For the past six years, the Boko Haram terrorist group has run riot in Nigeria, carrying out fatal attacks and kidnappings across the northern part of the country. It has claimed lives of up to 20,000 people and displaced more than a million.
But while the worst actions of Boko Haram, which have grabbed global headlines, now seem to reducing in frequency, another conflict has been going on in Nigeria for almost two decades with next to no media coverage outside the country. Pressured by the conflict between climate change, modern agricultural economics and a centuries-old tradition, it now threatens to explode into a full-scale criss.
The low-level clashes between nomadic Fulani herdsmen and farmers used to be confined to the northernmost regions of the country, but due to the increasing desertification of nomadic grazing land in those areas which are traditional cattle-rearing territories, overgrazing and lower rainfall; the nomadic herdsmen have been pushing farther and farther south in search of grass and water for their herd.Nigeria is estimated to lose $14 billion annually to clashes between Fulani herdsmen and farmers.
This has caused clashes with farmers whose farmlands are being destroyed in the country’s middle belt, where Nigeria’s north and south meet and is the country’s most fertile agricultural belt.
According to SBM Intelligence, a socio-political consulting firm, there have been 389 incidents involving herdsmen and farming communities between 1997 and 2015, with 371 of these attacks happening after 2011 in the Middle Belt. It is believed many more are not reported.
These increasingly deadly clashes have started taking place more frequently in the southern states, something even Boko Haram has yet to attempt to date. There have been attacks in states including Rivers and Enugu, in the southeast, and Ondo, in the southwest, where a former presidential candidate, Olu Falae was abducted from his farm by herdsmen for days. So far, it is estimated Nigeria loses about $14 billion annually to these clashes.
Despite being overlooked by the international media for the most part in recent years, the herdsman-farmer clashes are on track to be a significant destabilizing security issue for Nigeria over the next few years. And unlike with Boko Haram which was ostensibly defined by religious boundaries, these clashes have more potential for a ripple effect within Nigeria when the sensitive issue of ethnicity is added to the mix. The herdsmen are Fulani, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that spreads across West Africa and is the world’s largest nomadic people; the farming communities, particularly in the middle belt and south, are made up of many smaller predominantly Christian ethnic groups. It is not uncommon to hear references to the Fulani jihad of Sheikh Othman Dan Fodio of the early 19th century and claims that the attacks are a continuation of the ancient religious military campaign.
So why has this crisis persisted for decades without any long-lasting solution to it?
For starters, the warring sides continually exploit the inability of the Nigerian government to maintain law and order as has already been seen with the early days of Boko Haram. Successive governments have been unable to end the violence whether it is by tackling either its immediate or remote causes. president Muhammadu Buhari’s order for an investigation into the attack more than a week after the attack is late, but still a much better response than that of the previous administration who did not as much offer a statement when the clashes occurred in same area last year.
Deadly clashes are taking place more frequently in southern states, something even Boko Haram has yet to try. The danger in this is that both sides will continue to wage this bloody battle for supremacy in order to not just survive, but to also control the economic prize of fertile land for farming or grazing. As it stands, the firepower advantage lies with the Fulani herdsmen but it will only be a matter of time before other communities and ethnic groups try to catch up in an emerging arms race in the region, and worsen the conflict.
The conflict also highlights the prevalence of weapons in the hands of non-state actors in Nigeria. A 2009 Small Arms Survey put the number of illegal small arms and light weapons in Nigeria at between one million and three million, a number that is bound to be an underestimate as it was before the start of the Boko Haram insurgency, which has increased the number of weapons in circulation.
The flow of arms within the West African sub-region increased after the fall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddhafi and the disintegration of the Libyan government, worsening conflicts in the region from Boko Haram in Nigeria to Tuareg rebels and Islamist groups in Mali and other parts of the Sahel. It is not inconceivable that these arms also flowed into the hands of ethnic militias like the Fulani herdsmen, in addition to arms smuggled into the country through the ports.
A new type of nomad
Ultimately, these conflicts have also persisted because of a refusal by the herdsmen to embrace ranching for their animals, citing cultural reasons for sticking to nomadic rearing. This is despite some research showing ranching results in better meat products and hides and skin, provides easier access to agricultural extension and veterinary services and will bring in more income to the herders.
The more these attacks happen the risk mounts of people self-arming to protect themselves or starting reprisals. However, there has been some shift amongst some of the herdsmen who are now leading a campaign for the establishment of grazing reserves in every state in Nigeria and for a federal commission to maintain them.This is already sparking off opposition from states that traditionally do not play host to Fulani herdsmen.
It is very likely that Nigeria will witness more clashes between herdsmen and farmers, just this week 40 people were killed in the southeastern state of Enugu by suspected herdsman who also burned down a local Catholic church. When the extra factors of religion and ethnicity are factored in, it represents a serious risk of escalation.
The more these attacks happen without security agencies able to stop the attackers, the risks of the people self-arming to protect themselves or even carrying out a reprisal attack on people who have similar ethnic and religious affiliations as the herdsmen becomes increasingly likely. Such a reprisal attack will likely set off another reprisal attack and it will be an endless cycle of violence.
It is urgent that in the short-term, security agencies work to prevent further attacks especially in the rural areas which is largely un-policed, apprehend and prosecute those behind these attacks. In the long-term, the issue of grazing routes and nomadic rearing is addressed sufficiently.
Seemingly, only a transition to ranching by cattle rearers will bring an end to these conflicts which is rapidly escalating into a crisis.
Sign up for the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief — the most important and interesting news from across the continent, in your inbox.