The Fulani Crisis: Understanding the Conflict

26 January 2017


Getty Images

In the last week, two reports have been published highlighting the extent of the pastoral conflict between Fulani herdsman and local farmers in Nigeria.  First it was announced by Mr. Inalegwu, the sole administrator of the Agatu local government, that in Benue State alone almost 4000 Agatu farmers have been killed by the Fulani since 2013. Now a more recent report compiled by SBM Intelligence has claimed that this conflict has recently become more deadly than the Boko Haram insurgency in the North-East of the country.  The pastoral conflict has undoubtedly become a major security threat to the people of Nigeria and shows no sign of stopping.

The Fulani people are a semi-nomadic, cattle herding, Islamic, ethnic group, who populate several West African countries.  For hundreds of years, their herding routes have not changed.  However, due degradation of much of their traditional grazing lands, the Fulani have been forced to adapt their routes in search of more fertile grazing land.  In looking for alternative routes, the Fulani have started to encounter land already being farmed, predominately by Christians.  Over the last few years this change has led to an increase in disputes with these Christian farmers living in the south, and all too often these disputes have become violent.

Violence has escalated so much between these groups that in 2014 Fulani Militants were named the fourth most deadly terrorist group in the world, surpassed only by ISIS, the Taliban and Boko Haram (whom they have since overtaken). The key difference between the Fulani and the aforementioned groups, however, is organisation.  The likes of ISIS and Al-Shabaab have structure to them; they are organised groups with leaders and hierarchies.  These groups have ultimate aims to secure their own sovereign land, in the form of caliphates, and to spread their interpretation of Islam ever further. The Fulani on the other hand, have no leader orchestrating greater plans, and are not ideologically motivated to act violently. Instead, the attacks carried out by the Fulani have arisen from the deterioration of their usual grazing lands, and the consequential pursuit, by the Fulani herdsman, for land that would support their way of life. The Fulani militants are not a conventional terrorist group, in the sense that ISIS, Boko haram and the Taliban are, and therefore their grievances can and must be dealt with differently. This is not to say the Fulani’s actions are legitimate or appropriate. The atrocities being committed by the Fulani must be stopped. They have claimed the lives of thousands of people, installed fear into local communities, and are tearing Nigeria itself apart.  They are certainly one of the deadliest “groups” in the world, but only withgreater understanding of the conflict can the current crisis be ended.

Desertification makes land unsuitable for herding. Sahara Green

‘A shift in the climatic conditions of Nigeria, and particularly northern Nigeria, has become noticeable’ over the last few years; each year the rainy season arrives later and lasts for a shorter duration causing severe drought. This current drought is causing mass desertification, meaning areas that were previously lush green grazing lands can no longer sustain cattle. For this reason, the nomadic Fulani have traveled further south than ever before.  With the drought only intensifying, the Fulani have no other choice. This movement south was unavoidably going to cause conflict in some capacity.  Land that belongs to settled communities now lies in and around the areas that the Fulani require to keep their cows, and ultimately their way of life, alive. Here lies the cause of the tensions. The Fulani, in a desperate bid for land suitable for cattle, have resorted to violence. With the ever increasing tensions between the two communities, the Fulani have attacked farmers who have protested against the intrusion into their land. Following damage to their land caused by the cattle and the aggression shown by the Fulani, the farmers have begun to fight back.  Burning crops to make the land less attractive, stealing and killing cattle, and attacking the Fulani themselves, these actions have only intensified hostilities, with the Fulani turning to even more violent attacks, including attacking the women and children of communities that stand in their way. Drought and desertification are the true origins of the conflict. The Fulani are desperate for arable land, and the local farmers only wish to continue their lives and be able to harvest food enough to sustain their families, communities and economy. Following in the wake of Darfur in Sudan, it must be understood that this violence is a direct consequence to climatic degradation.  Both communities are struggling for survival; both need the land in question, both wish to carry on their lives as they have for the last 100 years. Depleting resources has ultimately led to the clash of ancient nomadic and settled farming culture.

Despite claims that the Fulani are carrying out ethnic cleansing and directing their violence towards Christians as a means of persecution to bring the non-Islamic world under Islamic rule, this is not the nature of the conflict. As has been discussed, the conflict is far more complex. Attempts to understand this conflict as a religious issue are counter-intuitive.  Whilst the Fulani are mostly Muslim and the farmers mostly Christian, this is not the only factor, nor the main driving force behind the tensions. There is a complete lack of understanding between the two communities. It is not just their religion that is different; their entire cultures are polar opposite, and it is climate change that has forced them together. Rhetoric of religious hatred and persecution only furthers this dynamic, making the two sides more staunchly opposed to one another and less likely to sit down and negotiate a peace resolution. What is needed is considerate, thought out, and clam dialogue, concentrating on the issues that have caused this conflict. In a time vital to Nigeria’s development, and with the country struggling from several insurgencies, and health issues, it is vital that the horrendous atrocities carried out by the Fulani are halted. Whilst claims of religious genocide continue, this cannot be realised. Climate change is only predicted to get more extreme, and with it will come further change to the landscape around us. Similar conflicts to this, as well as that in Darfur, will become more regular. Only greater understanding can help counter the consequential tensions.

Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

If you would like to find out more about HART’s work in Nigeria, please click here.

Back to News

Help our local partners realise their vision of hope for their communities