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The Nigerian Herders and Farmers Conflict

Info: 7088 words (28 pages) Dissertation
Published: 9th Dec 2019

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Natural resource conflicts are rife in Africa, and Nigeria, has experienced a few. This paper takes a look at an on-going resource conflict in Nigeria, the herders and farmers conflict. It gives an overview of the conflict and then goes on to make an analysis of the conflict by identifying its underlying, and proximate causes, the dynamics at play in the conflict. Crucially, it also proposed a theory towards its resolution. It is my contention that it is only by a mediated dialogue and negotiation that the Nigerian herders and farmers conflict can be brought to an end.


Natural resource conflicts are rife in Africa, and Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa is not an exception. This paper takes a look at the on-going herders and farmers conflict in Nigeria. A conflict that has been identified as a resource conflict (Blench, 2004). The violence between Nigerian herders and farmers has escalated in the last four years, and this has resulted in several deaths, in displacement of thousands from their homes. This paper gives an overview of the conflict and then goes on to make an analysis of the conflict by identifying the underlying, and proximate causes of the conflict, the dynamics at play in the conflict, and finally proposes a theory towards the resolution of the conflict.



Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa, though predominantly known for its oil and gas resources and production, agriculture, however, employs approximately 70 percent of its labor force (Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, 2016). Several ethnic groups around the country’s middle belt and south engage in farming growing most of the country’s stables, while the pastoralists in the north raise livestock. The dominant tribe among the pastoralists are the Fulani, a large ethnic group found in several countries of west and central Africa. The Fulani herders control about 90 percent of the national herd.

Historically, farmers and herders in Nigeria had a harmonious relationship, a relationship that was essentially symbiotic, whereby the herders’ cattle fertilize the farmers’ soil in exchange for grazing right. Disputes about wandering animals or damage to crops were resolved by the village head, or the herders’ leader (International Crisis group, 2017). The system, however, was undermined and weakened by the police and the courts. The local dispute resolution system was replaced by both institutions, which were both suspected, because of police corruption, and the alien nature of the court system to the people. These institutions were hated and not essentially welcomed by the people (International Crisis group, 2017).

The absence of an effective conflict resolution mechanism that was trusted by the people, as well as,  a number of other factors, such as, the scarcity of water and land as a result of drought and desertification and diminishing grazing reserves; the lack of security as a result of an on-going conflict in the far north, which has driven the herders down south; and the scarcity of land in the south as a result of population explosion and farm expansion; and the loss of grazing reserve routes have all combine to become the drivers of the present conflict. Aggrieved parties among the herders and farmers have turned to violence in the quest for redress and revenge of perceived wrong against them by another.

Since 2014 the violence between Nigerian herders and farmers has escalated, and what hitherto were unplanned attacks have become deliberate and calculated campaigns in which marauders often take villages by surprise at night. This has resulted in deaths of scores of people, raping of girls and women, and the burning of villages and farms. Given the fact that the conflict is centered in the middle belt, the states that are affected include Plateau state, Benue state, Nasarawa State, Adamawa state and Taraba state. Between September 2017 and June 2018 the Nigerian herders and farmers conflict have resulted in the death of about 1500 people, and the displacement of over 300,000 people who are now living as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Nigeria. This Internally Displaced persons’ camps are in appalling conditions, children and women are in very precarious conditions suffering severely from a lack of adequate shelter, food, and water. In April 2018 at least seven children were said to have died from an outbreak of measles at the Abagena camp, Markudi, and some other have been reported to have died of malaria and diarrhea (International Crisis group, 2017).

