Climate change is gradually forcing nomadic Fulani shepherds further into southern Nigeria as they search for new pastures. Deadly clashes with local farmers are destabilising the country. Anne Gonschorek reports from Cape Town.
It is a fatal combination: climate change, modern agricultural economics and centuries-old traditions are threatening to explode historic tensions in Nigeria. Until now, the clashes between the nomadic Fulani and Nigerian farmers took place mostly in the northern parts of the country. But now the herdsmen are moving further south to find grazing lands for their herds due to increasing desertification and lack of rain.
Most fertile land in the country
But the nomads are destroying the farmers’ fields in Nigeria’s so-called Middle Belt, where the overwhelmingly Muslim north and largely Christian south meet. This also happens to be the most fertile land in the country. Armed to the teeth with modern machine guns, the Fulani are increasingly attacking the farming communities in this agricultural region.
“The Fulani herders are spreading chaos in our communities to this day,” Sani Echioda, a tribal elder, complained to reporters in Otukpo. “As I’m talking to you, their cows are taking over our land.” The socio-political consultancy firm SBM Intelligence reported that between 1997 and 2015, 389 bloody attacks were officially recorded – 371 of which have taken place since 2011.
Conflict leading to economic damages
The increasingly brutal attacks are now occurring at shorter intervals and are spreading further and further into the south. The potential for conflict can be compared to that of the Islamist terror group Boko Haram. The humanitarian organisation Mercy Corps believes that Nigeria is losing around USD 14 billion each year to the conflict.
“We found that the average household affected by conflict today could see income increase by at least 64 per cent, and potentially 210 per cent or higher, if conflicts were resolved,” Iveta Ouvry, Mercy Corps country director in Nigeria, told the Nigerian newspaper Premium Times.
Buhari needs to take action
Many believe that the worsening situation is home grown. Until now, various Nigerian governments have done little to nothing to resolve the conflict. And in April this year, the influential association Afenifere – which represents landowners – rejected a bill to establish a grazing commission, which would have controlled national grazing reserves as well as official routes for the herds.
Afenifere’s leader Reuben Fasoranti told reporters that the bill infringes on traditional land ownership structures and favours the Fulani herdsmen. “We reject any law that would rob the citizens of their possessions and award to another set of citizens as this offensive bill attempts to do,” said Fasoranti.
President Muhammadu Buhari has to step in to support the organised livestock system to put an end to the disputes. But so far, the Fulani refuse to accept this for themselves, relying instead on the nomadic traditions of wandering livestock.
Arms race begins
In the meantime, in February alone the conflict cost 300 people their lives and another 7,000 their homes. Government inaction is allowing both sides to continue with the bloody war for survival and supremacy over Nigeria’s fertile land.
So far, the Fulani have the greater firepower. But it is only a matter of time until the farming communities acquire even more arms, further aggravating the conflict – an additional security risk that Buhari can hardly afford given the ongoing crisis with Boko Haram.