The farmer-herder conflict centers on the struggles and clashes between the predominantly Fulani Muslim herdsmen and Christian farmers in their host communities over the right and access to land, pasture, and water for their occupations. The crisis has claimed lives and properties and perpetrators abound on both sides. However, the herdsmen have taken the most beating in the public perception and opinion of most Nigerians. In 2018, the global terrorism index stated that armed Fulani militia had surpassed Boko Haram as the leading cause of death by acts of terrorism in Nigeria. The media, especially, social media is awash with atrocities committed by the herdsmen spreading pictures and stories of burnt and brutalized bodies and properties. The result has been a deeply polarized country, only united by the negativity that surrounds not just the Fulani militias, but increasingly, the Fulani ethnic group.
The herdsmen crisis has dominated national discourse in a rare and distinct way not common for a deeply fractious country like Nigeria. In a country with over 200 hundred ethnic groups and languages, the uniting factor is the negative view of herdsmen and their cows. However, while the Fulani herdsmen attract negative attention from the general public and the media, the greater anger is directed at government officials whose utterances, behavior, actions, and inactions fuel this growing phobia for the herdsmen, in particular, and the Fulani, in general. Many Nigerians have accused the government of bias in favor of the herdsmen, and media reports are also rife with government complicity.
In this light, many Nigerians believe that the “body language” of President Muhammadu Buhari prevents security agents from arresting or persecuting herdsmen accused of criminal activities, which in turn, emboldens them to carry out more attacks with impunity. Government responses are also slow, giving criminals the laxity and the luxury of time to perpetrate attacks. Amnesty International in its 2018 report, stated that 57 percent of the 3,641 recorded deaths in 2018 happened close to security forces, yet attacks lasted hours and sometimes days due to slow response.
Many a time, utterances attributed to government officials have led citizens to also perceive the government as being biased. For instance, the governor of Bauchi, Bala Mohammed, seemed to justify the illegal possession of arms by the herdsmen by claiming that they needed it for self-defense, despite evidence of terroristic activities by some herdsmen involving the deadly use of weapons.
The growing disenfranchisement with the criminal activities of the herdsmen and the inadequate response of the government has entered a dangerous terrain. Communities are increasingly finding the security structures of the state insufficient, and are resorting to self-help and self-declared heroes to combat the herdsmen outside of legal means. For example, the Eastern Security Network (ESN), the military arm of the Indigenous People of Biafra (an outlawed organization), was created as a self-help mechanism to combat the Fulani herdsmen. The ESN was reported to have killed cows belonging to Fulani’s in Abia State. Individuals like Sunday Igboho, who evicted some herdsmen in Ondo state and has threatened to carry out this eviction in the whole of southwestern Nigeria, have gained popularity and acceptance in the public opinion of many Nigerians.
To this end, there seems to be a move from the realm of frustration to aggression. The #Endsars riot, which according to amnesty international claimed at least 56 people points to the growing frustration of Nigerians with the government, and the willingness to engage the government on violent terms. This reality makes the current political atmosphere surrounding the Fulani’s relationship with the rest of the country volatile and tense. The historical precedence for mass murder, genocide, and civil wars follows the familiar template of a tense nation rocked by mutual distrust, and a willingness to carry out vengeance against the perceived wrongdoers. For instance, the 1994 Rwanda genocide of the Tutsi’s and the moderate Hutus started with the Hutus brewing hatred of the Tutsi, dating back to the colonial days, when the Belgians favored the Tutsi’s for their lighter skin and overlooked their oppression over the Hutus.
In order to prevent this looming crisis, the government would have to act decisively to ensure a sense of justice and fairness prevails. The Nigerian government can achieve this by using a principle-centered approach to leadership. By doing this, the Nigerian government will be able to create credibility in the way this conflict is handled, ensuring measures are taken to address the conflict are applied consistently across all actors irrespective of ethnicity, tribe, and language. Also, the President could address concerns regarding his so-called passive body language by forcefully condemning acts of violence done by all actors.
In the long run, the Nigerian government would have to strengthen and reform its public institutions and its various agencies to address the root causes of this conflict. To achieve these goals, ministries with direct stakes in the crises, such as the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Natural resources, will have to be empowered through training to address concerns regarding grazing routes and farming areas. The government could also consider equipping local governments and grassroots institutions with conflict and mediation skills to identify and nip potential conflicts in the bud.
Failure to address the farmer-herder crisis can lead to inflammation of ethnic tensions. The Nigerian government would have to tackle this issue with commitment and great political will to ensure fairness and equity across the board, taking cognizance of the volatile political and cultural landscape of Nigeria.
My name is Osarodion Izevbigie from Nigeria. I hold a master's degree in defense and strategic studies from Missouri State University, USA, where I received the Ulrike Schumacher scholarship for excellence and academic merit. I am also a member of the Anti Terrorism Accreditation Board (ATAB). I am well versed in terrorism, foreign policy, security, and international relations. I believe with the right policies and leadership strategy, any region of the world can maximize its potential. To this end, I passionately research policies and leadership principles which, I believe hold the seeds of development and growth, especially, as regards the developing world.