Between Fulani Herdsmen and Farmers National Security under Buhari

Nigeria is currently going through a very challenging phase in its history. Economically, challenges like acute unemployment, an exchange rate crisis and the attendant runaway inflation confront the country. Official corruption adversely affects the workings of government, too, while corrupt elements and judicial bureaucracy, reportedly, impede the administration’s much vaunted war on corruption. However, insecurity appears to have been the most formidable challenge met by the current administration upon assuming office in May 2015.

When President Buhari assumed office, the most widely known security threat to Nigeria’s corporate existence was the Boko Haram insurgency. The insurgents, who once controlled vast swathes of territory in their quest to establish a caliphate, have caused the loss of about 20,000 lives and the displacement of over a million others. At the time of President Buhari’s inauguration, less known to the international community was another source of insecurity: the attacks by so-called Fulani herdsmen. While the Buhari administration has had measurable success in its fight against Boko haram, it appears that the menace of the herdsmen-farmer conflicts has defied the government. The brazenness with which suspected Fulani herdsmen slaughter settled communities and raze down villages is a sad reminder of the enormous security challenges still facing the Buhari administration.

Who are the Fulani?

Also known as the Fula or Fulbe, the Fulani are an ethnic group not unique to Nigeria. They can be found in a number of West and Central African countries including Chad, Mali and Senegal, and even in South Sudan in northeastern Africa. In Nigeria, the Fulani are often grouped together with the Hausa ethnic group (hence the identifier, Hausa-Fulani), though both ethnicities are distinct. Many of the Fulani in Nigeria are nomadic pastoralists, though a number of them live in settled communities. Mostly Muslim, the nature of their occupation makes them leave their base in northern Nigeria in search of vegetation for their cattle down mostly Christian southern territory.

Moreover, foreign transhumant Fulani pastoralists also herd their cattle down southern Nigeria in search of grazing fields and water for their cattle. In the nomadic Fulanis’ process of economic migration, tensions often develop between the Fulani and settled communities. This is especially true in the rich agricultural Middle Belt basin, and particularly in Plateau and Benue States. Such tensions usually emanate from the farmers accusing the herdsmen of damaging their crops, while the host communities are sometimes accused of cattle rustling—stealing of cows. Also, the religious divide between the mainly Muslim Fulani and their largely Christian southern hosts adds another dimension to potential conflicts, as religious fanatics on both sides exploit the sometimes deep religious fissures that occasionally show up in Nigeria. However, religion is not the underlying cause of the crisis.

Climate change and desert encroachment have made southward movements even more inevitable, and confrontations with southern farming communities more frequent. Some even cite a Fulani expansionist agenda as being behind these attacks. A Twitter hashtag to that effect, #MAFO (Movement Against Fulani Occupation) has been launched, and allegations of possible government collusion in this perceived expansionist agenda, levelled. In the absence of ranches, nomadic pastoralists have little or no other option than to keep heading south, as far as the south-eastern and south-western regions of Nigeria. And tales of previous clashes between Fulanis and farming communities stoke already simmering fears and distrust, setting off further cycles of confrontation and violence.

Déjà vu: a history of carnage

An accurate account of the death toll resulting from herdsmen-farmer violence in Nigeria is difficult to come by due to the lack of a dedicated database. Therefore, most of the evidence comes from newspaper reports of various incidents involving the herdsmen and farmers in settled communities. Some sources claim that the conflicts have resulted in the loss of over 60,000 lives since 2001, making it deadlier than the notorious Boko Haram uprising. A BBC report claims that over 50,000 deaths were caused by the crisis between 2001 and 2004 alone. Of these deaths, women and children accounted for almost 35,000. Some accounts even trace the violent confrontations to as far back as the 1990s or earlier. One study estimates the economic cost of the herdsmen-farmer conflicts in only the four states of Benue, Kaduna, Nassarawa and Plateau at about $14 billion annually. Current figures are likely to be higher, especially with the spread of the conflict to other states.

Little wonder, the Global Terrorism Index ranked the Fulani herdsmen the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world in 2014. Only the fearsome trio of Boko Haram, ISIS and Al-Shabab were adjudged deadlier. Though herdsmen-associated carnage halved a year later, herdsmen remain a formidable armed group.

Indeed, the seeds of inter-religious and inter-ethnic confrontation predate Nigeria’s independence in 1960. With the colonial government establishing tin mines in the mainly Christian Jos plateau, indigenes, as well as people from other parts of present-day Nigeria, were encouraged to come and work in the mines. Some of the so-called non-indigenes were the mainly Muslim pastoralist Fulani. And having settled in the communities, the original inhabitants of the land objected to Fulanis grazing their cattle in the area, especially at the expense of local crops. Such allegations of crop damage have led to reprisal (and perhaps pre-emptive) herd slaughter, which have sparked off brutal confrontations between Fulani herdsmen and the indigenous farming communities. A notable BBC report on Jos even showed evidence of cannibalism. Another report has accused some Berom Christians (the Berom, being the largest ethnic group in Plateau), of carrying out police-supervised cannibalism on Muslims.

