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The Fulani Herdsmen have been involved in violent clashes with Nigerian farmers for over two decades. Amnesty International has declared that 549 lives were lost to such conflicts in 2017 alone. With such alarming figures it is clear that tension between Fulani herdsmen and local farmers is a grave cause for concern for both the government and the people of Nigeria. Despite this, the killings show no sign of slowing- just this week on July 1st 2018, six people were killed and 16 houses were burned down in Sabon Angwa– the attacks were allegedly carried out by Fulani herdsmen. So why have these fatal disputes continued with such longevity and what makes the crisis so difficult to tackle?
Firstly, unlike Boko Haram, the Fulani Herdsmen lack the homogeneity which allows for generalisations to be made about overarching political goals or public agenda. Indeed, in most cases, these nomadic cattle owners don’t know each other and carry out their activities independently- they are not operating as allies under unified instruction and thus it is, in many ways, inaccurate to describe the tribe as a single militant group. Furthermore, not everyone who identifies as Fulani subscribes to the nomadic way of life, some wish to settle and others have already settled and hold positions of political power or professional jobs. Given this fact, it is undeniably difficult for authorities to devise a sustainable plan to cease the conflict- no blanket law will successfully curtail fighting in each separate region and equally there is unlikely to be an incentive which appeals to all Fulani herdsmen because they are not operating in accordance with a common objective. News station ‘Quartz Africa’ notes that ‘the fact that the herdsmen are mostly Fulani Muslims and the farming communities predominantly Christian, means that what is at its core a resource conflict is viewed by many as ethnoreligious.’ This mischaracterisation inevitably results in an exacerbation of Nigeria’s fault lines and misguided allegiance on both sides. On one hand, those who share the same faith as farming communities view these clashes as ‘attempts at ethnic cleansing’, whilst those who share the same ethnicity or religion as the herdsmen often feel reluctant to condemn the actions of their militias or indeed compelled to publicly or tacitly defend the Fulani. The Fulani Herdsmen crisis is, in fact, multifactorial and thus dispelling such misconceptions and dissuading people from oversimplifying the situation is essential; making the roots of these conflicts clear to the public is necessary before tangible progress can be made.
Though this is undeniably a composite and challenging issue, the Nigerian government are still doing too little to address the ongoing violent hostility. Described by Amnesty International as “grossly inadequate, too slow, ineffective, and in certain instances, illegal” the federal government response to the conflict requires improvement. It would appear that the fragility of this situation is not being fully appreciated by authorities, as government-issued air raids and rocket warnings have allegedly exacerbated tensions in villages and further intimidated vulnerable farmers. Amnesty International described such forceful measures as ‘reckless’ and ‘unlawful’ and thus it seems that a more nuanced, tactful approach is required to mediate between Fulani nomads and the resident farmers who wish to protect their lands. The consensus amongst Human Rights Watchdogs and Nigerian residents seems to err on the side of calls for increased prosecution and criminal investigation into these homicides and attempts at land seizure. The response of the Nigerian armed forces also requires close monitoring to prevent the violation of human rights and the use of excessive force. Reprisal efforts must aim to reduce violence as opposed to fuelling it, reports of attacks from fighter jets and military helicopters allude to a far less diplomatic approach from the Nigerian government at present. Amnesty International has since issued a statement asserting that such government-issued air raids have caused ‘significant destruction’ and several deaths in the villages that the government purports to be defending.
The third problem compounding this conflict is the armament of herdsmen. Herdsmen were once armed with machetes and sticks but have increasingly transitioned to use AK47 assault rifles, with far more fatal consequences. As opposed to being considered solely as a tenet of a wider problem, the armament of herdsmen should be recognized as a concerning problem in and of itself. The acquisition of arms from black markets across Western and Central Africa is difficult to regulate and perhaps requires more attention. In 2016, Abubakar Tsav, a former federal police commissioner, cited conflict in Libya and Mali as a contributory factor to Fulani armament. He said that the conflicts have increased proliferation of arms into the country because Nigeria’s borders are porous and difficult to control. The shipping and trading of arms through seaports has seen deadly weapons infiltrate conflicts between herdsmen and farmers and thus more must be done to control the import and distribution of such weapons in the country in order to protect innocent civilians.
Ultimately, a multi-faceted approach to the rural conflict between Herdsmen and farmers is required in order to prevent further casualties. The conflicts have caused thousands of deaths and dozens of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes as a result of violence linked to such disputes. Increased commitment from the Nigerian government and a willingness to try various different methods of appeasement, such as legislative measures and independent community projects as opposed to just military tactics, may make for a more successful peace campaign.