Nigeria’s struggles with a conflict more dangerous than the Boko Haram insurgency

Armed nomadic herdsmen are now posing a deadlier threat to Nigerians than any terrorist group.

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Over the last year, the threat of the Boko Haram insurgency in northern Nigeria has gradually waned, yet a more deadly and far-reaching conflict has emerged. In the last month well over 100 people across three states have been killed by suspected nomadic herders, largely from the northern Fulani ethnicity and Muslim.

The attacks this year have been incessant and brutal. In February, over 300 people died in a single attack on a community in a central state of Benue, from the herders commonly called the “Fulani Herdsmen”. In the same state, hundreds of people have been killed in several attacks since then.

Across Nigeria, reports of villages attacked by groups of armed herdsmen has led to widespread disbelief at the scale of the attacks. But along with that disbelief, a confusion as to what the causes really are. The conflict is an old one but one that has suddenly spiralled out of control.

The nomadic herdsmen have cattle but declining space to feed them on. Farmers accuse the herdsmen of using their land to graze the herders’ cattle. The herders in turn accuse farmers of killing their cattle and infringing on their rights. Herdsmen associations have complained that the land available to graze has declined, in part, blaming communities for restricting the land available to them.

The informal nature of Nigeria’s land rights before independence, and its now more legally defined nature, has been problematic for herders who previously negotiated with communities across Nigeria, and mostly peacefully. The increasing value of land has meant areas previously informally designated to the herders are now beneath airports and hotels.

Climate change has also meant that the availability of arable land to graze on is waning. While herdsmen have been present to varying degrees across Nigerian states, the pressure on land is increasing the movement and with it those pressures. Yet despite these contributing factors, the scale of the deaths incurred have created as a sense of confusion and bewilderment at how a seemingly previously contained conflict could lead to massacres.

In Nigerian press and wider society, the death toll of farmers and ordinary people in rural communities has comparisons with the Boko Haram terrorist group. The comparisons speak to the deadly impact of the crisis but also ethnic and religious sensitivities too.

The conflict has largely been understood as being predominantly Christian, southern and rural communities being attacked by northern Muslim herdsmen, who are seen as a single militant group. The spike in herdsmen-related deaths across southern and central Nigeria has fed into the perception that the attacks are part of a coordinated struggle similar to the Boko Haram insurgency. The framing of the crisis along religious and ethnic lines has made understanding and dealing with it even more difficult.

In 2015, the Global Terrorism Index classified the “Fulani Militants as the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world”, grouping the herdsmen as a single militant group. Yet despite the fact that there are a number of representative associations of herdsmen, they are culturally nomadic and do not work as a single grouping.

Within Nigeria, the Christian, southern focus of much of the domestic press impacts on the way the crisis is often framed. The grievances of many herdsmen who have often been attacked themselves by farming communities, armed vigilantes, and criminal groups, are often not reflected in any coverage.

In a number of attacks where the identity of the perpetrators is not yet clear, the blame is often attributed to the herdsmen despite the lack of available facts. The skewed focus of much of the reporting has made dealing with the complex crisis even more difficult.

While the reaction within Nigeria’s population has been of shock and fear, the reaction from the federal government has been alarmingly muted. The complexity of the conflict offers no simple solutions, yet the government has been woefully apathetic about recognising the deaths at all. The threat from herdsmen to rural communities is extremely high but is being treated as virtually non-existent.

In the lack of a response, individual states are finding their own ways of dealing with the crisis. In some states, armed vigilante groups are rising in response to the threat of attacks from herdsmen. All the while, the religious and ethnic aspects are helping the crisis to grow in intensity and volatility.

Emmanuel Akinwotu is a journalist based between Lagos and London who writes about Africa, migration, and specialises in Nigeria.