In Nigeria's diverse Middle Belt, a drying landscape deepens violent divides

The region has long been a hotbed of sectarian conflict, particularly between farmers and herders. But a drier, hotter environment has intensified divisions over ethnicity, religion, and culture – a pattern seen in other parts of the world, as well.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
A church choir in Makurdi, Nigeria, sings at a Jan. 11 funeral mass for some of those killed in a clash between semi-nomadic cattle herders and members of a farming community.

A dozen young boys in bedraggled shorts play football on a dusty field at the central primary school in Guma district, in central Nigeria’s Benue state. The children kick a football made from nylon garbage and filled with rags, yelling at teammates to pass the ball or shoot at the wooden post.

This school, where the loud cries of children rise with smoke from black pots perching on three-stone cooking fires, is now home to some 12,452 internally displaced people.

Sarah Sarwuan looks at the game and lowers her head. Two rosaries – one with red beads, the other yellowed from dust – are hanging around her neck.

“My brother-in-law helped me on my farm because my husband is an old man,” she says with a solemn face, remembering what life was like a few months ago. “He was like my second husband, always there to assist with my needs.”

But he was brutally killed when a militia from the Fulani ethnic group raided her village on the northern edge of Benue state, shooting and setting homes aflame. The attacks, which began on New Year’s Eve in remote parts of Benue, left 73 people dead. Around 80,000 people have fled their homes – including Mrs. Sarwuan, a mother of five.

“The pain still haunts me,” she says, remembering viewing his body at the district hospital.

Violent clashes between semi-nomadic cattle herders like the Fulani and farming communities have increased in recent years – particularly in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region, which straddles diverse cultural and religious divides. It’s long been a hotbed of sectarian conflict, due to decades-long grievances over competition for resources and political influence: the Fulani, in many farmers’ eyes, are interloping settlers infringing on their time-old claims to the land.

But as Nigeria’s drought and desertification intensify, so do these preexisting divisions and the conflicts they fuel – a pattern seen globally, in an age of climbing temperatures and dwindling rainfall. As Nigeria’s population has boomed over the past half-century, making it the world’s seventh-most populous country, deforestation has expanded, as well: on average, 350,000 to 400,000 hectares are lost each year.

In 2016 alone, some 2,500 people were killed and tens of thousands displaced by farmer-herder conflict, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. Several years, that toll has exceeded the death count of the terror group Boko Haram.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
Fulani herdsman in Zango, Kaduna state, Nigeria, on March 22, 2014.

Hotter land, hotter conflicts?

Cattle herders, mostly from the Fulani ethnic group, roam across West Africa in search of pasture and water for their livestock, moving in and out of Nigeria through porous borders with Benin, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon. More and more, however, their nomadism clashes with sedentary, non-Fulani communities.

At the root of this simmering hostility is the struggle for natural resources, such as water and land. But that struggle is being exacerbated by frequent droughts and advancing desertification in Nigeria’s arid north. As grazing land disappears, the herders move southward.

Finding fertile land is particularly difficult “in the extreme northern part of the country that is most vulnerable to climate change,” says Emmanuel Oladipo, who advises Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Environment on climate issues. The reduction in resources will likely intensify migration, which “may further intensify current conflicts.”

That trend extends far beyond Nigeria: from the Syrian civil war – which exploded on the heels of severe drought – to Sudan’s Darfur conflict, to landowner-grazer clashes in Kenya’s overgrazed highlands, a growing body of research explores how environmental pressures can deepen preexisting rifts such as religion, ethnicity, or politics, and increase the threat of conflict.

“Climate change is an indirect driver of a myriad of conflicts around the world; parts of East and Central Africa readily come to mind,” says Ikemesit Effiong, lead analyst at Lagos-based geopolitical intelligence consulting firm SBM Intelligence.

“As semi-arid climes become hotter, summers become hotter and freak weather phenomena drive mass population movements towards places deemed as more habitation friendly, these conflicts are bound to become even more common and in some places, intractable,” he adds. Moreover, herders’ ancient routes have been overtaken by urbanization and demographic growth.

'It will only divide us'

Nigeria has a population of 180 million people, evenly divided between Muslims and Christians. It is home to hundreds of ethnic groups, and the Middle Belt is particularly diverse.

Farmers, who are mostly Christian, say herders traveling on foot with their cattle are damaging their crops. The Fulani, meanwhile, complain of livestock theft by gangs from farming communities who attack them.

“In most cases it is retaliation for previous attacks that is causing this crisis,” says Shettima Mohammed, the Benue state secretary of the Myetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, an umbrella body for livestock herders. The typical herder is “only after his cattle,” he argues, and doesn’t attack unless “he was pushed to the wall.”

But “religion is getting into this crisis, and it will only divide us,” Mr. Mohammed says. It is common to hear Christians claim the conflict is driven by a “strategic plot” among Fulani to wage jihad, and establish caliphates across the country.

There has been “a sharp rise in the tone of divisiveness and the rhetoric of ethnicity,” says Effiong of SBM, who spent months traveling to affected areas.

Meanwhile, the mass displacements in Benue, known as the nation’s food basket, may bring larger consequences for food security. According to study by the global aid group Mercy Corps, Nigeria could gain $13.7 billion in annual revenue from ending the farmer-pastoralist conflict.

“There will be starvation and hunger because Benue state produces crops at a very large quantity,” says James Terkura, an official of the Benue State Emergency Management  Agency. “The price of food will increase in the local markets because there will be shortage in supply.”

Tersoo Mgande, a young man whose father was killed during the raids, said his family lost all the rice, soya beans, maize, cassava, yam, and sorghum they grew on their eight hectares. The stress of caring for the household has become almost unbearable, he says.

“My father has three wives and 23 children, so with all our crops gone we don’t know how we will cope when we return,” Mr. Mgande says, hissing in anger.

Ranch plans

President Muhammadu Buhari, who is himself Fulani, has ordered the head of Nigeria’s police to relocate from the capital, Abuja, to Benue to deal with the crisis. Mr. Buhari has also instructed security officials to arrest anyone with illegal weapons and said attacks by “suspected herdsmen” would not be tolerated. The National Economic Council has convened a committee to address the issue.

Nigeria’s federal government is planning to set up “cattle colonies” where cattle would be housed in large ranches, to decrease nomadic grazing. Some states have banned open grazing; Benue, for example, has a five-year jail sentence for anyone tending to livestock outside of ranches.

Herders argue such laws are aimed at eradicating their lifestyle. “Fulani people are used to their traditional system of grazing, and most of those who roam in the bush are not educated. There was no sensitization program or even a temporary ranch to show us an example to follow in Benue state,” Mohammed says.

The bans may be popular, but are “inefficient,” Effiong argues. A suitable solution would involve ranching, but also a modernization of Nigeria’s agricultural sector, he says. “We would increase the productivity of our farmers such that farmers do not necessarily need more land to increase their yield,” making more land available for pastoralists.

But for Sarwuan, even if peace is restored, the future is filled with questions.

“If I had finished threshing my soya beans I would have got at least 40 bags, but now we having nothing,” she says, her voice full of uncertainty. “How do I start all over again?”

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