The International Crisis Group (2018) in a report identified three new developments that continued to contribute to the escalation of Nigeria herders and farmers conflict. These include, first, the introduction of ethnic militia and community vigilantes by both parties, such as the Ombatse Group of the Eggon agrarian community of Nasarawa state, and the influx of Fulani fighters from outside of the country (International Crisis group, pp. 4-5). The second factor is the culture of impunity and poor response to early warnings by the Nigerian government. The International Crisis Group report observes that

Both farmers and herders complain that their demands for justice for past criminal acts and warning of imminent attacks get little or no response from the federal authorities. For instance, the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN), a prominent herders group, alleges that the government has arrested no one in the murder of, according to its own statistics, about 1000 Fulani herders, including women and children, and the slaughter of or theft of two million cattle, over the period June 2017-January 2018. In another case, the Fulani were dissatisfied with an investigative panel the Adamawa state government set up after the November 2017 killings of over 55 Fulani…

Similarly, Benue Governor Samuel Ortom reported that in the late months of 2017 he sent several letters to President Buhari and federal security chiefs, alerting them to the danger of herder militia strikes on farmers in his state. He said he received no response…According to a news report, organizations representing the Tiv, the Idoma and the Igede also issued alerts of impending attacks by herders (International Crisis group, 2018, pp.6-7).

The failure of the government to give timely, and adequate response to distress calls, has emboldened the perpetration of violence, and encourage retaliation in the name of self-defense.

The third factor identified as contributing to the escalation concerns the newly promulgated anti-grazing laws in some states, which bans open grazing. For example, in the state of Benue where the law became effective on November 1, 2017, the introduction of the law has further deteriorated the relationship between farmers and herders. Among other provisions of the law, it only permits livestock grazing inside ranches. It required people who rear animals to buy land and establish ranches. The law also forbids the movement of animals within the state and spells out punishments for any infringement of the law, which include a five-year imprisonment, or one million naira fine.

The herders object to the law, and gave five reasons for their objections. (i) They argued that the Benue state government did not consult with them during the process of the crafting of the law. Hence, they felt that their interest was not accommodated by the law. (ii) They also argued that the law gave little or no time for them to purchase lands to establish ranches for their livestock. (iii) They maintained that the law was harmful to their age-long tradition of transhumance cattle rearing practice. This they say was meant to both destroy their culture and their means of livelihood. (iv) They also argued that the provision of the law that only permits ranchers to lease on a yearly basis, rather than buy the land was designed to chase the herders out of Benue state. (v) They argued that the law was inimical to their constitutional rights of free movement in the state, and the country at large (Nasir, 2018, The Cable). Irrespective of all of the objections by herders, the Benue state government went ahead to promulgate the law. The promulgation of the new law, rather than resolve the conflict only resulted in new tensions and mistrust between the parties, and degeneration into more deadly violence.

The conflict has also been observed to possess the dynamic of polarizing the country along the traditional fault lines of ethnicity and religion (Associated press, 2018). This is because the herders are mainly Muslims from the Fulani ethnic group from the north, while the farmers are mostly Christians from the middle belt and south. Reprisal attacks have been noted to bear an ethnic connotation with a heightened anti-Fulani sentiment in the middle belt and south (International Crisis group, 2018). The conflict can conceivably be argued to constitute a top threat to the peace and stability of the country. The continued surge of violence and escalation had led to a lack of confidence on the part of the government, whose “response to most incidents had been long condemnations, condolences, and vows to stop further killings, but short on effective preventive action (International Crisis Group, 2018), hence the violence is on-going.


As human beings and groups pursue goals that are incompatible, Cheldelin et al (2003) agree that conflict is inevitable, such conflicts, however, they say must not be destructive. Hence, identifying and understanding the sources or causes of destructive conflicts becomes the basis for not only been able to proffer a resolution to such conflicts, but also making it a rare occurrence in the human affair (p.58).

A number of factors including economic and socio-psychological can be said to constitute both the underlying, as well as, the proximate causes of Nigeria herders and farmers conflict. One of the underlying factors which can be identified as economic factor relates to scarcity. “Scarcity Pruitt and Kim (1983) say arises because parties pursue limited recourses” (p. 21). In the case of Nigeria herders and farmers conflict, land and water have been identified as the scarce resources behind the conflict. Climatic changes, leading to drought and desertification in the northern part of Nigeria, the dwindling of water and grazing areas, as well as security concern as a result of cattle rustlings, and Boko Haram activities in the north have driven the herders to migrate down south, this migration hitherto was seasonal, whereby herders will stay in the middle belt from December to May, and return to the north. As available pastures continue to shrink within the last two decades, herders have continued to stay longer in the middle belt, and recently some of them have decided to stay in the middle belt permanently, and now have to struggle for the limited resources of land with the farmers. This has led to an encroachment on the farmers’ land by the herders, thereby given rise to increasing disputes between the two groups.

