OE Watch Commentary: While much of the news coming out of Nigeria about violence and bloodshed is related to Boko Haram terrorizing the local populace, the ongoing conflict between the country’s nomadic herdsmen and indigenous farmers rarely makes the headlines. As the accompanying article from the South African news website The Conversation explains, the herdsmen are mainly Muslims from the Fulani ethnic group, whereas the farmers are predominantly Christians and often not Fulani, with the result that the conflict is fueled by both ethnic and religious differences. However, frequently overlooked in this narrative the article describes as “ethnic war” is the factor that is bringing these two disparate groups into violent contact with each other, namely environmental devastation.
A brief geography lesson is necessary in order to understand the situation. On the north-south axis Nigeria spans about 1,000 kilometers, with the far south possessing a tropical rainforest climate, making it lush with vegetation. The far north is marked by the fringes of the Sahara and in between the two are grasslands often turned into farms. Unfortunately, the Sahara is moving southward at a rate of approximately 600 meters per year, while at the same time Lake Chad, located in the northeastern section of the country, is drying up. This combination of increased desertification and lack of water has pushed the Fulani pastoralists further south in search of pastures and water for their herds. The further south they venture, the more they encounter non-Fulani farmers who are angered by the Fulani’s animals eating their crops.
There has long been tension between the pastoralists and farmers, and the Fulani have a history of strategically annexing territories, but in the past those problems have largely been confined to the northern part of the country. Now, because of extensive environmental degradation there has been large scale migration of Fulanis into the south, and these are not just Fulanis from northern Nigeria, but rather from across a wide swath of West Africa. The results from the conflict have been devastating, with over two thousand killed, tens of thousands displaced, and billions of dollars in lost revenue.
As the article describes, the government response to this problem has been mostly silence. Some elites and political leaders suspect President Muhammadu Buhari, who is Fulani, of being complicit in the attacks by herders, but they have not gone so far as to directly accuse him. However, while there is no proof that Buhari has done anything to fan the flames of the conflict, Nigeria’s hierarchical society gives the word of elites a great deal of weight.
One suggested solution the government did put forth was the creation of cattle “colonies” where land is taken from indigenous farmers and given to the herders. Farmers from the Yoruba ethnic group have been particularly vocal in their opposition to such a plan, slamming it as nothing more than an “ethnic land grab.” While such a proposition appears to be a non-starter, the author suggests a difficult but multipronged approach to reducing the underlying environmental issues that have led to tensions between the herders and farmers: recharging Lake Chad, emplacing sustainable water management, embarking on large-scale reforestation, engaging neighboring countries, and reaching out to international donors for assistance. Should such a massive undertaking be successful, the herders would no longer need to descend south as often or as far, decreasing their interaction with the farmers, and thus in turn decreasing the likelihood of conflict. End OE Watch Commentary(Feldman)
This is because environmental devastation has necessitated widespread migration of Fulanis from all over West Africa to the south of Nigeria, which has been unable to prevent nomads from other countries from coming in along its long borders. The influx of new people has disrupted the existing dynamics and relationship between predominantly farming local communities and nomadic herdsmen.
But environmental explanations are largely ignored in favor of talk of ethnic or religious conflict. Such talk quickly becomes highly emotive, preventing a full analysis of all the driving forces behind the conflict. The dominance of the “ethnic war” narrative therefore makes it harder to develop holistic and sustainable solutions and, in a country that is a mix of cultures and religions, puts national unity and peace-building at risk.
In 2016, the conflict led to the death of 2,500 people, displaced 62,000 others and led to loss of US$13.7 billion in revenue. In January 2018 alone, the conflict claimed the lives of 168 people.