Africa

Nigeria's deadly battle for land: Herdsmen v farmers

Joy Abuh
Image caption Joy Abuh's husband was killed in an attack blamed on herdsmen

Farms have been built on ancient routes of a semi-nomadic community in Nigeria, causing violence that has already claimed hundreds of lives this year.

Cradling her baby son, Benjamin, Joy Abuh stares intently when she talks about the moment her life changed forever.

"The herdsmen shot my husband as he was riding his motorbike," she told me matter-of-factly. "They then used a machete to hack him to death."

She says his body was found in the bush several days later.

It was so badly decomposed that villagers buried it before Mrs Abuh had the chance to see her husband for the last time.

Locals in Agatu district in Nigeria's central Benue state say Fulani herdsmen killed dozens of people during a string of attacks this spring.

Many homes were set on fire and reduced to piles of bricks.

Some of the villagers are still recovering from their injuries: I saw one man hobbling along on crutches as a result of a gunshot wound.

Image caption Semi-nomadic herdsmen oppose the growth of farming communities
Image copyright AFP
Image caption The Fulani herdsmen say they have less grazing land for their cattle

The attack in Agatu was one of the most serious in Nigeria this year.

These types of clashes between herdsmen and farmers are increasingly common in some parts of the country as the struggle over grazing rights and access to water becomes more acute.

The violence is largely blamed on Fulani herdsmen, a semi-nomadic group who roam areas in West and Central Africa.

'Sophisticated weapons'

During the dry season in Nigeria, herdsmen begin the long migration from the northern states to the country's central region in search of grazing pastures for their cattle.

It is a journey the herdsmen, often young boys, have been making for centuries.

Following well-established routes, they often return to the same areas.

But land that was once unclaimed and, therefore, free to graze on is now being farmed, frequently triggering clashes.

Hundreds of people have been killed in the violence in 2016.


Who are the Fulanis?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Nigeria is divided along ethnic and religious lines
  • They are believed to be the largest semi-nomadic group in the world and are found across West and Central Africa - from Senegal to the Central African Republic
  • In Nigeria, some continue to live as semi-nomadic herders, while other have moved to cities
  • Unlike the more integrated city dwellers, the nomadic groups spend most of their lives in the bush and are the ones largely involved in these clashes
  • They herd their animals across vast areas, frequently clashing with farming communities
  • They are often linked with another group, the Hausas, having lived together for a very long time. Some refer to the Hausa-Fulanis but they are different groups
  • The Fulanis played a key role in 19th Century revival of Islam in Nigeria

Nigeria's Fulani herdsmen


Farmers accuse the Fulani of failing to control their cattle and of damaging crops. In turn, the Fulani accuse farmers of stealing their cattle.

The Fulani insist they are only trying to defend themselves and preserve their traditional way of life.

"In the past you graze anywhere, you didn't come into contact with farms. But now you're forced to herd cattle along the road," says Isa Mosham Sarkin, a local Fulani leader in neighbouring Nasarawa state.

"People are saying that Fulani are a threat to the nation. But we're not the ones causing the problems - it is some farmers."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Nomadic Fulani herdsmen spend most of their lives in the bush
Image caption Farmers are scared of being attacked

Some observers fear that unless the issues are addressed the clashes could become more violent.

Growing insecurity and the effects of climate change are making a bad situation even worse, says Israel Okpe, from Pastoral Resolve, an organisation that promotes conflict resolution between farmers and the Fulani.

"Both sides are becoming more armed, they are preparing for anything," says Mr Okpe.

"We don't know where the weapons are coming from but they are sophisticated."


Behind the competition for land:

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Nigeria has suffered for years with communal violence, often linked to cattle raiding
  • Growing population - Nigeria's population could more than double to 440 million by 2050 according to the UN
  • Greater insecurity - the breakdown of law and order is pushing herdsmen and farmers towards more populated areas
  • Climate change - droughts are pushing herdsmen into areas their cattle previously did not graze.

The violence is also playing into the country's politics, which frequently breaks down along ethnic lines.

President Muhammadu Buhari, a Fulani, has been accused of turning a blind eye to the problem, sparking a public outcry.

In response, the government ordered security forces to crack down on cattle rustlers.

The government is also discussing plans to station security guards on farms and open up special cattle ranches where the herdsmen's cattle would be allowed to graze.

'Spinning out of control'

But critics say that will mean forcing farmers to give up land they already control, sparking further resistance.

For rice farmer, Rotimi Williams, there is only one solution: Farmers and the Fulani will need to find a way to share the land.

When 20 hectares (49 acres) of his rice paddies were ruined in February, he admits he was furious.

Some of his labourers were ready to take up arms. But he decided on a different approach.

Instead of lashing out, he hired the Fulani herdsman who caused the damage to provide security.

He then employed dozens of women from the nearby Fulani village to work in the fields.

"We need a pragmatic approach where we learn to resolve conflicts with our neighbours," he says.

"The situation is spinning out of control. Everyone is scared of herdsmen. But if you give them respect then you get respect in turn."

Respect and resolutions, however, are rare on the ground between farmers and the herdsmen.

And with the demand for land growing the violence may only intensify.

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