Changes to farming practices, and the government National Fadama Development Projects (NFDPs) can be said to also constitute a second underlying factor, as well as a contributing factor to the migration of herders to the middle belt. The project which was initiated in 1993 taught farmers to exploit wetlands (river valleys) for dry season irrigated farming. This led to the loss of access to grass abundant wetlands for the herdsmen, which had been available to them prior to the initiation of the Fadama project. Additionally, the introduction of some high-value crops by the Fadama project, such as tomatoes and onions, left little or no residue for livestock feeding. This new situation led to a more charged atmosphere, leading to more conflicts, as well as the migration of herders down south (Blench, 2004).

The Nigeria Land Use Act of 1978 can be said to constitute a third underlying factor of the Nigerian herders and farmers conflict. In colonial Nigeria, and prior to 1978 in independent Nigeria, the land tenure systems for northern Nigeria was different from what was obtainable in southern Nigeria, however, the land use Act of 1978 standardized the administration of land across the country. The law vested all land within urban centers to the state and all non-urban lands to the local government (Nwaocha, 2016). This had made it difficult for the federal government to make laws, or give any directives in the land-resource centered conflict between the herders and the farmers.

A fourth underlying factor of the Nigeria herder and farmers conflict can be identified as the effect of population growth in Nigeria. This can be identified with what Pruitt and Kim (1983) called the rapidly expanding achievement factor. This, they assert happens when things get better, causing people’s aspirations to rise, but such aspirations often outpace reality, thus resulting in conflict (p. 21). In the Nigerian case, population growth led to the need for farmers to increase production, requiring the need for more land, and this has resulted in the farmers’ encroachment into traditional grazing routes that were created for the herders. Urbanization and economic growth have also been observed to play a part through the development of housing areas and other facilities on lands that were traditional grazing routes. The effect of this is a significantly reduced availability of grazing lands for herders.

The fifth underlying factor of the Nigerian herder and farmers conflict can be said to constitute what Pritt and Kim (1983) identified as distrust. This is the “belief that Other is hostile or indifference to Party’s welfare” (p. 25). In the case of Nigerian herders and farmers, the feeling of distrust is mutually shared by both parties as demonstrated in the mutual destruction of the means of livelihood of both parties: herders destroy the farmers farm by burning them, and the farmers attacking and killing the herders’ animals. The feeling of distrust led to a deep threat, and eventually the escalation of the conflict.

A final underlying factor behind the Nigerian herders and farmers conflict can be identified as the erosion of the traditional conflict resolution mechanism which was replaced by the police and courts (Crisis group, 2017). The “system started crumbling in the 1970s, undermined by the involvement of the police and courts” (p. 6). This situation in Nigeria is reminiscent of the Darfur Conflict, whereby one of its underlying factors was also the destruction of the local conflict resolution mechanism by the Sudan government. With little or no confidence in the replacement mechanism, individuals became arbiters in their own conflict, and most often turned to violence in the quest for redress or revenge.

Added to the above mentioned underlying factors are also some other factors that can be said to constitute the proximate causes of the escalation of the Nigerian herders and farmers conflict, particularly in the last two years. These factors can be said to demonstrate a threat to the fulfillment of the basic needs of the parties which are: material (food, shelter, physical safety and physical well-being), and psychological (identity, security, autonomy, self-esteem and a sense of justice). This threat to and the non-fulfillment of these needs, Zartman (2007) argues, constitutes the heart of why conflict arises. These factors in the case of the Nigerian herders and farmers conflict include:

The threat to the means livelihood: One of the reasons, which can also be identified as one of the effects of the escalation of violence in the Nigerian herders and farmers conflict is the threat to the means of livelihood of both parties. This was carried out by the destruction and burning of farmers’ farm and houses by the Fulani herders, and the reprisal attack on the herders’ animals by the farmers. This mutual act of deliberate and calculated destruction of the parties means of livelihood and homes, one can say pulled the opposing parties into a negative downward spiral and became a trigger for total mutual destruction which according to Glasl’s conflict escalation model represents the final level of escalation (Jordan, 2000).

