Farmer-herder crisis in Nigeria’s Middle Belt could ‘blow up into a civil war’

Nigeria’s Middle Belt has been struck this year by a spike in farmer-herder violence, which in 2018 was six times deadlier than the Boko Haram insurgency, killing more than 2,000 people according to the International Crisis Group.

Farmer-herder violence in Ebonyi State, Southeast Nigeria in February, 2021
Farmer-herder violence in Ebonyi State, Southeast Nigeria in February, 2021 © Observers

Climate-induced desertification in recent years has escalated tensions, forcing the northern herders further south into the farmers' territory, creating one of the world’s deadliest conflicts, as both sides compete for scarce resources. As killings persist, the violence has increasingly been framed as a religious problem, since the majority of herders are Muslim and most of the farmers are Christian.

"Many farmers are losing their source of income as their crops are being burned by herders"

Abeni (not his real name) is a Christian farmer who was forced to flee his land because of violence in July 2020. In the past six weeks alone, he has witnessed three separate attacks in which dozens of people have been killed. On one of these occasions, on March 18 2021, 10 Christian farmers were murdered and three people were injured from gun wounds in the village of Kizachi in Kaduna state. 

More than 100 Fulani militants arrived in the village at about 11pm. The attack lasted for more than an hour. The Nigerian army arrived at 12.45am, but it was too late, the killings had already taken place. (...) More than 70 houses and places of worship, several barns of grains and motorbikes were also burned.

Abeni sent us photos of the remains of three bodies, including a baby’s, which had burned into ashes. Due to their graphic nature, the FRANCE 24 Observers team decided not to publish these images.

The attacks have been killing more people than Covid-19. The government is trying to find a vaccine to fight the virus, but why has it not been trying to find a remedy to this crisis, which is spiralling out of control? It is so much more dangerous than the pandemic. Many farmers are losing their source of income as their crops are being burned by herders or eaten by cattle, but for others it is even worse: their families and friends are dying.

Such stories can be heard repeatedly in the surrounding villages of Ancha, Hukke, Kperie and hundreds of others across Nigeria’s fertile Middle Belt.


“Pastoralists are being killed by farming communities on a daily basis” 

The FRANCE 24 Observers team also spoke to Salihu Musa Umar, a member of one of the biggest pastoralists’ associations in Africa and the founder of The Farmers and Herders Initiative for Peace and Development. 

The herdsmen are often portrayed by farmers as evil. This gives rise to suspicion and anger when they arrive but actually, they are just as often victims in this conflict. Pastoralists are being killed by farming communities on a daily basis. 

The herders have to move from point A to point B in search of greener pasture. But their cattle route is often blocked by farmers, who get angry and attack the herders. When these attacks take place, there is no justice, and so the herders feel cheated and begin reprisal attacks. It is an endless spiral.

The nature of the pastoralists’ livelihoods makes them very vulnerable. The majority of them are poor, uneducated, and they are very rarely given a voice in public discourse. It is easy to scapegoat them.

Vidéo d’une attaque contre des bergers peuls dans l'État d'Ebonyi, dans le sud-est du Nigeria, en février 2021.
Vidéo d’une attaque contre des bergers peuls dans l'État d'Ebonyi, dans le sud-est du Nigeria, en février 2021. © Observateurs

Climate change is aggravating the situation

Farmers and herders have crossed paths for decades, as pastoralist Fulanis from the north have a long tradition of migrating south during the dry season in search of water and grazing land for their cattle. The two groups usually managed to reach a mutual accommodation and overall, they coexisted peacefully. 

However, in recent years, climate change has altered that order. Increased drought and desertification have forced herders even further south and into conflict with farmers, whose numbers have increased in line with Nigeria’s booming population. 

“Climate change is the most important variable in the analysis,” Isaac Olawale Albert, Director of the Institute for Peace and Strategic Studies at the University of Ibadan (130 kilometres northeast of Lagos) told the Observers team.

“Droughts and desertification are the root cause of the herders’ increased movement. It has become more difficult to find fertile land, so competition has increased. The Middle Belt is often referred to as the country’s ‘food basket’ – it is very fertile land and so farmers want it for their crops and herdsmen for their cattle.” 

Religious tensions are gaining momentum 

The rising death toll has added fuel to already heated religious tensions since the majority of Fulani herders are Muslim and most of the farmers are Christian. 

In 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari – who is a Fulani and a Muslim – came to power, and the situation went from “bad to worse”, explained Salihu Musa Umar. Many farmers have accused Buhari’s government of bias – or worse, of stoking the violence for political gain. 

Charges and counter-charges of ethnic cleansing and even genocide have gained momentum – by both farmers and herders. According to a local conflict analyst who preferred to remain anonymous, it is essential that the government takes control of the narrative to soothe these destructive conspiracy theories that are spreading rapidly. 

“The government needs to be very careful because if it is not, and it looks like it is supporting a particular group, this could turn into another Rwanda, it could blow up into a full scale civil war." 

Food security is also at risk

Finding a resolution to Nigeria’s cattle-grazing crisis is also essential for the country’s economy and food security. Almost sixty percent of Nigeria’s protein originates from Fulani herders, according to Salihu Musa Umar. Meanwhile, about 90 percent of farmers are smallholders that produce most of the country’s farm output, which accounts for almost 27 percent of gross domestic product

“Food is becoming very expensive because farmers no longer have access to their farms,” Isaac Olawale Albert told the Observers team. 

“If we don’t achieve peace in rural areas, we won’t be able to grow food anymore. So the conflict has become an existential problem for Nigeria. Either we find a solution to the conflict, or we will no longer have enough food to feed ourselves.”

Clashes between farmers and herders have killed more than 10,000 people in the last decade and forced the displacement of 300,000 people, according to the International Crisis Group.