By Rafiu Ajakaye
LAGOS, Nigeria (AA) – Clashes between herdsmen and farmers have assumed a frightening dimension across much of Nigeria’s savanna region, increasingly edging out the once intractable Boko Haram insurgency from the country’s security front burner.
In the Agatu communities of central Nigeria’s Benue state, hundreds were reported killed in February during raids blamed on alleged Fulani herdsmen. Former Nigerian Senate President David Mark claimed in a statement on March 12 that “up to 500 people had been massacred” in the raids. In a statement condemning the killings and directing massive security deployment, President Muhammadu Buhari acknowledged that over 100 had been killed.
A few other deadly clashes have also been reported in parts of the north-central Kwara, Nasarawa, and Niger states.
On April 25, over 20 people were reported killed in the Nnimbo community of the southeastern Enugu state in similar incidents blamed on herdsmen, according to conservative accounts. Pictures were published on the social media of people – mostly women and children – hacked to death by the attackers, drawing nationwide outrage.
The perpetrators of the crime in Benue and Enugu are alleged to be Fulani, the tribesmen of President Muhammadu Buhari, who reportedly herded their cattle through farmlands belonging to other people. This has raised mutual suspicion, with many critics down south going so far as accusing Buhari, a northerner, of looking the other way as his “northern kinsmen” ravage the country.
Not even a police clarification that the killings in Enugu were not by herdsmen has helped defuse the tension.
In what some have blamed on the resultant ethnic profiling and anger against Fulani, 20 Fulani herdsmen and 83 cows got killed in the Adayi community of the northcentral Nasarawa state over the weekend.
“We want to unequivocally condemn the recent killings in Enugu and other parts of the country,” a forum for northern governors said in a statement on the crisis.
“But we equally condemn the politicization or …the ‘ethnicization’ of the whole crisis. It goes beyond Fulani. If anything happens, they say Fulani herdsmen; to me it is an insult,” added the statement.
Enraged, some people have called for reprisals against the herdsmen. Many claim the alleged Fulani herdsmen were out to impose on the largely Christian southern Nigeria a so-called jihadi mission of the 18th century Muslim reformer Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio.
Rommy Mom, a researcher on the decades-long crisis and head of the Lawyers Alert NGO, says the sensationalism and profiling that come with herdsman-farmer clashes pose a grave threat to the country if not addressed.
“There is some lack of responsibility in the way this crisis is being reported, especially by online media. You find people putting up pictures of attacks and saying this happened yesterday in such-and-such a place. But when you try to probe those pictures, most of them are from what happened in Rwanda,” Mom, an international development expert, told Anadolu Agency.
“Many people saw these pictures and got angry. Emotions run high and they start to look for Fulani for revenge. Such sensational reporting isn’t good for our country, especially as we are still contending with the insurgency in the northeast. There has to be some sense of responsibility on the part of the press, especially the online media. Yes, we have problems but I fear that there is a heavy dose of exaggeration and fanaticism in the reporting and that is building up tension around the country.”
–A crisis rooted in climate change
Mom said the conflict is deliberately being politicized by some people, but also that the clashes result from climate change, which has continually pushed herdsmen down south in search of pastures and water for their cattle.
Professor Chidi Odinkalu, senior legal officer for the Africa Program of the Open Society Justice Initiative, and prominent civil rights activist and lawyer Muhammed Bello, both public figures with extensive knowledge of the issues, agree with Mom.
“The causes of the conflicts are traceable to three broad but related factors,” they said in a joint statement made available to Anadolu Agency.
“First, over the past half-century, many natural sources of water in much of Nigeria’s Sahelian Belt dried up, forcing pastoralists to move south in search of grazing and water for their herds. Lake Chad, for instance, shrank by over 90 percent from 25,000 square kilometers to less than 2,500 square kilometers in a period of less than 50 years.
“As they moved, pastoralists took with them into the Savannah and tropical rain forest zones their identities of faith, language, ethnicity, production methods, and land use patterns peculiar to the Sudan-Sahel belt. Natural tensions inherent in this contact were bound to escalate in the absence of reliable mechanisms of mediation,” according to the statement.
The duo also blame the corrupt expropriation by “political and private interests” of the over 415 grazing reserves in the north, which they said resulted in a dearth of land for pasture and grazing. They called for recovery of the land.
“Third, as the conflicts rose and fatalities mounted, government, especially at the federal level, posited that it is working silently to resolve it. Due to this ‘silent’ manner, many communities perceive that there is a deafening indifference to the conflict, the growing fatalities and the dangers that these pose to our country, our communities and people,” according to the statement.
“As a result, affected communities of both sedentary farmers and pastoralists have increasingly resorted to self-help, vigilantism, and violence. What we need is a more robust approach that carries both farming and pastoralist communities along, reassuring them of the protection of their lives and livelihoods,” the statement added.
Mom, the Benue state-born analyst, suggested that the way out is for government to establish ranches across the country.
“The Fulani is not born to be nomadic. He is nomadic because he needs to move from one place to another in search of lush pasture and water for his cattle. Once these things are made available, he will stop moving around,” he said.
Auwal Ibrahim Musa Rafsanjani, director of the Abuja-based Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, offers similar insight into the crisis.
“While overgrazing and overcrowding could trigger conflicts between herdsmen and farmers in the affected areas, we have also observed that during the dry season, low feedstuff and low water in rivers result in an early movement of herds in search of pasture and water,” he told Anadolu Agency.
Rafsanjani said this increases “the risk of conflict between herdsmen and farmers”.
“We call on traditional rulers and community heads across the country to encourage their herdsmen on adequate provisions for their animal feeds against dry season, through massive storage of animal feedstuffs during the growing season,” he suggested.
–Near collapse of the justice system
But there is more to the clashes than conflicts over grazing rights, according to some analysts, who say the attacks may be “reprisals” to settle old scores.
“The near collapse of the administration of justice is partly responsible. There were instances where a party will report that their people were killed and nothing happened. Nobody got punished for such crimes,” Ibim Harold, a retired army major general, said.
“Such attitudes breed bad blood and thirst for revenge. Both sides have carried out violence to avenge the killings of their kinsmen. This will go on until government acts to restore justice as it should be,” he added.
Rafsanjani also fingered politics in the escalation of the crisis. He warned that emphasis on the tribe of the perpetrators appears to be a deliberate effort to instigate a tribal conflict in the country.
“Some political and socioeconomic saboteurs and other enemies of social integration on most occasions take advantage of the existing instability to fuel precarious attacks on innocent citizens, primarily for their selfish and unpatriotic interests,” according to him.