Associate Fellow, Africa Programme
Fulan NasrullahCounter-insurgency Analyst, Nigeria
A securitized response to clashes between armed pastoralists and settler communities could escalate the crisis to widespread conflict.
A Fulani herdsman waters his cattle on a dusty plain between Malkohi and Yola town. Photo by Getty Images.A Fulani herdsman waters his cattle on a dusty plain between Malkohi and Yola town. Photo by Getty Images.

There have been long-standing tensions between nomadic pastoralist Fulanis, one of the dominant ethnic groups in Nigeria and the ruling class of much of the north, and their settled counterparts, centred on the use of land for grazing livestock. But recently, the frequency and intensity of the violence has increased, causing alarm and potentially spurring a dangerous securitized approach to the clashes that could wreak havoc on Nigeria’s fragile economy and have devastating consequences for the majority of peaceful Fulanis.

Violence has certainly claimed hundreds of pastoralist and settler lives this year alone, but precise information is scarce. It is still not clear whether this is a product of long-standing inter-community tensions, exacerbated by climate change and land-grabbing by politicians, simple banditry or overspill from the Boko Haram crisis – or a complex mix of all of these factors. A knee-jerk response from the Nigerian government to poorly informed media speculation could further alienate an entire ethnic group and result in serious human rights abuses, as has been seen in the northeast of the country during the conflict with Boko Haram. Rather than reducing violence, it could catalyse the degeneration of the current crisis into real conflict.

Fulani tensions

Pastoralist Fulanis in Nigeria engage in a centuries-old seasonal migration pattern in which they move their cattle south during the dry season when the supply of fodder for livestock is scarce in the north.

Traditionally pastoralist Fulani communities paid a fee to the leaders of local settlements in exchange for the right to graze their cattle in their territories. This was the historical grazing arrangement and remains operational in some areas.

As Nigeria developed after independence, the government designated several hundred grazing reserves across the 19 northern states in a bid to prevent clashes between pastoralists and settled communities. However, many of the designated grazing reserves were viewed as lucrative investments by some politicians and had their usage changed, creating a shortage of land, water and other resources necessary for the grazing of livestock. Pastoralists were forced to search for water and pasture for their animals outside the designated reserves, pushing them into confrontation with settlers.  

Several contemporary factors play into the worsening of these long-standing tensions. Environmental degradation is playing a role in fuelling the crisis, with desertification and the shrinking of Lake Chad forcing many pastoralist communities to move even farther into areas outside regular migration routes.  Another dynamic is the religious divide between both sides, with the pastoralist Fulanis being religiously and culturally Muslim, while the settled farmer communities have either been wholly Christian or to a large extent so. Further muddying the waters are the activities of cattle rustling militias and other mercenary criminal elements who for the past seven years have exploited tensions and carried out a campaign of violence against pastoralist and settled farmer communities in an arc from the far northwest to the north central zone of the country.

Recent violence

Recently, groups of men thought to be pastoralists have attacked settlers with sophisticated weapons not normally associated with herders, spreading fear and anxiety across farming communities. Some pastoralists, in turn, claim to have acted in self-defence after attacks on them by settlers. 

As the clashes have become more deadly, elements within Nigeria’s national security establishment have pointed to alleged links between ‘Fulani herdsmen’ and the Boko Haram insurgency. The allegation is that Boko Haram fighters fleeing the war in the northeast have moved south to the north central region where they are carrying out attacks on civilian communities under the guise of herdsmen.

Newspaper headlines are fuelling public anger. The classification of ‘Fulani militants’ by the Global Terrorism Index 2015 as the world’s fourth-deadliest terror group also stoked the flames, increasing fear and anxiety in a region regularly terrorised by jihadist sects. This was the first time this activity had been described as terrorism, with the index unhelpfully listing pastoralist-linked clashes alongside established terrorist groups such as ISIS and al Shabaab.

Avoiding a one-sided response

As public support grows for a government intervention, lawmakers will need to be mindful of avoiding a one-sided approach to resolving this conflict. The Fulani ethnic group has on many occasions called for the Nigerian government to intervene in the conflict − but as an impartial mediator between all sides rather than an antagonist, to provide security and protection for both herdsmen and settled farmer settlements and clamp down on the criminal gangs and opportunists. A security policy seen to be against a single party in this crisis effectively dismisses the grievances of the Fulani.

In a country with a history of sectarian violence, the crisis is gradually being seen through an ethno-religious prism. There is a historical trust deficit between the Muslim and Christian communities, and an approach that is seen to be one-sided risks perpetuating the development of a siege mentality within the wider Muslim communities. Should the government resort to a military response against the Fulani pastoralist community, there is a risk the conflict could spread further − drawing in other Fulani communities from across the region and causing widespread instability.

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