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Resource competition, not ethnoreligious persuasions, main cause of farmers, herders conflict

Competition for resources required for crop farming and grazing has driven the conflict between Hausa farmers and Fulani herders, two populations with close cultural ties in Nigeria’s northwest, according to a new report, which highlights other layers of violence that have precipitated humanitarian and economic challenges in the region.

The report – “Violence in Nigeria’s North West: Rolling Back the Mayhem” – released this week by the International Crisis Group highlighted the farmer-herder conflict alongside Jihadi infiltration and a multiplicity of criminal activities, including kidnapping, robbery, and illicit trade in drugs and solid minerals, as having caused the atmosphere of insecurity and violence plaguing the region.

“Conflicts between farmers and herders, sparked by disputes over land and water resources, have long been part of life in northern Nigeria, but have reached critical levels in recent years,” said the report. The factors that have exacerbated the resource-use conflicts in recent years, according to the report, are climatic and environmental changes and demographic pressures as well as government policy.

“Diminishing water sources and an increase in desert or semi-desert conditions have shrunk both arable land and pasture,” the report said. “The region’s rapidly growing population has meanwhile increased demand for available land. In the absence of more efficient methods of both crop and livestock production, the desertification and the population growth have intensified competition for territory suitable for farming and grazing.”

“Violence has accordingly accelerated in the last decade between largely Hausa farmers and predominantly Fulani pastoralists, two populations who live in close contact across north-western Nigeria,” it added.

Nigeria’s northwest, one of the country’s six geopolitical zones, includes Jigawa, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara. It covers an area of 216,065 sq km or 25.75 per cent of the country’s total landmass – close to the size of the UK. The region predominantly has a Hausa/Fulani Muslim population.

The report brought a perspective, that is rarely acknowledged in commentaries on Nigeria’s unabated herder-farmer violence: as the herders are involved in violence with farming populations in the Middle Belt and further south, so are they with Hausa farming groups in the northwest, commonly regarded as the core north. This perspective may help improve the understanding of the herder-farmer conflict in Nigeria as one not essentially rooted in any ethnoreligious expansionist agenda but competition for resources in the context of ecological degradation and unchecked population growth. Ethnicity and religion as well as weak governance may have only drawn out the conflict and made a solution rarely possible.

The sub-humid Middle Belt, which is dominated by non-Hausa/Fulani groups, many of them Christians, is the main theatre of the farmer-herder violence between sedentary, indigenous farming populations and nomadic Fulani herders, who move southwards from the semi-arid core north during the dry season. But because the herders and farmers, in the Middle Belt violence, belong to different ethnoreligious groups, with a history of tension, the violence is commonly viewed as one driven by ethnoreligious ambitions.

This interpretation has made the farmer-herder conflict a threat to Nigeria’s stability and unity.

But the ICG’s report, which highlights the environmental and demographic factors and the fact that Fulani herders are also in conflict with Hausa farmers in the core north, may now strengthen the ecological dimension to the conflict.

The report also found that “controversial government policies allocating land to farmers (including the allocation of large expanses to elite farmers) at the expense of herders, particularly since 1999 when the country returned to democratic rule” has aggravated the conflict.

To highlight an example, the report drew on the clearing of parts of Kuyambana forests, including grazing reserves and Fulani herders’ hamlets, in Zamfara State, and allocation of the land for crop farming, thereby causing herders’ trespass on farmlands and then farmers’ demands for compensation for damaged crops.

“While farmers complained of herders trespassing on their farms and damaging crops, herders protested the compensation they had to pay for damaged crops, and complained that farmers, district heads, police and courts were colluding against them in a corrupt process,” the report said, adding, “The stage was set for more deadly confrontations.”

According to the report, the conflict has now had wider ramifications with the Hausa and Fulani farmers, respectively, mobilising for protection bandits and vigilantes, who have then become sources of insecurity and crimes themselves.

READ ALSO: 1.9 million people displaced in North East – UNICEF

The report said: “These groups raised funds for arms acquisition from a combination of community contributions and a range of other activities allegedly including kidnapping for ransom.

“As violence escalated, they increasingly acquired more sophisticated firepower, much of it in the form of arms smuggled in from the Sahara and the Sahel via international routes.

“They have also procured weapons from other armed groups in north-eastern Nigeria, including the Boko Haram offshoot, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), or from corrupt government security personnel, gun importers in southern Nigeria and local gunsmiths.”

Apart from Jihadi infiltration stemming from the terrorism in the northeast and the farmer-herder conflict, the report also found a link between the violence in the northwest and artisanal gold mining in the region since the 2009 rise in the world market price of gold.

“Violence is also orchestrated by attackers with the purpose of scaring residents and state security agents away from the mining areas in order to take control, leading to further displacement of populations and dilution of state presence on the ground. Criminal groups use proceeds from such raids to acquire more weapons and fuel yet more criminal activity,” the report said.

According to the report, violence claimed an estimated eight thousand lives between 2011 and 2019 and, based on a 2019 joint assessment by UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the National Commission for Refugees, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons, displaced 210,354 persons from 171 towns across the northwestern region.

While security operations could not secure the region sustainably, the report said the dialogues so far had proven short-lived. “Sustainable peace requires a more comprehensive response by Nigerian authorities, at both the state and federal levels, that addresses drivers of violence in the region,” the report said.

It recommended the implementation of the National Livestock Transformation Plan, sustainable peace and threat management, humanitarian support and livelihood recovery support, tighter community and border security, forestry and mining sector reforms, and climate change and environmental restoration actions.
Violence in Nigeria’s North West: Rolli


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