The threat to security: Following the outbreak of violence and escalation of the conflict, the parties both felt unsafe as a result of the mutual threat to each other, this eventually led both parties to the formation of community vigilantes and recruitment of militia. These were armed by patties in a claim that it was for the security of their communities. This only added another dimension to the escalation.

The threat to identity: Given the identity of the parties to the conflict, herders are mainly northern Muslims of the Fulani ethnic extraction, while the farmers are southerners Christians of various meddle belt ethnic groups, the conflict has now been interpreted in terms of threat to identity, ethnic and religion. This understanding of the conflict in terms of threat to identity has become not only one of the proximate causes of the escalation but also a motivating factor towards on-going violent escalation.

Unaddressed injustice: Sense of injustice has also been identified as a proximate cause of the escalation of the conflict, this is as a result, the parties argue, of the lack of response from the authorities for their demand for criminal acts committed against them. This perceived sense of injustice led the parties to decide to become arbiters of their own case, by a retaliatory attack which led to further escalation.


The dynamics in a conflict is said to be the resulting interaction between the conflict profile, the actors in the conflict, and the causes of the conflict (guillaumenicaise.com). Through the dynamics, at play in a conflict, we are able to identify possible developments in the conflict. Scenarios basically provide an assessment of what may happen next in a given context and specific timeframe based on the analysis of conflict profile, causes, and actors (guillaumenacaise.com). In the case of the Nigerian herders and farmers conflict, the resulting interaction shows a possibility of a further escalation and the possible mutation of the conflict into an ethnic and religious conflict in Nigeria. Some currents have made this prediction possible, and these include:

Ethnicity and Religion: Ethnicity and religion have been a traditional fault line of the Nigerian society, a country roughly evenly divided between the Christian south and Muslim north. In the on-going conflict, both parties in the conflict have accused each other of a systematic ethnic cleansing war. Many northern Fulani “believed that other groups across the country have hatched a grand plot against them” (Crisis group, 2081), while the Southerners are also accusing the northern Fulani of a “well-planned…nothing short of ethnic cleansing and genocide” (Crisis group, 2081) against them. On religion level, the conflict parties are dived; the northern Fulani herders are mainly Muslims, while the southern farmers are mainly Christians. The national bodies representing the two religions have traded accusations and counter-accusations against each other and accused each other of complacency in the violence (The Guardian, 2018, Vanguard, 2018). The imbroglio of accusations only raises the stake in the on-going violence and complicates any prospect of resolution.

Politics: One of the major concerns of the international community is a possible effect that the on-going conflict could have on the Nigeria general election slated for February 2019 if unresolved before then. However, the opposition is already taking advantage of the situation, using the on-going conflict as a talking point against the re-election of the current president of Nigeria. A politicization of the conflict in a Nigerian politics that is also affected by the fault line of ethnicity, may only lead to further escalation of violence and become a possible trigger for ethnic conflict in Nigeria.

Small arms and light weapons: The availability of small arms and light weapons in Nigeria, and the West Africa as a whole has also been noted as one of the dynamics that has exacerbated the herders and farmers conflict. The trade in small arms and light weapons in Nigeria has continuously been on the rise since the end of the Nigerian civil war, and its proliferation has taken serious dimension with every conflict in Nigeria (Soetan, 2017, p. 23), including the on-going herders and farmers conflict. The availability of these weapons to the conflict parties has been identified not only as one of the reasons for the escalation of the violence in the conflict, but also as a major diver of the conflict (Ochayi, 2018).

