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The recent deadly north Nigerian train attack may have its roots in the longstanding land conflict between herders and farmers

Last month, suspected "bandits" ambushed a train travelling from Nigeria's capital, Abuja, to the northern city of Kaduna, bombing its tracks. At least eight people died in the attack, and dozens were abducted, according to news reports.

The bandits are widely believed to have been Fulani, a largely nomadic ethnic group spread across the Sahel and West Africa. The attack is the latest manifestation of a long-running conflict between Fulani herders and farmers of various ethnic groups in Nigeria's "Middle Belt" region, which has its roots in land use and resource competition.

Bandits killed more than 2,600 people last year, a rise of almost 250% from 2020, according to data compiled by the US-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). The conflict has displaced more than 100,000 people in the past year, according to the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based think-tank.

The violence appears to have been exacerbated by climate change, which has led to longer droughts and shortened grazing seasons. It has also been stoked by the proliferation of small arms in the region, making it easier for groups to attack each other.

Who are the Fulani?

The Fulani people are a largely nomadic ethnic group spread across the Sahel and West Africa. They comprise only 6% of Nigeria's population of 225 million, according to the CIA Factbook, a publicly available US government resource. That is more than 13 million people, making up 90% of the country's pastoralists. They are primarily Muslim, and their language is Fulfulde.

The origin of the Fulani people is disputed. Some say they are of Berber or Arab descent, while others believe they are indigenous to West Africa. But regardless of their origins, the Fulani have lived across the African continent for centuries.

In Nigeria, the Fulani have long been involved in herding lifestyle. In the early 19th century, they began moving south from their traditional homeland in the Sahel in search of new grazing lands, which put them into conflict with settled farmers.

During the British colonial period, herders and farmers would agree on a system known as burti, whereby herders were given certain pathways to take their animals. But in recent decades, population growth and shrinkage of grazing areas have led to more frequent clashes. 

Some argue that President Muhammadu Buhari's election in 2015, and his Fulani ethnicity, have emboldened herders and inadvertently made the situation worse with bandits seeing themselves as having state backing.

"The rise to power of President Buhari in 2015 set off a powerful wave of ethno-religious populism in northern Nigeria, with Fulani nationalism as its most distinctive feature," wrote Majeed Dahiru in an article for the Premium Times, an English-language Nigerian news website. 

"At the core of this ethnic nationalism is the carefully contrived mindset that there is such a thing as a legally gazetted grazing reserves and routes for herdsmen, which has now been encroached upon by sedentary communities." 

Who are the farmers?

According to the ICG, the farmers are mostly Christian and belong to various ethnic groups, like the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa. They have traditionally been sedentary, living in villages and tilling the land.

"The conflict is fundamentally a land-use contest between farmers and herders across the country's Middle Belt," read a 2018 ICG report on the crisis. "It has taken on dangerous religious and ethnic dimensions, however, because most of the herders are from the traditionally nomadic and Muslim Fulani who make up about 90% of Nigeria's pastoralists, while most of the farmers are Christians of various ethnicities."

The report added that "the conflict's roots lie in climate-induced degradation of pasture and increasing violence in the country's far north”. The effect of the conflict has been to displace hundreds of thousands of people and, because many are unwilling to work the land because of the fear of attack by pastoralists, to increase food insecurity in the country.

What has been the government's response?

The government has been accused of not doing enough to address the violence. Critics say it has been slow to act and that its response has been heavy-handed, leading to the displacement of thousands of people.

In 2018, the Nigerian army launched Operation Cat Race, a military operation aimed at combating banditry and kidnapping in the north. The operation has been criticised by human rights groups, saying that it has led to the displacement of civilians and extrajudicial killings.

In 2019, the government announced a new National Livestock Transformation Plan to provide grazing areas for herders and end the conflict between them and farmers. But many of the latter opposed the plan, saying it was a rehash of an older programme designed to provide more grazing areas for the Fulani.

Lack of judicial accountability and slow response to the violence by state actors has led to a “self-help” dynamic, whereby communities take up arms to defend themselves, according to Amnesty International. 

"Security forces were often positioned close to the attacks, which lasted hours and sometimes days, yet were slow to act," read an extensive 2018 Amnesty report titled Harvest of Death: Three Years of Bloody Clashes Between Farmers and Herders.

"In some cases, security forces had prior warning of an imminent raid but did nothing to stop or prevent the killings, looting and burning of homes," it added.

Osai Ojigho, Director of Amnesty International Nigeria, was quoted in the report as saying: "The Nigerian government has displayed what can only be described as gross incompetence and has failed in its duty to protect the lives of its population and end the intensifying conflict between herders and farmers."

"The authorities' lethargy has allowed impunity to flourish and the killings to spread to many parts of the country, inflicting greater suffering on communities who already live in constant fear of the next attack," he added. 

Exacerbated by population growth, shrinking grazing areas and the government's heavy-handed response, the conflict has led to the killing and displacement of thousands of people and contributed significantly to the instability in Nigeria's north. If left unaddressed, experts warn that the violence could spiral out of control and lead to further instability in the country.

In reality, such tensions affect the entire region. "The rise of farmer-herder conflict in Africa is more pernicious than fatality figures alone, however, since it is often amplified by the emotionally potent issues of ethnicity, religion, culture, and land," wrote Leif Brottem in a 2021 report for Africa Center for Strategic Studies. 

"Militant Islamist groups in central Mali and northern Burkina Faso have instrumentalized such divisions to inflame grievances, thereby driving recruitment. Similarly, rebel groups in the Central African Republic (CAR) have positioned themselves as defenders of pastoralist interests," he added.

Written By: Olivium staff.


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