Herdsmen-Farmer Conflict in Nigeria: An Ongoing Legacy of Division and Mistrust

4 August 2016

The first half of 2016 has seen a rise in reported attacks by Fulani cattle herdsmen on farming communities across several states in Nigeria with hundreds of deaths recorded. The tensions between farmers and the herdsmen are commonly attributed to the expansion of agricultural land into traditional Fulani grazing routes, leading to conflict over access to pasture. Raids by the Fulani are now perceived by many as Nigeria’s second greatest security threat, hot on the heels of Boko Haram whilst the 2015 Global Terrorism Index report numbers them the fourth most deadly terrorist group in the world. However, this is contentious with many viewing the label of ‘terrorist’ as unhelpful in exacerbating fear whilst failing to capture the nature of the problem. Moreover there is a tendency towards sweeping generalisations of all Fulani as perpetrators or ‘militants’, tainting the whole tribe with the criminal acts of a minority.

This post will explore how the rising tensions have evoked ethnic and religious characterisations of the conflict which reveal much about the entrenched divisions within Nigerian society. Any solution to the issue will be incomplete if these are overlooked. In this context, the work of HART partners in reconciling communities in Jos is of great significance. A brief proviso is that this issue is an incredibly complex and sensitive one, with grave atrocities committed and communities experiencing much hurt. The risk of oversimplification is therefore significant and this post can only touch on some of the dynamics at play.

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The Fulani are a pastoral group of traditional cattle-herders who have been present across West Africa for centuries, following historic seasonal migration patterns. Today, they can be found in at least 7 countries in West and Central Africa and are believed to be the world’s largest semi-nomadic ethnic group. However, in recent history the group has also diversified from its traditional occupation. In Nigeria alone considerable numbers of Fulani have left pastoralism and settled to practice other livelihoods, many in urban areas.


The grounds for tension are partly located in the slow-burning livelihood conflict between semi-nomadic pastoralists and settled agriculturalists caused by ecological and demographic changes. Analysts have found that climate change, with the reduction of rainfall and increasing encroachment of the Sahara in Northern Nigeria, is pushing pastoralists further south for longer periods in search of more fertile grazing land.[1] Simultaneously, population growth and water scarcity has led to the expansion of farmland into designated grazing reserves, creating a situation of competition for scarce resources. Whilst Fulani perceive their access to grazing routes as a centuries-old right, farmers conceive of the land they have occupied for decades as their ancestral heritage and the Fulani as trespassing ‘outsiders’. Fulani herdsmen have been known to claim access to resources by transgressing farm boundaries with their cattle and destroying crops, leading to retaliatory attacks on their cattle, including thefts and killings. These tensions have often escalated to fatalities and raids on villages. The situation is complicated by the actions of criminal cattle rustlers that exploit the existing tension between pastoralists and farmers.

In recent years, incidences of violence have been increasing, a trend that has continued in 2016 with frequent reports of men thought to be pastoralists attacking settlers. A growing number of fatalities from collisions have been recorded with Fulani listed on the Global Terrorism Index as having killed 1,229 people in 2014, an increase from 63 in 2013. The first half of 2016 has seen a series of attacks across several states including Benue, Enugu, Adamawa and Nassarawa. In Benue state alone there have been hundreds of fatalities so far this year with over 300 deaths reported in a raid in February and an estimated  80 more people killed in recent July attacks.

With such grievous hurt being inflicted on communities (on both sides), the issue is understandably a contentious topic in a country facing already considerable challenges to its national unity. After the April raid on Nimbo village, politicians and media rallied against the herdsmen as a creeping national security threat, implying that what are principally localised conflicts represent actions of an ideologically-motivated, homogeneous group of ‘militants’. Moreover, President Buhari has come under intense criticism for failing to respond decisively to their actions.


But the conflict also reveals much about the deep divisions dissecting Nigerian society, the complex interplay of which allow for land competition to be a catalyst for violence.

Ethnicity has been invoked in framing the events. For example, critics of the President, who is himself of Fulani origin, have accused him of ethnic partisanship towards his tribe. Former aviation minister Fani-Kayode went so far as to claim that Buhari’s government have been backing the perpetrators of attacks. Moreover, religious identity is perceived as a key driver with evocative descriptions of the predominantly Muslim Fulani attacking Christian farmers. This is not just at the level of discourse but has been known to affect the way conflict has played out.

Furthermore, some scholars have highlighted how ongoing violence between Fulani and predominantly Christian Berom farming communities in Jos Plateau cannot be separated from inter-communal violence between Muslims and Christians in 2001-3 and 2010 which wracked the city of Jos and spilled over into the surrounding rural areas.[2]  It has been argued that the concentrated attacks on rural Muslims, including Fulani, laid the grounds for current retaliatory actions of herdsmen.

Religious and ethnic identities continue to be pervasive and are brought to bear on political issues with potentially devastating consequences. The need to tackle these underlying divisions has been recognised by the Mai Adiko Peace Project, one of HART’s partners working in Jos.

The Mai Adiko Peace Project is a reconciliation project run by the Diocese of Jos that brings together women and young people from different faith traditions with the aim of promoting dialogue between communities and rebuilding trust. Classes are run in tailoring, computer skills and business, which simultaneously encourage inter-communal learning whilst seeking to impart income-generating skills that can tackle poverty.

One of the women participating from the Muslim community has said of the project: “I thank God for the opportunity that has come – both Muslims and Christians talking together, sitting together, and working together all the time. It has removed the anxieties. There used to be this massive divide and distrust, so nobody entered anybody else’s community.”

Similar divide and mistrust is manifestly apparent in the herdsmen-farmer crisis. Whilst it is important that the government implement an impartial political solution to the tension over grazing land, any response not underpinned by ethnic and religious reconciliation will merely serve as a temporary patch on deep wounds which will likely find outlet elsewhere. This is something HART partners recognise, and something I sincerely hope the government of Nigeria will act upon also.


Muslim and Christian tailoring teachers at the Mai Adiko Peace Project. Photo taken on HART's visit to Nigeria 2015
Muslim and Christian tailoring teachers at the Mai Adiko Peace Project. Photo taken on HART’s visit to Nigeria 2015


If you would like to find out more about the situation in Nigeria and the work of HART Partners you can read our most recent visit report here.


[1] Obioha, E. (2008), ‘Climate Change, Population Drift and Violent Conflict over Land Resources in Northeastern Nigeria’, Journal of Human Ecology, 23 (4), pp. 311-324; Audu, S.D. (2013), ‘Conflicts among Farmers and Pastoralists in Northern Nigeria Induced by Freshwater Scarcity’, Developing Country Studies, 3 (12), pp. 25-32.

[2]  Higazi, A., (2015), ‘Rural Insecurity in the Jos Plateau, central Nigeria: livelihoods, land, and cattle amid religious reform and violent conflict’. (Forthcoming in: A.R. Mustapha and D. Ehrhardt (eds), ‘Creed and Grievance: Muslims, Christians, & Society in northern Nigeria. Oxford: James Curry).


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.

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