Farmer-Herder Violence and The Unspoken Historical Marginalisation of Fulani Herdsmen

 Image: Today NG

Image: Today NG

Over the last decade, reporting of farmer-herder violence has increased exponentially. The largest spike in reporting, occurring between 2013 and 2014, may be as a result of an increased number of incidents, increased awareness on the issue, or both. It may likewise be attributed to the 2014 presidential elections, and the increased Boko Haram activity during this period. In any case, the increasing number of articles covering this issue signifies the growing urgency of this conflict. In May 2016, Governor Ayodele Fayose prohibited cattle grazing in Ekiti state in order to prevent the growing violence between farmers and herders. This announcement came shortly after the death of two Ekiti residents following a violent clash with herders in the state, as well as countless other reports on farmer-herder violence across Nigeria and the perceived threat that herdsmen pose to settler communities nationwide.

Several weeks later, in August 2016, the governor signed the Anti-Grazing Bill into law, restricting cattle grazing between the hours of 7am and 6pm within government sanction areas. Millions of Nigerians hold similar views to Fayose; they advocate for the sedentarisation, or settling, of Fulani herders to curb the growing insecurity and violence. Appraised for making “history” and paving the way for governors of other states, Fayose’s solution may appear to be obvious and straightforward. Though criticised by a few - perhaps, too few - for its potential to exacerbate ethnic conflicts, Fayose’s decision is widely considered as proactive and representative of farmers - who make up a majority of his constituents - and equally, laudable for efforts to foster security and promote agriculture.

Nomadism - a lifestyle involving frequent movements from one geoecological region to another for reasons including pasturage and food supply - is considered as an outdated way of life, and is thus alien to the current societal structure of private land ownership and self-determination of each state, under the Federal system of Nigeria.  Expostulating the idea of nomadism, the argument often takes the tune of: “why can’t the Fulani herdsmen who hail from the North simply subscribe to modern, civilised culture, acquire land formally and establish ranches in the North?” While this argument appears logical and rational at face value, it however makes some assumptions about nomadic pastoralism and the people who practice it.

Firstly, Fayose, and many other non-pastoral Nigerians largely undermine the complexity of this conflict. Factors that contribute to violence range from climate change to land law and marginalisation of pastoral nomads. If the solution was as simple as settling nomads, as some may assume, then a majority of nomads would have undoubtedly chosen to settle over the years. Secondly, the argument assumes that nomadic pastoralism serves no purpose. This assumption is traceable to colonial attitudes and historical attempts of the state to modernise, that is, update and upgrade pastoral production systems without adequately consulting pastoralists.

 Image:  Emmanuel Arewa/AFP/Getty Images

Image: Emmanuel Arewa/AFP/Getty Images

However, cattle migration is in fact a risk-management strategy adopted by pastoral nomads based on their understanding of ecology and geography. Through migration, the herder avoids cattle diseases, seeks water and forage and access to markets. The third assumption is centered around the premise that pastoral nomads have no right to self-determination; because non-pastoralists feel that the best course of action is sedentarisation, so pastoral nomads must settle. These assumptions are markedly hazardous as they ultimately result in superficial resolutions that neglect the deep-seated grievances of herdsmen, while continuously feeding the growing nationwide hostility towards Fulani herdsmen - a potential recipe for nationwide disaster.

I mean, if the phenomenon is common knowledge and has persisted since the formation of farmer-herder interactions, then why has the issue not been resolved? I do not argue for or against sedentarisation – I honestly cannot claim to know the best solution to resolving this issue. Rather, I am more interested in getting the narrative right in order to accurately inform inclusive and sustainable policy solutions. To do so, it is imperative that leaders, policy makers and the general citizenry understand the history and context under which this crisis has grown and persisted. We often discuss the vulnerability of the farmer, while ignoring the risk and vulnerability of the herders’ cattle. This article thus aims to elucidate the root cause of the crisis, arguing that pastoral nomads in Nigeria hold deep-seated grievances from their historical marginalisation, which has rendered them vulnerable and more disposed to violent conflict.

Farmer-herder conflict in Nigeria occurs as a result of resource scarcity; there exists a growing scarcity of arable land and water sources that are equally essential to sustain crop cultivation and cattle herds. Farmers encroach on grazing routes, and have expropriated land designated to grazing reserves, while herders often destroy crops, pollute water sources and trespass on farms to feed their cattle. This is further exacerbated by the growing population of farmers, herders and their herds, increasing scarcity of arable land due to droughts, impending desertification of the sahel-savannah, land degradation, and cultural differences among ethnic groups that predominantly farm or graze cattle.

Many Nigerians however attribute the violence to ethnic incompatibility. Nigerians have become accustomed to headlines that read, “Fulani herdsmen attack  [insert town]; [insert number] dead” or something of the sort. As Nigerians, we are also familiar with reports of incessant “clashes between the majority Muslim north and Christian south.” Although these narratives are not completely false, as evidenced by the fact that a majority of clashes occur in the most diverse middle belt states, Plateau and Benue, they are oversimplified narratives of deeper issues, such as increased insecurity following the emergence of Boko Haram, increased access to arms and automatic weapons, and also the exploitation of farmer-herder violence by Boko Haram terrorists.

 Image: Sahara Green Company

Image: Sahara Green Company

The less discussed explanation is climate change. The desertification of the Sahel-savannah region threatens the livelihoods of farmers and pastoralists in Northern Nigeria. Lake Chad, for example, has shrunk by 90 percent since 1960, and 38 percent of the country’s total land area in the northernmost region is faced with desertification and continues to progress southward. Furthermore, increasing pressure on marginal lands through overgrazing, harmful farming practices, deforestation and population growth add to the environmental crisis in Nigeria. As a result, herders spend an increasing amount of their time in the South where they have better access to water and forage. Fayose’s solution does not appear to consider this very crucial factor that threatens the livelihoods of pastoralists across Nigeria.

