Nigeria's Herdsmen and Farmers Are Locked in a Deadly, Forgotten Conflict

Fulani herdsmen waters cattle in Nigeria.
A Fulani herdsmen waters his cattle on a plain between Malkohi and Yola in Nigeria, May 7, 2015. Clashes between herdsmen and settled communities are claiming hundreds of lives annually in Nigeria. EMMANUEL AREWA/AFP/Getty Images

The jihadi group Boko Haram are usually characterized as the biggest threat to Nigeria's state security and even as one of the world's deadliest militant groups.

But in the first four months of 2016, Boko Haram have actually been responsible for less deaths—208 to be precise—than other sectarian groups in Nigeria combined, which have accounted for 438 deaths so far, according to the Council on Foreign Relations' Nigeria Security Tracker. A huge chunk of these are down to an ongoing conflict between predominantly Fulani herdsmen and settled farming communities, which is costing the Nigerian economy billions of dollars per year as well as hundreds—if not thousands—of lives.

The Fulani —also known as the Fula or Peul—constitute a mostly Muslim people scattered throughout West Africa but concentrated in certain places, such as northern Nigeria. Fulanis are primarily nomadic cattle herders who follow their livestock along migratory patterns. This wandering lifestyle has brought them into conflict with settled farming communities in Nigeria, who have accused the Fulani of cattle rustling, kidnapping and murder.

Clashes between mostly Fulani herdsmen and settled communities have been concentrated in north central Nigeria, particularly the states of Benue, Plateau, Kaduna and Nassarawa. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari ordered an inquiry into clashes between herdsmen and farmers in Benue at the end of February, which reportedly resulted in hundreds of deaths and thousands being displaced. As well as the obvious security threat, the low-level battles are draining Nigeria's economy of resources and potential funds. A series of reports published in July 2015 by global humanitarian agency Mercy Corps found that the four problem states stood to gain up to $13.7 billion annually in total macroeconomic benefits if the conflict between herdsmen and farmers was reduced to near-zero. And the benefits are not just limited to state-level—Nigerian households affected by the ongoing clashes could expect their incomes to increase by between 64 and 210 percent were the conflicts to be resolved.

Nigeria's Middle Belt—where the four problem states are located—is an area of ethnic and religious diversity, where the majority Muslim north meets the largely Christian south. On top of this, the Fulani have historical rivalries with other ethnic groups in Nigeria, particularly the Hausa. Led by the religious reformer Usman dan Fodio, a Fulani army fought a four-year jihad in the predominantly Hausa states of what is now northern Nigeria, eventually triumphing and establishing the Sokoto caliphate. The caliphate was one of the most prominent African empires in the 19th century and was only abolished by the British in 1903.

Because of this fraught geography and history, the herdsmen-farmer conflict is often characterized as ethnic or religious in nature. But this is a mischaracterization, according to Lisa Inks, one of the authors of the Mercy Corps reports. "We definitely believe that the conflicts are caused primarily by competition for scarce resources," says Inks, citing land and water as the two major conflict drivers. According to Inks, solutions lie in supporting both parties by the establishment of grazing reserves for livestock, increasing funding for communities affected by the clashes and improving security at conflict hotspots.

The security implications of marauding, armed Fulani herdsmen are significant for Nigeria, already struggling to contain the Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast , revived militant attacks on oil facilities in the Niger Delta and substantial pro-Biafran protests in the southeast. If taken together, casualties attributed to Fulani herdsmen in 2014 totaled 1,229, according to the Institute for Economics & Peace Global Terrorism Index 2015. It is problematic, however, to group Fulani herdsmen together into a single unit and classify them as a terrorist movement, according to Leena Koni Hoffman, Nigeria expert and associate fellow at Chatham House. Fulani herdsmen cannot be considered a terrorist group akin to Boko Haram or the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), says Hoffman, because of "the absence of a core ideology around the violence."

Despite the lack of an ideological basis, links between the organized militants of Boko Haram and the roaming Fulani herdsmen have been suggested before. According to Hoffman, collaboration between herdsmen and Boko Haram is unlikely in terms of formal affiliation but could take place in different types of "criminal activity," such as cattle rustling. "There could be a link between groups who are exploiting the context of insecurity and instability [in Nigeria] to strengthen their position," says Hoffman.

Whether such links exist or not, the herdsmen-farmers conflict is clearly damaging Buhari's vision of a unified Nigeria and sucking potential resources and revenues out of the country. "The farmer-herdsmen conflict is not even the most high-profile conflict in Nigeria," says Inks, "[But] even this ongoing, relatively low-level intercommunal conflict is costing the country billions."