Nigeria faces new security threat fuelled by climate change and ethnicity

Tensions between cattle herders and crop-farming communities in Nigeria have escalated in the past few months. Reuters/Akintunde Akinleye

Forging national unity has been a perennial challenge to Nigeria’s evolution as a country. Since independence from Britain 56 years ago, the country continues to weather severe existential storms that strike at its very core.

These make national cohesion and political stability largely elusive. They include: a bloody civil war in the 1960s; decades of corrupt military dictatorships; perennial inter-ethnic distrust; occasional religious strife and political insurrection; minority and resource rights agitation; and a trademark corrupt political and ruling class.

Recently, Nigeria’s sociopolitical and geopolitical tensions have taken on another dimension. This is evident in the escalating bloody clashes between nomadic cattle herders and farmers. Though there are alternative narratives, the ongoing tensions reflect, in a way, climate change-induced resource scarcity that threatens food and national security.

Nigeria is by far Africa’s most ethnically diverse country. It has an estimated 250 ethnic nationalities. Its most visible faultline is its stark religious divide between the Islamic North and Christian/animist South. This is a less accurate simplification of a complex dynamic.

Before Nigeria’s independence, the British in 1914 coupled independently administered protectorates of southern and northern Nigeria by fiat as an act of convenience, before bowing out 46 years later in 1960.

Boko Haram

Triggered by a complex mix of factors, Nigeria’s security challenges continue to escalate. In the past eight years the Boko Haram insurgence has placed the country on the global jihadist map.

The failure to rescue the nearly 250 Chibok girls Boko Haram abducted is a scar on the conscience of the government.

And a recent skirmish between the military and members of the Shiite Islamic sect points to the escalating security crisis. The military is accused of extrajudicial killings of Shiite adherents.

The development puts Nigeria’s abysmal human rights record under stress. It also potentially places the country in the middle of muscle-flexing by competing Islamic powers outside its borders. For example, Iran was quick to express concern over the Shiite incident. Iran is a leading Shiite nation, with its eyes on the treatment of a Shiite religious minority in a country with majority Sunni adherents.

While the Boko Haram insurgence keeps mutating, Nigeria is experiencing another dangerous chapter in its security challenge.

A new security threat

In the past several months tensions have escalated between nomadic cattle herders and traditional crop-farming communities. Some traditional and farming communities in central and southern Nigeria have been overrun by herders who are accused of grazing their cattle on crop fields.

The country’s media is dominated by reports of maiming, killings, rape and other forms of banditry associated with highly armed nomadic herders. Unofficial figures put the death toll from one such incident in Enugu State, in the south-eastern region, at about 100.

In the absence of state protection, these events have fuelled affected communities’ support for ethnic or regional militias as a civic defence strategy. The clashes between herdsmen and farmers strike at the core of Nigeria’s vulnerable ethno-political faultlines. They also have ramifications for climate change and food security.

Crop farmers produce more than 80% of Nigeria’s food. Leaving this critical lifeblood of the country’s economic and cultural life at the mercy of herders and their cattle is not an option. Farmers, the majority of whom are women, constitute the bedrock of the country’s informal economy. And the unofficial farming sector is the country’s highest employer of labour. Now this key economic sector is under siege.

Itinerant herding is an age-long practice. Like all aspects of culture and civilisation, its purveyors must adapt to new realities. In a multi-ethnic society like Nigeria, coexistence, and not conquest, is a sacred code of social cohesion.

The ongoing resource and environmental tension represented by the clash between herders and crop farmers has embedded religious significance. Most itinerant herders are northerners and adherents of the Islamic faith. Their clashes with farmers happen mainly in the central and southern regions, where most people are Christian and animist.

Climate change, religion and ethnicity

Perennial ethnic and religious suspicion in Nigeria often fuels apprehensions of an ulterior jihadist agenda. This has a significant security dimension that can easily be exploited. There is a perception of state impunity for the herders, given the evident lack of resolve to rein them in. Noble Laureate Wole Soyinka has said the government’s response

smacks of abject appeasement and encouragement of violence on innocents.

Nigeria needs an urgent response before the current crisis festers like the Boko Haram malaise.

The herder-farmer crisis demonstrates the reality of the climate change and resource control interface, and its embedded security challenges. The scarcity of water and shrinking of grazing fields in the desert north appear to be pushing herders southwards to the grasslands of the savannas and forests.

The skirmish over natural resources, namely water and grazing fields, could become more dire as the impact of climate change takes hold. That struggle has significant security implications for Nigeria and other African countries. Its resolution requires thoughtful intervention. This should include a combination of policy options rooted in technology and innovation, as well as political and sustainability policy responses.

Nigeria could be a perfect test case of the intersection of these interrelated elements. A national strategy based on innovation, security, sustainability and political will is urgently required. It needs to be designed to mediate the present agro-ecological tension that threatens Africa’s largest economy and its most populous nation.

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