Conflict between herders and farmers: Nigeria needs to accept there are victims on both sides

Civil rights groups protest bloody clashes between herdsmen and farmers in the central region of Nigeria. STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

Between 2010 and 2015, Nigeria lost 6,500 citizens and 62,000 others were displaced from their homelands in 850 recorded violent clashes between herdsmen and farmers in the Middle Belt region of the country. These deaths were more than what records show.

Available studies have looked into the causes and consequences of the clashes and made policy suggestions. But very little is known about victims’ experiences. This is important for policy formulation, implementation and other forms of intervention.

In our study, we examined the experiences of herding and farming communities in Nasarawa State, north central Nigeria who had been victims of the violence. We embarked on the research because news reports had constructed the perpetrators of violence as herders who should be punished and farming communities as victims who should be compensated.

To get a more balanced view of people’s experiences we sought responses from people who had been victims in both the farming and herding communities in Nasarawa State. We spoke with officials of the Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeding Association of Nigeria and displaced members of the farming communities who were accommodated in a camp.

In the balance of tales, both farming and herding communities claimed victimhood status.

We found that farming communities suffered internal displacement resulting from the destruction of farmland, forceful takeover of their community, destruction of livelihoods and human fatalities. We also found that herding communities suffered from the destruction of livelihood (such as the killing of cows), cattle rustling and human fatalities.

Farming communities’ perspective

We found that farmers suffered different forms of losses, including houses, property, farm produce, animals and close or distant relations. Some were direct victims, others combined both direct and indirect statuses while the third category only suffered vicariously. One 25-year-old married man we spoke to recounted:

I have lost my properties, food and clothes. My house was set on fire including the yam, guinea corn, and maize that I have in my food barn. In fact, I even lost my elder brother who was killed by this Fulani people when our village was attacked.

A 55-year-old married man told us:

My house and properties and farm produce were all destroyed by the herdsmen. In fact, they have taken over our community and are using it as their camps.

The effects of the violence extended to non-farming activities as the hostile environment made it difficult for farmers to conduct business transactions. For example, small business owners reported losing both their capital and investment to the conflict. A 30-year-old man shared his experience:

I owned a football viewing centre and I just did my subscription for matches. But now that we are displaced, the money for the subscription plus the business has ended.

The experience of herding communities

It was not possible to meet with the direct victims in the herding community because of their nomadic life. Instead, we interviewed executive members of a cattle herders association which speaks on behalf of the herding community.

Those we spoke to talked about herders losing the mainstay of their economy and livelihoods – their cattle. A key interviewee was the leader of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, Nasarawa chapter. He observed that:

We cannot estimate (the loss). The Fulani are the victims. They have lost thousands of their cows and uncountable people. Because some people are coming from different states I cannot record those ones that are not from my state. I don’t have the right figures of herders that migrated from Bauchi, Plateau, Katsina to Nasarawa and were killed here. Most of the corpses are not even seen … The Fulani as a whole have lost so many things. The challenge we have is that our loss is not being aired out like that of the farmers. We don’t have control or access to the social media, and other forms of media outlet like the others (farmers). But let me tell you we have lost a lot of things. So many lives of the herders have been lost in these conflicts. Hundreds and thousands of cows have been rustled too.

The quote also highlights how the herders feel marginalised by the media.

It’s clear how central the cattle economy is to a Fulani herder and to what extent he can go to protect his livelihood. The chairman of Miyyetti Allah also described the mindset of a typical Fulani man:

For a Fulani man, for you to seize his cows he prefers to die. He does not have any certificate to tender to federal or state government. He does not have any certificate to tender to state or local government for employment. For him, his cows are his livelihood. He prefers to die. If you kill me, you take the cow.

What can be done

Interventions to deal with the conflict must target alternative livelihood sources and deal with the factors that caused the conflict. And victim compensation funds may be created to attend to the needs of victims.

To avoid food insecurity, government must depoliticise the response to the conflict and provide adequate and timely intervention to prevent more violence.

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