The Buhari administration and the crisis

Though the crises obviously predate the Buhari administration, the administration’s actions and inactions in the face of continued confrontations have subjected it to much flak by Nigerians. One of the most prominent attacks allegedly perpetrated by Fulani herdsmen in the Buhari era was the Agatu Massacre in Benue State. In February 2016, about 300 Agatu indigenes in four communities were massacred, while some 7,000 were displaced. Some reports suggest about 500 deaths in ten Agatu communities at the hands of suspected herdsmen in early 2016. These killings were accompanied by the destruction of houses and other property as well as allegations of rape. According to a leader of the Fulani, the attacks were reprisals against the Agatu people for killing a prominent Fulani man and stealing his cattle in 2013.

That it took the president more than one week to issue a statement of condemnation and order an investigation, and that his spokesman defended his taciturn stance on the crisis on the grounds that “[the President] is not a (sic) talkative,” have angered many Nigerians. Moreover, allegations of either inaction or outright collusion with the herdsmen have been levelled against the government and security agencies. In an interview, the member representing Agatu in the Benue State House of Assembly, Mr. Sule Audu, accused the military of allowing the Fulani herdsmen to occupy the sacked communities, while their cattle, numbering over 100,000, freely grazed on their farmlands. That the president is Fulani also added ammunition to his attackers, who saw his slow response as a tacit support for the killers.

Further south, on 25 April 2016, suspected armed Fulani invaders attacked Ukpabi Nimbo, a town in Enugu State, killing about 40 indigenes. This drew wide-ranging condemnation, and highlighted the potential threat of the conflict feeding other security flash points. The Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra, a group agitating for a restoration of the separatist Republic of Biafra, warned of dire consequences should the killings continue. The group is viewed as treasonous by the government. Some communities in the South-East zone have threatened reprisals to alleged attacks. Similar cases of herder-farmer conflicts have been reported in Zamfara and Katsina States in the North, as well as Abia and Osun States in the South-East and South-West respectively.

It is baffling that virtually no successful prosecution or conviction has been secured on any of these incidents of killing and wanton destruction of property by the herdsmen. To aggravate the people’s sense of betrayal, the governor of Kaduna State and a powerful ally of the President, Nasir el-Rufai, admitted to paying foreign transhumant Fulanis to stop killing the mainly Christian southern Kaduna people. Kaduna was embroiled in a crisis involving Fulani herdsmen and southern Kaduna residents in December 2016. The most worrying aspect of the attacks is that, reportedly, they were carried out during a 24-hour curfew.

As in the case of the Agatu Crisis, the Southern Kaduna Killings were said to be reprisal attacks by Fulani herdsmen for previous murders. Even if the compensation was made in good faith, that the governor, a Muslim Fulani, paid fellow Muslim Fulanis rather than bring them to justice, has been seen by many as emboldening the herdsmen. Even a UN press briefing on herdsmen-perpetrated attacks in Nigeria noted, “the complete impunity enjoyed so far by the perpetrators”. Reports also suggest that only about five arrests have been made over the Nimbo Massacre even though the Massacre was allegedly perpetrated by up to 500 armed herdsmen. One thing is certain: it is worrying when attacks and reprisals can be carried out in a country, with little or no consequences for the perpetrators.

Perhaps the most perplexing question surrounding the conflicts is how cattle herdsmen end up with sophisticated weapons like the AK-47 (semi-)automatic gun. As has been noted by some concerned Nigerians, the spectre of a fully-armed Fulani herdsman is new. A number of factors, such as the Libyan Crisis and the resulting free flow of firearms in the wake of Ghaddafi’s death, gun running, and local politics, have been blamed for the relatively easy access of Fulani herdsmen to dangerous and sophisticated weapons.

A related problem is Nigeria’s porous borders. The recent spate of herdsmen-perpetrated violence has been blamed on foreign transhumant Fulanis. If this is true, the fact that foreigners can travel as far south as Enugu and Osun State to wreak havoc points to an even deeper problem that has plagued successive administrations in Nigeria, and persists under the present Buhari administration: the lack of effective border security. Even the ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) regulations on transhumance between member states does not endorse unregulated and/or armed grazing, and calls for an evolution to ranching.

