Growing herdsmen militancy is adding to West Africa’s security threats

Leader of Fulani herdsmen Haruna Usman pictured by Reuters in 2014. Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde

The people of Agatu, a farming community in Benue State in central Nigeria won’t forget February 2016 in a hurry. One afternoon, late that month, their villages were attacked by Fulani herdsmen. The invaders came prepared - dressed in war gear, armed with Ak47 riffles - and unleashed mayhem on the community. They razed houses, destroyed crops and trees and killed hundreds of people, including women, children and old people.

The Fulani later defended the attack, saying it was in retaliation for an attack on one of their prominent sons by the Agatu people three years before.

Herdsmen militancy has been ongoing in Nigeria for a long time but in recent years the incidents have become a lot more organised, sophisticated and complicated. With security compromised due to the Boko Haram insurgency, attacks have increased. From 2010 to 2013 Fulani militants killed around 80 people in total. In 2014 alone they killed 1229

The conflict between herdsmen and farmers isn’t an exclusively Nigerian problem. It’s prevalent in a number of countries across the West and East Africa regions, taking on a transnational character in some places.

At first glance, these conflicts seem to be fuelled by the quest for grazing land by Fulani herdsmen. But a closer look shows a complex mix of politics, identity, religion, terrorism and criminality. All flourish because of a weak political and security environment.

Understanding the nomad’s militancy

Conflict between herdsmen and farmers are often triggered by attempts to prevent the cattle of nomadic herdsmen from grazing on crop farms.

But they are escalated by other factors.

Nomadic herdsmen are largely found among the nomadic tribes of Central, East, North and West Africa, particularly in countries like Central African Republic, Cameroon, Kenya, Senegal, Gambia, South Sudan, Mali and Nigeria.

In West Africa, nomadic herding is almost exclusively associated with the Fulani ethnic group. There are about 20 million Fulanis living across West Africa. Some are nomads who specialise in traditional animal husbandry, feeding their cattle by itinerant grazing.

Nomadic herders are struggling due to political and environmental changes. Their livelihoods are being threatened by changes in weather patterns as well as modern land-use policies and urbanisation. Most African countries don’t support their itinerant herding and nomadic lifestyle.

What this means is that the average nomadic herder lives in an environment he considers hostile and indifferent to his needs, where he must struggle to fend for himself and to survive. This struggle for survival has become a way of life for herders who are ready to defend or redeem their endangered livelihood with their blood.

Beyond the struggle for grazing land

Terrorism further complicates conflicts between nomadic herdsmen and farmer communities. Herdsmen militancy now competes with Boko Haram’s insurgency as the dominant national security challenge in Nigeria. The 2015 Global Terrorism Index named Fulani (herdsmen) militants as the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world.

Herdsmen militancy has also exploited the existing fault lines of religion and ethnicity in Nigeria. It’s evolving into a complex identity conflict that is sowing seeds of destabilisation throughout the Middle Belt, which runs through central Nigeria.

In Kaduna, Taraba, Plateau and Nasarawa States, herdsmen attacks have been focused rather selectively on non-Muslim communities in a fashion that suggests a religious character to the attacks. In other places like Zamfara and Kebbi States, the attacks have been targeted on non-Fulani villages. So, in most of the attacks, it would seem victims are targeted on religious or ethnic grounds.

Reports suggest that the Middle Belt experienced 18 incidents involving herdsmen and farming communities between 1997 and 2010. These rose exponentially between 2011 to 2015 to 371.

The rise of the militant herdsman has further complicated an internal security situation already endangered by the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East.

Escalation and regional contagion

The military capability of the militant herdsmen has become increasingly sophisticated. They use modern weaponry as well as mercenary fighters.

Some of the attacks now include military style operations, sometimes with the use of supply helicopters and machine guns mounted on vehicles.

The attacks often take a “scorched earth” approach that level entire communities, and sustain offensives that last for months.

In West and Central Africa, herdsmen violence has assumed a dreadful transnational dimension. For instance, hired attackers recruited from Mali and Central African Republic have often been fingered in Fulani herdsmen attacks in other parts of Nigeria. Bands of mercenary fighters have also been involved in similar incidents in parts of Cameroon, Ghana, Mali, and Niger.

And there appears to be synergy – even if only tactical – between the Fulani assailants and other organised transnational criminals, such as cattle rustlers and insurgents in the sub-region.

The emerging transnational dimension of herdsmen militancy points to the need for a multilateral approach to manage it. Regional platforms, such as the Lake Chad Basin Authority, the Economic Community of West African States, the Mano-River Union, should step up to the plate and take action in the interest of regional security.

There is also a need to check the excesses of the herdsmen through strong regulations. Open itinerant grazing should be restricted and grazing routes and reserves established. The ranch system of animal husbandry should be promoted as a substitute to mobile pastoralism. This can be done over time through public private partnerships. In addition, all perpetrators of violence under the pretext of farmer-herder conflict should be brought to book and punished severely to deter impunity and wanton criminal behaviour.