Media: Akpan, Ering and Olofu-Adeoye (2013) argue that the role of the media in conflict prevention, resolution and escalation is of a global concern and critical to sustaining peace and harmony in the society and vice versa (p. 2279), this cannot be more true for the Nigerian media in their role in the on-going Nigerian herder and farmers conflict. However, its role within the context of the on-going conflict has been criticized

…the media has the power and motivation to aggravate fissures and whip up ideas of two diametrically opposed groups…The image portrayed is one of rampaging herdsmen who are heartily armed…There is this idea of an organized armed group who have been going around terrorizing communities in the middle belt. In fact, the violence is two-way and many Fulani herdsmen have complained about attacks on their own communities going unreported (Collins, New African, 2018).

Reports such as this show an appearance of partiality in the media coverage of the Nigerian herder and farmers conflict and such situations only lead to further escalation of violence. The media should be seen as reporting issues regarding the conflict as they occur without selective coverage. It is important for the media to educate itself on the issues of the conflict and convey it to their audiences in a way that reflects the truth of the conflict in all its complexity (Akpan, Ering, and Olofu-Adeoye, 2013, p. 2285).


In view of the above analysis of the Nigerian herder and framers conflict, and what can be described as the zero-sum attitude of the opposing parties, the scenario that is most obvious can be said to be the worst case, whereby the conflict may degenerate or mutate into an ethnic conflict in Nigeria, hence the need for de-escalation and intervention. De-escalation will help to halt the on-going violence and allow a third party acceptable to the parties in conflict, as well as, to all other stakeholders in the conflict, to help mediate the conflict. Given the level of escalation and the intensity of violence involved in Nigeria herders and farmers conflict, William Zartman’s model of interruption, separation, and integration may be an appropriate process of intervention, mediation and resolution of the conflict.

In this model of conflict intervention, Zartman (2015) argues for a three-stage successive process of interruption, separation, and integration.

Interruption: This for Zartman involves taking an immediate measure to stop all acts of violence between the parties. This he says can only be achieved through a third party, as the parties on warpath are unlikely to be able to stop on their own. The intervention must be instant and pressing, alongside threat, as well as warning for consequences if ignored (p. 157-158).

Separation: Following a successful interruption of the escalation of violence, Zartman (2015) advices a separation of the parties. This he contends is the most obvious structural measure to keep the parties out of each other’s hair while allowing space and time for solving issues…(p. 160). The separation can be in the form of a physical separation by withdrawal, safe havens, buffer zones, and disengagement. The separation can be set up by the parties to the conflict or by the government, and in some very volatile situations, Zartman advice that security forces or the police can be used to enforce the separation and keep the parties apart.

Integration: After a separation of parties and the establishment of a truce, Zartman argues for an integration of parties, which involves seating down to talk, bringing the parties together to explain their position (p. 167). Zartman underscores the importance of this stage

More than separation, integration is a process; it has to be initiated, pursued, and maintained if the conflict is to be effectively prevented. Integration involves intensified communication and cooperation between the parties to clarify their interests (as opposed to their positions), to bring them out of the crisis, and eventually to enable them for formulating a point of agenda for dealing with crisis issues (pp. 168-169).

The integration stage of the process thus accentuates the importance of dialogue in conflict mediation and prevention, especially in situations where formal institutions are no longer able to control the situation. Dialogue provides a forum for open discussion among the conflicting parties in an effort towards the exchange of idea without a winner or loser. And to make this process successful, Zartman counsels that a third party; a mediator who is acceptable to the conflicting parties be involved (p. 170).

Another factor that is very fundamental to the success of this stage: the negotiation, mediation stage, identified by Zartman as the integration stage, is the choice of the negotiation strategy chosen by the parties. Pruitt and Kim (2004) defined negotiation strategy as a distinctive set of moves, and ways of pursuing a conflict in an effort to settle it (p. 5). They went on to identify four types of conflict strategies namely:

Contending – trying to impose one’s preferred solution on the other party. Yielding – lowering one’s own aspirations and settling for less than one would have liked. Problem-solving – pursuing an alternative that satisfies the aspirations of both sides. Problem-solving can occur during negotiation or with the assistance of an outside intervener. Avoiding – not engaging in conflict (Zartman, 2015, pp. 5-6).