To be fair to the Buhari administration, there seems to be some desire to prevent future attacks. Currently, the National Grazing Reserve (Establishment) Bill is before the National Assembly. The bill seeks to establish a grazing reserve in each state so as to not only improve livestock production, but also prevent herdsmen-farmer conflicts. However, given the charged nature of the problem, it appears the bill hardly enjoys any support from most southern states. Many see the bill as unjust, alleging that their lands will be expropriated to serve Fulani commercial interests. Others see it as affording the Fulani a potential leeway to dominate the south. Even more worrying is the fact that some Fulanis disapprove of the bill, insisting that it is an infringement on their rights to movement. So far, it appears that the federal government has neither embarked on any systematic enlightenment campaign to douse these concerns, real or imagined, nor proposed an alternative feasible solution.

The lack of a broad-based and coordinated national policy on grazing has the potential to lead to anarchy, where different states take their destiny into their own hands. A case in point is Ekiti State, where an Anti-Grazing Law has been enacted. The law, which prohibits grazing outside designated places and times, as well as with firearms, has been condemned by the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (the umbrella body representing the herdsmen).

Careful analysis of the conflicts indicates that allegations of cattle rustling is at the heart of some of the clashes. Herdsmen accuse settled communities of stealing their cattle and murdering their colleagues and children, necessitating their bearing arms. According to Mohammed Abdullahi, the Chairman of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association in Plateau State, “The Fulani use the AK47 for defence since the government has failed to protect them.” While not an acceptable solution, such self-defence is an indictment of the security apparatus in Nigeria.

Another security-related question is what the police and other relevant security agencies are doing to either forestall or promptly respond to attacks by Fulani herdsmen. That large-scale massacres and pillage can be carried out during a 24-hour curfew as in the Southern Kaduna Killings is reprehensible and speaks to either an ineffectual security apparatus, or worse still, active collusion by security agencies. And the general failure of the government to successfully prosecute most of the perpetrators of the violence on both sides not only fails to deter future attacks, but encourages a dangerous arms race on both sides of the conflict.

The way forward

The prognosis is that the security crisis is likely to continue into the foreseeable future given the lack of a coherent national policy to deal with it. This is quite unfortunate especially given the colossal body count and property destruction that accompany the herdsmen-farmer confrontations. A potential solution to the problems is the evolution of cattle rearing from traditional nomadic practices to ranching. However, fears of both the herders and settled communities must be addressed. The pastoralists’ concerns range from cultural (e.g. the disruption of their centuries-old nomadic way of life), to the practical (constant availability of grass and water in such ranches). On the part of the settled communities, fears of land expropriation and dominance should be addressed. Thus, a new national legislation on animal husbandry based on broad consultations is necessary to make meaningful headway.

One common theme running through many of the conflicts is that their origins can be traced to some perceived violence or injustice against one group. For the Agatu Crisis, it was the Fulani grievance that their chief was earlier killed and his cattle stolen. At least, part of the Southern Kaduna Crisis was, allegedly, due to foreign transhumant Fulani who were attacked during the post-2011 presidential elections crisis. In Ukpabi Nimbo, the Fulani alleged that some of their people were previously killed in the area, coupled with instances of missing cattle.

Moreover, allegations of crop destruction by cattle are a pertinent concern, too. Had these allegations been properly investigated by trusted local institutions and findings made known to security operatives, much of the carnage would have been averted. A case in point is Anambra (a neighbouring state with Enugu State), where a “cattle menace committee”, headed by the state’s Commissioner of Police and comprising traditional rulers and community representatives, has been set up. The committee is said to work with Fulani herdsmen on ways to ensure peaceful coexistence between communities and herdsmen.

In addition, it is crucial that authorities get to the root of arms proliferation and confiscate illegal firearms. No doubt, the huge fatalities associated with the herdsmen-farmer conflicts is due to the sophisticated arms available to the assailants. It is troubling that private citizens can have apparently easy access to unlicensed sophisticated military grade weaponry. A small arms survey conducted in 2009 found between one and three million illegal small arms and light weapons in Nigeria. The figure is, very likely, higher today. The presence of such illegal arms in an environment of acute unemployment and mutual distrust is nothing but a recipe for disaster, and can be easily exploited by unscrupulous politicians.

Against the backdrop that some of the attacks were allegedly perpetrated by foreign invaders, it is incumbent upon the government to enforce proper border security. For a long time, Nigeria has been notorious for her porous borders. That Nigeria has more than 1,400 illegal border routes into the country is clearly unacceptable. Free movement of people and goods as guaranteed by ECOWAS protocols should not be an excuse for irresponsible border security. Indeed, the ECOWAS Transhumance Protocol of 1998 allows herdsmen to move their cattle across borders only if they fulfil the conditions of the protocol, which include abiding by the laws of their host countries. Foreign herdsmen with a history of violence should not be allowed back into the country again.

The human and material cost of the incessant conflicts between suspected Fulani herdsmen and farmers in Nigeria is mind-boggling. One hopes that the government and all relevant actors will put the welfare of the nation above selfish interests and act collectively to save the country from further carnage