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Opinion

The herder-farmer conflict in Nigeria – is there hope for the future?

Published on 22 June 2021

Katarzyna Rybarczyk

Political Correspondent, Immigration News

The Middle Belt is an exceptionally diverse, vast region stretching across Central Nigeria. It represents a transition zone between Northern and Southern Nigeria. It is also home to hundreds of small ethnic and religious groups, including Fulani cattle herders who lead a nomadic lifestyle and Christian farmers who live in sedentary agrarian communities.

In the past, the farmers and herders coexisted in peace. However, as the population started to increase and vast areas of land became barren due to permanent drought, herders were forced to migrate to regions occupied by farmers. That sparked violent clashes between the two groups competing over land.

The conflict between farmers and herders in the Middle Belt has become the deadliest conflict Nigeria has ever had to deal with. In fact, in 2018, the dispute caused more deaths than Boko Haram’s insurgency.

More than two decades into the conflict, we continue to witness horrifying violence that disrupts the country’s stability. So far, the Nigerian government has been unsuccessful in mediating between two groups, and ‘the authorities’ lethargy has allowed impunity to flourish and the killings to spread to many parts of the country’, reported Osai Ojigho, Director of Amnesty International Nigeria. Moreover, in recent weeks, Nigeria has seen a spike in the fighting, triggered by mounting religious tensions and rapidly advancing climate-induced desertification. That emphasises the urgency of addressing the roots of the dispute and accelerating efforts to reconcile the parties involved.

Intensifying climate change aggravates the conflict

Climate change is displacing increasing numbers of vulnerable communities around the world, including in Nigeria. The country is very susceptible to the severe effects of climate change, and the impacts of extreme weather events have been intensifying the clashes between farmers and herders.

The north of the country especially has been dealing with problems such as drought, aridity, and extreme heat that resulted in a decline of socio-economic activities in the region. Inadequate rainfall has negatively affected the agricultural sector by ‘reducing the total amount of cropland and grassland’ Crisis Group reported.

To find more suitable conditions for cultivating plants and raising livestock, great numbers of people are moving further South. Hundreds of herders have been forced to migrate to territories occupied by farmers, and many farmer communities have moved their lands into the herders’ grazing routes. Still, those who are settled there worry about increasingly scarce resources.

Now, even in the more prosperous South, herders and farmers have to compete over arable land and clean water.

Religious differences are difficult to reconcile

In recent years, there has also been a surge in religious polarisation in the Middle Belt, with the Muslim-Christian divide becoming increasingly hostile. As most farmers are Christian and most herders are Muslim, religious disputes are another factor posing a major challenge to regional peace.

Many farmers think that Nigeria’s President Buhari has been favouring the herders as he is a Muslim himself. Indeed, there have been instances where Muslim herders managed to avoid prosecution for carrying out attacks against Christian farming communities. On the other hand, however, concerns have been raised about some policies being disadvantageous to nomadic herders by, for example, banning practices such as open grazing of cattle.

Each group believes that the other is privileged, so to oppose their alleged inferiority, farmers engage in practices such as livestock theft, and herders respond by burning their crops and houses.

It is, therefore, clear that policies introduced by authorities need to better acknowledge the cultural and religious differences present in Nigerian society. Without a vital inclusion and diversity strategy, the conflict will persist.

A quest to bridge the farmer-herder differences

Many fear that the violence between farmers and herders will soon turn into a full-blown war. In hopes of preventing it, in January 2019, a plan designed to manage cattle production better and solve the dispute was developed by the Nigerian government.

The National Livestock Transformation Plan aims to establish grazing reserves across the country and open training centres to educate people about more sustainable farming methods. The authorities started implementing the reform in February after a grant of €400,000 was approved by the Dutch Investment Agency. Sadly, however, modernising the livestock sector has been proving challenging.

The biggest problem so far has been the opposition from both herders and farmers who do not recognise the programme’s benefits. Crisis Group reported that ‘misconceptions about the Plan are especially prevalent among pastoralists, who will be asked to change a centuries-old nomadic lifestyle.’ According to the strategy, Nigeria would rely less on open grazing and more on ranching, which means that a large proportion of herders would become expendable and would have to look for alternative employment opportunities.

Raising awareness and discussing the details of the reform with the two groups is crucial. Herders must be given tools and assistance to adapt to the new, post-transition order. At the same time, farmers need to know that their position will not be threatened by herders gradually moving to sedentary agriculture. If the Nigerian government can achieve that, hopefully with the international community’s help, both farmers and herders will be able to prosper.

There is hope that the Plan will finally reverse the trend of violence in the Middle Belt, but the next few months will determine whether the strategy will be successful.

Katarzyna Rybarczyk is a Political Correspondent for Immigration News, a media platform affiliated with Immigration Advice Service. Through her articles, she aims to raise awareness about security threats worldwide and the challenges facing migrants.

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