Africa Link Special Reports

Yima Sen*

Discussion notes at the Africa Link Awards and Symposium, Berne, Switzerland, 8 September, 2018


There may be controversies over the roots, foundations, causes, genesis or motives of farmer-herder clashes or conflicts in Africa, but there can be little disagreement about the deadly and damaging socio-economic consequences of these mini-wars. Are these conflicts political, ecological, economic, racial, ethnic, religious, criminal, imperial or terrorist? A case analysis of the Nigerian example in West Africa may probably help in a better understanding of these conflicts and their consequences. There indeed are many hypotheses on these conflicts. The political in Nigeria, for example, is that the incumbent President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari is complicit in a move aimed at enhancing the political leverage of the “Fulanis of the world” in Nigeria. The second, ecological, is that global warming and desertification in Africa, have pushed herders further south to covet and occupy the lush vegetation of the green belt of Nigeria’s middle belt in central Nigeria. The third is that the livestock-rearing economy is demanding some land-based stabilization which makes the fertile savannah land of Nigeria’s central zone particularly attractive. The fourth is the racial hypothesis that a Fulani racial group is looking for expansion in a nihilist or genocidal project against some indigenous African racial groups. Five, is the ethnic explanation akin to the racial which is the expansion of the Fulani ethnic group across West Africa into Nigeria initially aided by its hybridization into a Hausa-Fulani mega group to now expand into other ethnic communities in Nigeria. Six is the religious suggestion that the Sokoto Islamic Jihad of 1804 in Nigeria is being rekindled and continued. The seventh, the criminal is that livestock theft or what is termed cattle rustling by host communities to herders attracts defensive reprisals. The eight, the imperial is that the same Sokoto Caliphate is on a course of imperial expansion. The ninth, the terrorist explanation is that armed Africans hitherto in the service of late Libyan leader, Muammar Ghaddafi have been dispersed southwards from North Africa and they are available for use as mercenaries or terrorists or are just rampaging in terrorist bands. The reality, however is that these conflicts have existed for a long time but have intensified in the last decade.

These conflicts have been the subject matter of research, official government statements, polemics and advocacy from different social and community groups and the fodder of inter-party political campaigns as Nigeria approaches its general elections in the first quarter of 2019. The fear of the negative effects of this crisis on agricultural production, food security and investments by any investor are palpable as has been affirmed by many analysts that the conflicts lead to reduction of crop yields by farmers, loss of revenue by herders, over-grazing of land, destruction of the environment, and other general social and economic damages to affected communities in different parts of Nigeria. . Analyses of the phenomenon in the north-east and north-central of Nigeria have shown worse effects of these conflicts. Essentially these analyses assert that these are resource conflicts that particularly and adversely affect both crop and livestock agriculture, portend a worsening food crisis and cause other general socio-economic and ecological damages, loss of lives and property and heighten already debilitating insecurity.

Whatever the impetus for human migrations in history, they are related to this crisis or conflicts. Human migrations entail people moving from one place to another, voluntarily or involuntarily across national or international communities, where they settle temporarily or permanently. The earliest of these migrations were probably those of the homo erectus from Africa to the northern hemisphere. Although human migrations may have lessened in modern times, nomadic people still exist across the globe and they continue to migrate. Migration generally takes place internally within countries or internationally across countries. Nomadic migrations are sometimes not regarded as real migration since they are temporary. To this extent, it seems that the migrations in Nigeria involving herders may be changing from the temporary to the permanent.

It is possible to gain some level of theoretical clarity about migration from the following perspectives: the micro-individual approaches related to individual decisions made by migrants. These decisions are based on the need to undertake a change in residence, a shift in employment or a shift in social relations, with the first, a change of residence as the primary motive. The second important theoretical approach is the macro-structural approach that involves a more global context involving multiple flows between origin and destinations with flows of persons, goods, services and ideas. To this extent, information and feedback involving the places of origin are important. Migration networks have also been theorized to include several strands of economic principles like labour migration, family linkages, human capital, social capital or networks.

These discussion notes recognize the reality that the Nigerian economy like many in the West African sub-region needs to diversify and maximally use agriculture for sustainable development and prosperity. Nigeria arguably has about 70 percent of its labour force employed in agricultural production and this sector tops in contribution to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 40 percent. A threat to this sector means a veritable threat to the economic and political life of Nigeria in totality.


This process of the movement of animals and humans across West Africa is captured under the concept of transhumance. This is a mobile livestock farming method that is based on regular, seasonal movements that follow seasonal changes every year. These movements involve herders’ movements with their livestock. Transhumance may be full-blown or partial depending on the manner in which family members are included or excluded. Analysts believe that most agro-pastoralists in the Sahel today practice semi-transhumance since only a part of the family moves according to the seasons, while the rest of the family practices sedentary farming. They add that agro-pastoral livestock farming is prevalent throughout West Africa and livestock move within Sahelian countries down to coastal countries and within coastal countries. Livestock farming, they say is probably the most integrated economic activity in West Africa and annually, hundreds of thousands of animals are moved to supply coastal markets. These migrations are often sources of conflict between sedentary farmers and transhumant agro-pastoralists. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is working with neighbouring states to find a solution to these conflicts over and above its protocol of allowing for the free movement of humans and goods in the sub-region. Many observers suggest that ECOWAS may need to review this policy which seems to have made monitoring of criminals and terrorists in this area difficult.