Observing the vulnerability of pastoral nomads in a historical context allows us to view the problem through the perspective of the marginalised group. Marginalisation and the build up of grievances can be analysed using three indicators: historical development patterns; the role of the state in pastoralism; international factors that have contributed to the crisis.

Historical Development Patterns

Cattle tax under the colonial administration led to several outcomes – disproportionately higher taxes paid by cattle herders in comparison to farmers, which resulted in significant tax avoidance and evasion; the disruption of farmer-herder relations through the monetisation of the economy; the disruption of pastoral governance systems by converting clan leaders or ardos into tax collectors; and finally, poor incorporation of pastoralists into policymaking and low reinvestment of taxes into provisions for pastoralists, despite high revenue. A British District Officer of the Northern Protectorate, as seen in Adebayo (1995: 137), once stated that “there is no evidence that he [the Fulani herder] understands anything of the practice of cattle breeding, none that he is of any use when epidemic sickness comes upon his beasts.” These disruptions to pastoral communities explain the breakdown in trust and communal governance within pastoral Fulani clans, between herdsmen and the government, as well as the disruption of economic interactions between farmers and herders.

The purposeful withholding of access to education in the Northern protectorate of Nigeria under the British colonial administration had detrimental effects on Northerners. Literacy among nomadic populations in Nigeria ranged between 0.2 percent and 2 percent in 1988 - based the most recent accessible data on this indicator. Historical attempts to improve nomadic education have failed as a result of poor design and implementation, mainly due to the exclusion of pastoral nomads from the process. Subsequent attempts to improve nomadic education have been lukewarm, and outcomes from the most recent programs are yet to be evaluated. These poor statistics place pastoral nomads at a disadvantage when it comes to political representation.

Fulani cattlemen do not have children as councilors...the lowest level of the political strata...a chairman in the local government or a member of a house of assembly...they virtually have nobody in government” a Miyetti Allah official laments. Political representation at the national level reveals proportional representation of all geopolitical zones - that is, the North-East, North-West, North-Central, South-East, South-West and South-South - thanks to the Federal Character Legislation. However, political seats designated to Northern zones are occupied by the wealthy elites, who tend to be sedentary and are less vulnerable, and better able to mitigate risk to their herds. What interest do these elites have in securing the welfare and livelihoods of pastoral nomads?

The Role of the State

The failure of the Federal Government of Nigeria in enhancing the livestock sector and improving pastoral production cannot be overstated. The newly independent government started out with specified objectives to modernise and improve pastoral systems nationwide. However, most action taken since the 1960s have failed either as a result of poor formulation, poor implementation or policy inconsistencies. The most notable failure is in the creation of grazing reserves. Of the 415 grazing reserves commissioned in the 1965 Grazing Reserve Bill, only 141 were instituted. The land allocated for the remaining 274 have been expropriated or farmed on, and less than 20 of existing reserves are well equipped for pastoralists. Recently admitted by the current Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development in Nigeria, Audu Ogbeh,past experience in the creation and management of grazing reserves in Nigeria has shown that many stakeholders were left out of the planning and management which eventually led to the loss of these facilities to buildings and farmlands.”

International Factors

Unbeknownst to many Nigerians, a significant share of bandits and cattle rustlers that incite violence originate from neighboring countries: Niger, Cameroon and Chad. The Fulani are dispersed across West Africa and are also pastoralists in the aforementioned countries. The increased availability of arms following the emergence of Boko Haram coupled the conflict from Libya and Mali and lax controls at the border of these countries as well Nigeria, have also impacted the rise in violent farmer-herder incidents.

Fayose’s policy solution ignores the historical context in which farmer-herder violence has persisted. This negligence threatens the sustainability of this prohibition policy as well as the intended positive change that it is expected to initiate. Rather than further repressing the already marginalised pastoral nomads, a progressive resolution requires changing national attitudes, implementing consistent and sustainable policies that target pastoral welfare, and including the pastoralists into the processes of policy formulation and implementation.


For more information on pastoral nomadism and farmer-herder conflicts in Nigeria, we recommend the following literature:

Adebayo, A.G. 1995. “Jangali: Fulani Pastoralists and Colonial Taxation in Northern Nigeria.” The International Journal of African Historical Studies 28 (1): 113-150.  Link here.

Awogbade, M. 1987. “Grazing Reserves in Nigeria.” Nomadic Peoples 23: 19-30. Link here.

Gefu, J. O. and Gilles, J. 1990. “Pastoralists, Ranchers and the State in Nigeria and North America: A Comparative Analysis.” Nomadic Peoples 25-27: 34-50. Link here.

Gundu, Z., (2016), "Nigeria: Grazing Reserves - An Interrogatory Discourse". Link here.

Medugu, I.N., M. Rafee Majid and I.D. Choji. 2008. "A Comprehensive Approach To Drought And Desertification in Nigeria." Management of Environmental Quality: An International Journal 19 (6): 690 - 704. Link here.

Medugu, N.I., M. Rafee Majid and Foziah Johar. 2011. "Drought and DesertificationManagement In Arid And Semi-Arid Zones Of Northern Nigeria." Management of Environmental Quality: An International Journal 22 (5): 595 - 611. Link here.

VerEecke, C. 1989. “Nigeria's Experiment with a National Programme for Nomadic Education” ODI Pastoral Development Network Paper 28d. London, ODI. Link here.

For a full list of literature on this topic, kindly email us at info@thebookbanque.com.