Amongst the four conflict strategies, Pruitt and Kim (2003) opined that “problem-solving is by no means always successful in dealing with conflict” (p. 190), and when parties employ the problem-solving mode in the negotiation and mediation they are able to reconcile their mutual aspirations because

The problem-solving strategy involves an effort to find a mutually acceptable solution. The parties or their representatives talk freely to one another. They exchange information about their interests and priorities, work together to identify the true issues dividing them, brainstorm in search of alternatives from the point of view of their mutual welfare.

A successful application of this strategy can lead the parties to one of three outcomes namely: conflict management, whereby parties are able to work out a procedure of de-escalating, and avoid future escalation; a settlement, that is an agreement on some of the issues involved in the conflict, or a conflict resolution whereby the issues involved in the conflict are cleared up (Pruitt and Kim, pp. 190-191).


A civil war according to Paul Collier (2006) is “classified as an internal conflict with at least one thousand battle-related deaths” (p. 5), by this definition the Nigerian herders and farmers conflict can be classified as an on-going civil war in Nigeria, and as such in need of intervention, mediation, and resolution. It is my belief that the above-analyzed theory can help bring about a de-escalation of violence, and move the conflict towards negotiation, mediation, and resolution. However, for this to happen, the Nigerian government has a very critical role to play, the government must be ready to call for the interruption of the ongoing escalation of violence between the headers and the farmers, the government must also be ready to provide the necessary security structure needed to separate the parties, and also name a mediator who can help to bring the parties to table to talk. As a stakeholder in the conflict, the Nigerian government should also come to the talk table with its proposed solution to the on-going conflict, and its long-term plans for the livestock industry in Nigeria, such as the National Livestock Transformation Plan.

Zartman (2015) opines that, in a situation of a breakdown of formal institution, talk or dialogue plays the role of a supplementary house of parliament, bringing parties in conflict together (p. 170). In view of the almost total collapse of formal institutions in the states affected by the Nigerian herder and farmers conflict, dialogue becomes very important means of bringing the parties together, to resolve the conflict, and also to restore peace and formal institution in those states. It is also important to note that dialogue or talk without the right strategy is just as good as not having one. The right strategy for a process that can lead to a resolution of the conflict is the problem-solving strategy. And this precludes the need for parties to focus on their interests than on their positions, and be ready to compromise with each other, this is the only way the parties can arrive at an integrative solution to the on-going conflict.


The on-going Nigeria herders and farmers conflict, if unresolved, does not only threaten the peace and security of the nation, it can also become a menace to the economic growth and development of the country; as well as bring about a nationwide food shortage. There is already a report of a shortage of some food item in a number of states in the north-central, and the prices of beef and milk have reportedly risen (Thomson, 2018). This trend is likely to continue until the conflict is resolved. The on-going conflict, if unchecked, can also result in an ethnic/religion conflict in Nigeria. Hence it becomes imperative that the Nigerian government act quickly and begin a process of conflict intervention and resolution. The Nigerian government should interrupt the on-going violence, keep the parties separated in order to seek a truce, appoint a credible mediator or mediators to help the parties engage in productive dialogue. Following a resolution of the conflict, it is also very important that the government should encourage and strengthen local conflict mediation and resolution mechanism, as a post conflict prevention mechanism.

In this paper, I have discussed the on-going Nigerian herders and farmers conflict. I have given an overview of the conflict, and also made an analysis of the conflict by discussing its underlying, as well as proximate causes. Crucially, I have also proposed a theory towards its resolution. It is my contention that it is only by dialogue and negotiation that the Nigerian herders and farmers conflict can be brought to an end. Unless the underlying causes of a conflict and the interests of the parties are sincerely addressed, the conflict is bound to re-emerge.




















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