LAST week armed men attacked a community in Enugu, a state in Nigeria’s south-east. Local press reported that they kidnapped two villagers and that another was “feared dead”. The blame quickly fell on nomadic Fulani herdsmen, who have also been held responsible for a wave of similar attacks across Nigeria. Clashes between the nomads and indigenous tribes killed more than 1,200 people in 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, according to the Global Terrorism Index. The conflict has gathered pace in recent months. In February the nomads were accused of murdering 300 people in Benue, a central state. By July this year some 873 people had been killed in various kinds of sectarian violence, including Fulani-related attacks, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. The Nigerian army is already fighting Boko Haram’s jihadists in the north-east and the so-called “Niger Delta Avengers” in the oil-producing south. So what is Nigeria’s third conflict and what sustains it?
The fight is between Fulani herdsmen and indigenous tribesmen in Nigeria’s “Middle Belt”, which covers the central swathe of the country and is populated by Muslims and Christians of more than 200 ethnicities. The tribes have sparred since independence from British rule in 1960, but increased competition for land has exacerbated old ethnic and religious tensions. Grazing corridors and reserves used to be set aside for the Fulani, who hail from the Sahel and drive their cattle south each year. But the land was swallowed up as the population grew and as the government lost interest in taxing livestock (crude proved more lucrative than cows). In recent years, pastures in the north-east, where the Fulani would graze their herds, have been abandoned to Boko Haram, whose members steal any animals they can lay their hands on. And failing rains have displaced many nomads south from the Sahel, where they sometimes settle down.
Indigenous farmers accuse the armed Fulani of raiding villages and trampling crops as they pass through. Because the nomads are mostly Muslim, the conflict has taken on a religious dimension: victims and members of the government both claim that the militants are Muslim foreigners linked to Boko Haram, though there is little evidence to support this assertion. And the fight is not as one-sided as public reports suggest. The Fulani say that they are victims of cattle rustling and that their attacks are in reprisal. Observers argue that without grazing routes to follow, herdsmen cannot avoid trespassing on farms (indeed they can also be spotted trudging through Abuja, the capital). In states such as Zamfara and Kaduna, rural bandits tax locals and raid towns. Often their violence is blamed unfairly on a Fulani militia.
The government talks of restoring protected land, but it has moved slowly. Meanwhile the scope of the conflict has proved hard to contain. Enugu, for example, is well beyond the boundaries of the Middle Belt. Partly this is because Nigeria is awash with illicit weapons. Moreover its armed forces are overstretched and often negligent; huge rural areas are beyond the control of the government. The conflict costs money as well as lives. Mercy Corps, a humanitarian organisation, reckons Nigeria could add $13.7 billion annually to its economy if peace were restored in the four Middle Belt states. But a resolution is unlikely to come soon.
This article was first published in the Economist