. The Nigerian press was criticised for exaggeration in framing the conflict along religious lines to exploit the local religious sentiments by representing the victims as Christian farmers and perpetrators as extremist Islamised Fulani herdsmen, and at times failing to report the fatalities suffered by the Fulani in the attacks.  However, it was acknowledged through vital evidence that Fulani do pose a significant terror threat to peace and security and have even been described as the “fourth deadliest known terrorist group in the world” by the Independent.

On the other hand, Western media has repeatedly framed the conflict from a highly secular perspective and its own cultural standing as something that is a “conflict over resources” and “clashes” between farmers and herdsmen or a “deadly battle over scarce resources”. While all those factors do play a role in the conflict, what it has failed to achieve is the subdued attention that a conflict which is “deadlier than Boko Haram’s insurgency” should receive. The underplaying of Western press’ representation of the conflict has caused more harm than good as it operates within a narrative of a domestic conflict and downplays its seriousness despite thousands killed and displaced each year. In failure to attribute responsibility and calling out the perpetrators for what they are, innocent civilians have been failed by the western press who have long stood between their way of intervention by the international community and the United Nations.

The middle ground between objectivity and subjectivity is lost unless we examine the ways of communication taken by both societies. The western perspective owing to materialism and individualism, without deeper investigation, juxtaposes “material sources” and “competition over scarce resources” as grounds for the conflict. Its faulty understanding of the Nigerian society lacks context and operates only within the framework of realistic conflict theory, reducing the motivation merely to materialism that resonates with the western society, as explained by Paul Marshall.


The Need to Recontextualise the Conflict

It is true to an extent that the root causes lay in the economic insecurity caused by climate change-induced degradation of pasture, development induced change at local levels, clientelism and the exploitation of natural resources to make way for grazing.  However, the nature of the conflict has shifted over the years and is now operating along religious and ethnic lines. With the rise of armed militias and tribal leadership, the patterns of attacks have changed from dozens to hundreds orchestrating premediated attacks instead of randomly occurring clashes. It is of utmost importance to uncover how the conflict is framed at the local level and to contextualise Nigeria as a distinct country, with a culture, religion and identity different than the West.

Community members that were driven from their villages by Islamist Fulani militia queue to receive food assistance from HART in August 2020


Pew Research Centre’s 2018 figures show that religious identity in Nigeria is one of the strongest, with the highest number of worship attendees in the world. The intertwined nature of religion and identity among the farmers and herders shed light on their relationship with each other, as identarian and not merely transactional. In line with the realistic conflict theory which claims that groups increase prejudice against each other in times of scarcity, it is possible that the prejudice follows along religious lines and turns into extremism.

The influx of predominantly Muslim herders moving further South for grazing causes a demographic redistribution which feeds into the fear of the local farming communities who slowly diminish, that they are left vulnerable to attacks against them. The massive displacement and loss of land that bears witness to the existence of a community evidently adds the ethno-religious dimension to the conflict.

However, lecturer of Ethnic and Religious Conflicts in North Africa and Western Asia at the Sacred Heart Catholic University Milan, Paolo Maggiolini, believes that solely framing the conflict as a religious one could create a security dilemma and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we create a fortress around Christians or Muslims, we encapsulate communities that are protected, instead of being naturally diverse as they have existed for centuries. He added, that contextualising the conflict is important to refrain from a monolithic approach and that it needs to be analysed taking all variables into consideration. He too, believes that religion constitutes an identarian dimension in Nigeria and cannot be ignored and stressed the serious need for intervention by international governments and the community.

House of Lords peers, Baroness Cox and Lord Alton strongly disagree that identifying religious motivations behind the violence “will become a self-fulfilling prophesy”. Both have been actively involved in monitoring the development of the conflict over the years and have made several parliamentary inquiries collecting evidence by meeting local communities and leaders. The history of crises that have occurred in Kaduna and Kano states in particular in preceding decades illustrates that, during these incidents, religious adherents and communities have always been targeted on account of their beliefs, often regardless of the original cause of the crisis.

With access to smuggled arms over black markets and a close proximity to the areas where Boko Haram presence remains active, it is not merely a conspiracy but learned scepticism that suggests the possibility of the conflict unfolding into a full-scale genocide. The possibility of the Fulani youth falling prey to radical Jihadist ideology that exploits their grievances and feelings of dispossession at the passage of grazing bans cannot be eliminated.

Lack of mitigation and conflict resolution that takes all variables contributing to the conflict into account will continue making the conflict intractable. Western media needs to revise its objectified journalism that fails to contextualise the conflict in terms of identity, religion, cultural difference and an appalling proximity to Boko Haram. Material sources as a pretext of conflict only explains the motivation at the early stage of the conflict, as it was witnessed in hostility against the Jews, however, it was only a matter of time that religious resentment fuelled the initial motivation, turning it into a genocide. With almost a decade of conflict having passed, the international community needs to intervene and facilitate the protection of innocent civilians who are killed, raped, tortured and displaced. The seriousness of the situation should not be ignored as the longer it is left to stagnate the more fertile will the land be for terrorism to sprout as witnessed in Afghanistan. Nigeria’s farmers need immediate protection and have been left alone for far too long.


By Kinza Saleem



Akinwotu, Emmanuel. “Nigeria’s Farmers and Herders Fight a Deadly Battle for Scarce Resources.” The New York Times. June 25, 2018.

Chiluwa, Innocent and Isioma M. Chiluwa. 2020. “‘Deadlier than Boko Haram’: Representations of the Nigerian herder–farmer Conflict in the Local and Foreign Press.” Media, War & Conflict: 175063522090249.

“Dozens of farm workers killed in ‘insane’ Nigeria attack.” BBC. November 29, 2019.

“Global Terrorism Index 2019: Measuring the impact of Terrorism.” Institute of Economics and Peace. 2019.

“Nigeria: Events of 2018.” Human Rights Watch. 2018.“NIGERIA: THE HARVEST OF DEATH – THREE YEARS OF BLOODY CLASHES BETWEEN FARMERS AND HERDERS IN NIGERIA.” Amnesty International. December 17, 2018.

Mashall, Paul. “Secular Myopia Warps the West’s View of Nigeria.” Providence. November 23, 2020.

“Stopping Nigeria’s Spiraling Farmer-Herder Violence.” International Crisis Group. July 26, 2018.

“Violence in Nigeria’s North West: Rolling Back the Mayhem.” International Crisis Group. May 18, 2020.


Although all blog posts are reviewed by an editorial team, our blog authors all write in a personal capacity and the views expressed are not necessarily those of HART.

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