Over a thousand have died during conflicts between farmers and herders in Nigeria’s Benue state. Can the authorities find a workable solution?
Esther Joshua gazes at the crowd gathering in an open field in the centre of a camp for displaced people in Gbajimba in north-central Nigeria’s Benue state. Around 24,000 people live in the camp which has yellow perimeter fencing and six blocks of classrooms. The International Committee of the Red Cross is distributing food aid to the people, and this is what Joshua and her family now depend on for survival. Until January this year, 66-year-old Joshua had no reason to beg for food or watch people queue under the blazing sun to receive aid. “The killing and burning was too much and we had to run to this town,” she says.
A deadly wave of violence between settled farming communities and semi-nomadic cattle herders, mainly from the Fulani ethnic group, has gripped Nigeria in the last six years, fuelling a cycle of tit-for-tat violence. A new report from the International Crisis Group says that the conflict has killed more than 1,300 people since January this year, and forced an estimated 300,000 people to flee their homes. Nigeria’s central region, also known as the Middle Belt, is the hotbed of the killings and displacement.
At the heart of this simmering conflict is the battle for natural resources like farmland, water, stock routes and grazing grounds. Fulani cattle herders often roam with their cattle in search of pasture and water, especially during the dry season. Although grazing reserves were introduced in the mid-1960s to protect traditional grazing routes from crop farming and promote the settlement of pastoral nomads, this trend did not keep up with the rapidly growing population and the subsequent expansion of infrastructure and farmland for cultivation. Furthermore, Boko Haram’s insurgency in the north-east region as well as desert encroachment and frequent drought in the arid north have forced herders to migrate southwards.
But their nomadic lifestyle often brings them into friction with mainly Christian farming communities, creating a vicious struggle for scarce resources and evoking religious and ethnic tensions since the herders are mostly Muslim. Farmers often complain that cows trespass into farmlands and damage their crops. Herders, in turn, say their cows are being stolen.
As the violence rages on, its impact on agriculture, livestock rearing and trade cannot be overlooked in central Nigeria, which is key to the country’s food production. In Benue state, where over 175,000 people have been displaced since January, farming has seized up in many affected communities. The state, which prides itself on being the “Food Basket of the Nation” is Nigeria’s major producer of yam and soybean.
Following the implementation of a controversial state law in Novermber 2017 banning open grazing and requiring livestock to be kept on ranches, violence intensified between farmers and pastoral herders. After one attack in the new year blamed on the Fulanis, at least 73 people who were killed in two localities were laid to rest in a mass burial in Makurdi, the capital of Benue. This happened during the harvest season, and farmers had to flee to safer towns and villages.
“We left our 10 hectares with yam and rice as well as dozens of bagged sesame seed and eight bags of soybeans to come here,” Joshua tells African Business. “Now that we have lost everything, tell me, how can we recover when the crisis is over?”
According to a study by aid organisation Mercy Corps, Nigeria could rake in up to $13.7bn every year in Benue, Kaduna, Nasarawa, and Plateau states alone if farmers and pastoralists ended their animosity. The study further states that “these resource-based conflicts have impeded market development and economic growth by destroying productive assets, reducing production, preventing trade, deterring investment in the private sector, and eroding trust between market actors”.
Food prices rise
As the conflict takes a toll on farming and herding, so its impact spreads to food prices in Makurdi. “Food prices are on a high rise now,” says Israel Okpe, a project officer and conflict specialist with Pastoral Resolve, an NGO working to resolve the hostility between pastoralists and farmers. “The competition over most of this farm produce has reduced because farmers have no farm products to sell.”
For the semi-nomadic Fulani herders, the conflict has also taken an enormous toll on their income and households. Fulanis had to move to other states after the anti-grazing law in Benue with some losing their cows as they crossed the River Benue, says Shettima Mohammed, the Benue state secretary of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, an umbrella body for Fulani pastoralists. “The impact extends to the supply of meat, milk and eggs in local markets,” he adds.
For settled Fulani women who mostly generate income from selling skimmed sour milk (nono) and millet dough balls (fura), moving to a new location due to fighting affects their income. These women also sell other dairy products like butter oil and eggs to local markets, roadside settlements, offices and stores.
For butchers and traders in communities who live near Fulani settlements and buy livestock from them, continued fighting might mean a halt in trade. The knock-on effect of the conflict reverberates in other industries that benefit from agriculture, including food and beverage production, chemical products manufacturing, and petroleum products industries.
Ranching is not a solution
The federal government has often touted cattle ranching as a panacea to the deadly crisis and, in April, it approved a 10-year National Livestock Transformation Plan that aims to build 94 ranches in 10 pilot states.
But Okpe of Pastoral Resolve does not think ranching would immediately address the bad blood between both parties. Instead, he argues that any conflict resolution mechanism would, first, “build a relationship between both parties”.
“It is high time we stopped thinking for these people because they know their problems and solutions more than anybody,” Okpe says, adding that the government needs to engage both herders and farmers by visiting their communities to hear from them.
Linus Unah in Benue