The special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for West Africa and the Sahel, Mohamed Ibn Chambas, has suggested that the conflicts between herdsmen and farmers in Nigeria are becoming more sophisticated and deadlier and could become the main terrorist threat in the sub-region. Terrorist herders attacked unarmed sedentary farmer communities with sophisticated weapons, their livestock eat up their crops and the invaders virtually occupy the attacked territories, especially in Nigeria’s middle belt.

Juliana Nnoko –Mewanu and Femi Ibirogba have analyzed this problem from the perspective of apparently scientific causes and the implications for food security, with some suggestions on how to tackle it.  In Nigeria, violent clashes between herders and farmers since January 2018 have resulted in the deaths of thousands of people and displaced millions. The numbers are inaccurate and difficult to ascertain. The Sahel is encroaching southward by approximately 1,400 square miles a year, swallowing whole villages and reducing the land available for grazing.

For women, Nnoko-Mewanu is particularly concerned that losing husbands or male relatives during such violence could mean losing access to land or livestock, when others grab land and property from them. Violent clashes also cause women and children to flee to displacement camps, exposing them to further risks of abuse.

She has added that African governments need to recognize the complexities that exist in these conflicts and to remove barriers to accessing land for pastoralists without compromising the rights of farming communities. Designing viable conditions under which land is occupied and used by nomadic and farming communities such as creating grazing corridors through inclusive decision-making would reduce conflict. This would also secure pastoralist livelihoods without weakening customary ownership of farming communities.

Their observations suggest that pastoralism can be peaceful and indeed modernized. Indications have also emerged from them that Nigeria faces drastic food shortages and price hikes in the nearest future if herders-farmers' clashes in the North Central of Nigeria continue unabated since they lead to displacement or killings of farming households in the conflict zones. The number of internally displaced persons could well be over three million today, from United Nations’ estimates.


Debates on the solutions to herder-farmer conflicts in Nigeria have followed the pattern of the earlier mentioned hypotheses on the causes of these conflicts. Those who see political factors as causative of the conflicts advocate a regime change since according to them the present national leadership in Nigeria is complicit or inept in handling these conflicts. To this extent, the statements and actions of President Buhari and his senior governmental officials have tended to lend credence to this hypothesis of political factors. In one case, for example, the President exhorted Benue state indigenes to learn to accommodate their neighbours, with reference to murderous militants widely associated with the Fulani ethnic group. Elsewhere, he declared the killings in the states of Benue, Plateau and Taraba states, northern minority states, were less than those in the more northerly and majority Hausa-Fulani state.

For those who read economic motives behind these conflicts, they propose ranching as a way of modernizing livestock production in Nigeria. Some state governments like the Benue state government have already taken advantage of Nigeria’s federal system to enact laws prohibiting open grazing which has been a cause of many of the conflicts, since the livestock not only feed on sedentary farmers’ crops but also attract killings from the armed herders.

From the racial perspective there are many xenophobic expressions of a superiorist racist invasion, while the related ethnic analysts talk about the need to halt what is essentially racial or ethnic cleansing. From the religious dimension, there have been calls for a Christian resistance to what is perceived as a Jihadist or Islamization agendum. Those who see these activities as criminal fault the security and defence machineries of government for failing to bring the criminals to justice. The imperial threat hypothesis has elicited the sentimentalization and strengthening of a “middle belt” consciousness to fight a perceived monolithic North concept that undermines northern minority rights. This has led to an uncritical alliance with the South in a manner reminiscent of the project of a failed military take-over which excised the “far” North from Nigeria. For those who see herdsmen attacks as terrorism, indeed citing a United Nations categorization of them as the fourth most deadly terrorist organization in the world, it is a call for self-defence and a loss of faith in the nation’s defence and security architecture which they see as badly struggling with a full-blown terrorist activity in the northeast.

What can be deduced from these concerns and hypotheses is that the government of Nigeria needs to show more seriousness about ending these conflicts otherwise those who want a regime change may well be right. Modernization of livestock agriculture as occurs in many parts of the world should be pursued and implemented. Inclusive governance, whereby the key commanding personnel of the defence and security apparatus come a particular section or religion may have a positive influence in solving the problem. Generally speaking, good leadership and good governance may ameliorate the national divisions and suspicions that have been heightened by these conflicts. Ultimately, a productive economy, innovative poverty eradication measures and serious efforts at national development, may minimize the general climate of mistrust and insecurity in Nigeria.


*Sen teaches in the Faculty of Management and Social Sciences, Baze University, Abuja, Nigeria and is Director-General of the Northern Elders’ Forum in Nigeria.