Shannon Lorimer

Nigeria | Farmer-herder conflict claims more casualties than Boko Haram

A mass burial of 24 dead, including women and children, killed at Omusu Edimoga by Fulani herdsmen and militants.

The relationship between farmers and herders has grown increasingly tense amid contestations over land, crop damage, cattle stealing, and violence.

Although the Boko Haram insurgency is the most frequently reported security threat, the farmer-herder conflict is now regarded as the most pressing security issue in Nigeria, causing significantly more casualties than Boko Haram and displacing hundreds of thousands of people. The government’s response has received wide criticism, with many claiming they have not done enough to improve security in the region.

The violence began as once-off reactions to incitements but has now escalated to far more violent planned attacks, increasing ethnic, religious, and regional tensions. These attacks happen most frequently in Adamawa, Benue, Nasarawa, Plateau, and Taraba states. In an article for the African Security Review, Emmanuel Terngu Vanger and Bernard Ugochukwu Nwosu wrote that the relationship between farmers and herders has grown increasingly tense in the past three decades amid contestations over land, crop damage, cattle stealing, and violence.

The conflict, predominantly between farming communities in central and southern regions and nomadic herders from northern Nigeria, was initially a result of desertification and drought in the Sahel region in the north that prompted the mass migration of herders southwards to look for water and grasslands. Instability in the northeast caused by Boko Haram and organised crime committed by civilians in the rural northwest and central regions has also forced herders to move southwards. This intrusion to the grazing land in the Middle Belt has also been exacerbated by the presence of militias and the introduction of recent laws that ban open grazing in Benue and Taraba state in the norh eastern part of Nigeria. The conflict has spread southward in recent years, posing a significant threat to the country’s stability. However, the government response has been lacking, with slow response times, impunity for perpetrators of violence and a lack of policies to curb the tension.

The increase in the severity of the violence and its geographical reach has had dire humanitarian and economic consequences. Although records of the deaths caused by this conflict are not available, the International Crisis Group reported that between 2011 and 2016 over 2000 people died each year as a result of the violence. This death toll is higher than that of Boko Haram. The conflict has also caused tens of thousands of people to be displaced, with detrimental consequences to the economy. 

Because of lack of government intervention conflicts become violent.

The disputes are often a result of conflicts over land and water usage as well as interferences of migration routes, stealing livestock, and damaging crops. However, the origins of these tensions date back far further but are repeatedly reignited by a variety of factors. The rapid increase in human settlements, public infrastructure, and the presence of large-scale and commercial farmers have also reduced the availability of grazing reserves that were originally secured by the post-independence government. The subsequent influx of herders to the Savannah and rainforests in central and south Nigeria in addition to a rapidly growing population means that there is a higher demand for farmland, which has increased tensions and caused more crop damage and cattle theft. The lack of government intervention even at a local level means that these disagreements quickly become violent.

In the southern states, the conflict is exacerbating the tensions between religious and ethnic groups, with growing animosity between the south’s predominantly Christian population and the arrival of mostly Muslim herders. The herders are predominantly Fulani, worsening already fragile ethnic relations, which threaten to involve actors from neighboring countries in the violence.

These tensions have also given rise to militia and vigilante groups. Although these groups are not a new feature of the Middle Belt, they have grown increasingly more violent over the last decade, consisting predominantly of farming communities, to keep Fulani herders off their land. These groups have cooperated with government forces but have also been notoriously unpredictable, attacking herders they believed to have damaged their farms.

As the violence increases, the need for government intervention on both local and national levels grows more urgent. According to Reuters, in 2017, state officials implemented a law banning grazing to prevent the conflicts that result from herders moving onto any open land and support farmers who are already struggling because of the droughts. But, this law has been criticized for taking away pastoralist traditional practices and forcing herders to either stay in Benue and herd illegally, move to states where the practice is still legal and increase tensions with farmers there, or let their livestock die. Critics have also noted that this law was enforced too quickly, and should rather be implemented over a longer period alongside programmes that turn herders into ranchers.

The National Livestock Implementation Plan has received more support, but critics have said that more work needs to go into its implementation. It was introduced in 2018 and aims to establish 90 ranches across 10 states. The project is aimed to work over 10 years to provide herders with plots of land to feed their livestock and limit the need to travel to farmland. This plan presents problems too, as states are reluctant to provide large areas of land already in demand from farmers or held by the community and difficult to transfer.

Suggestions from NGOs include the implementation of conflict-resolution programmes, improvements to security for both herders and farmers, programmes to combat harmful environmental practices, and limiting the movements of cattle thieves or bandits. The International Crisis Group outlined these reforms in a report released in 2017, which remain relevant and necessary in the current climate. They recommend improving the state of security throughout Nigeria by mobilising police in the impacted areas to develop relationships with local communities and improve intelligence, response times, and prevent the influx of firearms from neighboring countries and begin to disarm the militias and banditry operating in these regions. The federal government needs to prosecute perpetrators of farmer-herder violence and end impunity for known bandits. Security analysts have also advocated for local peace initiatives that would promote dialogue between herders and farmers and foster better relationships between the groups.