Nigeria’s north central region, consisting of the country’s capital city Abuja and six other states, is home to several minority ethnic groups. More than 200 languages are spoken there. The region is vulnerable to several forms of conflict – between ethnic and religious groups; people who trace their ancestry to a state and people who have merely lived there for some time; people who keep cattle and those who farm crops.
Data presented in my doctoral thesis show that in the last decade, there were 1,412 incidents of conflict reported in the region and 7,399 deaths across the north central states of Benue, Plateau, Kogi, Nasarawa, Niger, Kwara and the Federal Capital Territory.
The escalating violence has deeply unsettled the local economy. Agriculture, the mainstay of the region’s economy, has been badly hit. Many farmers in the affected areas have abandoned their farms for fear of attack. And as a result of the herder-farmer conflict, the Nigerian government loses an estimated $13.7 billion in revenue annually.
Previous studies on violence in Nigeria have mostly examined what drives it in urban centres. Few have included rural communities.
In my recently published paper, I sought to identify what factors enable violent conflict in both rural and urban areas of north central Nigeria. I wanted to be able to provide information for policy response by the federal and state governments.
My study led me to conclude that building and strengthening community resilience must become an important policy objective of government to foster peace in the region. Resilience involves communities adopting measures to live amid conflict and cultivate peaceful coexistence.
I interviewed 555 household heads and conducted 10 key informant interviews with relevant stakeholders – residents, youths, community and religious leaders as well as state and non state security actors. I sought information on broader issues causing violence in the north central region.
I found a number of mutually reinforcing factors which aid violent conflict in the region. They included:
1) rise of criminal groups and criminal activities,
2) hate speech,
3) governments’ inability to protect most citizens against violent crime,
4) political intimidation of the opposition by the ruling party,
5) over-militarisation of the public space,
6) rising population pressure,
7) proliferation of small arms and light weapons, and
8) open grazing.
I analysed four of the factors that residents ranked as dominant drivers of instability.
Small arms and light weapons: Violence and threats of violence in the region largely occur in a context of widespread poverty, mounting unemployment and drug abuse. About 42.7% of the region’s population are poor. The region also accounts for 10% of drug users in Nigeria.
Added to this is a proliferation of small arms and light weapons, particularly locally manufactured ones. Nigeria has over 6 million small arms in circulation. In Benue and Plateau states, locally made weapons were used in about 50% of crimes committed. Also, reports show that ammunition from at least 21 different nations has been used in the herder farmer conflicts in north central Nigeria.
During election cycles, politicians have been known to provide youth with ammunition to intimidate political opponents. Youth gangs were hired and armed by politicians to fight their political opponents, steal ballot boxes, and generally rig the vote. After elections, the gangs kept the weapons and used them to develop criminal enterprises.
I interviewed residents about the impact of arms trafficking on security. Respondents said the porosity of the country’s borders, particularly in the north, makes it easy for arms to be brought in from neighbouring countries such as Chad and Cameroon. They said that the footpaths used are mostly unknown to the security agencies.
Militarisation of the public space: From 2015 to 2020, six military operations were launched in the north central region. They were meant to deal with armed conflicts and violent crimes, including cattle rustling, armed banditry and clashes between pastoralists and farmers.
But respondents said that the conduct of the soldiers worsened the security situation and strained civil-military relations. The military officers acted unprofessionally and violated human rights.
Residents have also become dissatisfied with the militarisation of the civilian space in restoring order. Civilians are taking the law into their hands, and some military personnel have even been killed.
Failure of governance: Respondents in Plateau and Benue states said bad governance had resulted in widespread poverty, unemployment, corruption and insecurity. These conditions create frustration and an environment ripe for the eruption of violent conflict.
People also alleged that police were ineffective and took bribes to ignore raiding of villages, destruction of property and other incidents. This was confirmed by an Amnesty International report.
Open grazing ban: Over the years, the rural communities in Benue and Plateau states have witnessed incessant clashes between pastoralists and sedentary farmers. The farmers accuse the pastoralists of leading their cattle to graze on their farms and destroy their crops. Pastoralists say this happens because the farmers block their grazing routes.
In 2017 the Benue state government enacted the Open Grazing Prohibition Law, effectively banning cattle grazing in the state.
The state government created a Livestock Guard to enforce the ban. Subsequently, the guards clashed with Fulani pastoralists and expelled them from large areas of Benue, seizing and shooting cattle. This triggered large-scale attacks by herders on farmers in Benue.
As shown in my study, all drivers of conflicts point to the pervasive failure of governance. The Nigerian government at all levels must address these drivers.
The policy solutions to security challenges must include strategic improvement in border security, collaboration between the federal and state governments, active intelligence gathering, better community policing and stronger ammunition controls policy. Such concerted efforts can boost surveillance and stem the flow of arms and drugs. Prompt arrest and diligent prosecution of perpetrators of violence could also be a deterrent.
Since it will never be possible to prevent all conflicts from leading to violence, building and strengthening community resilience to violent conflict must become a policy objective of all tiers of government in Nigeria. This means the government must support and strengthen communities’ efforts to build bridges between warring groups, fostering peace and security.
The conflict associated with open grazing must be addressed through a pragmatic national livestock transformation plan.