For centuries, Fulani herders have lived in relative harmony with settled farming communities. These two groups have benefited historically from symbiotic partnerships to keep cropland fertile and cattle well nourished. Disputes would occasionally arise, as herders moved their cattle seasonally onto farming lands in search of water and grazing areas, but leaders would generally resolve them peacefully through established arbitration mechanisms which compensated losses and shared resources. Unfortunately, this relationship has deteriorated rapidly resulting in enormous violence.
The exact death toll is unknown. However, thousands of civilians are thought to have been killed in attacks led by Fulani herders and periodic retaliatory violence. Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust report that over 1,000 Christians were killed between January-November 2019, “in addition to the estimated 6,000+ deaths since 2015.” Amnesty International estimate that between January 2016 and October 2018 “at least 3,641 people may have been killed, 406 injured [and] 5,000 houses burnt down.” Local groups, such as the Christian Association of Nigeria, report higher figures: between January and June 2018, over 6,000 people were killed by Fulani herders.
International Crisis Group (ICG) estimate that over 300,000 people have been displaced and that the violence has claimed the lives of six times more people than the conflict with Boko Haram. Its geographical footprint is also larger, with conflict manifesting in more States. According to Search for Common Ground (SfCG), “between 1 January 2019 and 1 January 2020, inter-communal violence represented the most severe threat to civilian lives in Nigeria.” Mercy Corps report that the violence is costing the Nigerian economy £10.5 billion per year.
Some of the worst-affected areas include Benue, Plateau, Taraba, Adamawa, Kaduna, Kwara, Borno and Zamfara. On 4 July 2018, the Nigerian House of Representatives declared killings in predominantly-Christian villages in Plateau State to be a genocide and called on the Federal Government to immediately establish orphanages in areas affected by violence. On 26 February 2019, the Economic Community of West African States Court of Justice ordered an investigation into mass killings and destruction of properties committed by Fulani herders against the Agatu Community in Benue State in 2016, stating that the Government is “obliged to protect the human rights of its citizens” and to identify and prosecute the perpetrators and redress the victims.
Key Factors Contributing to the Conflict
The APPG examined multiple drivers of conflict, including resource competition, religious sectarianism, poor land management by the Nigerian Government, population growth, climate change and insecurity.
Rapid population growth, climate change and desertification have decreased the water available for land and grazing and put pressure on resources. The United Nations estimates that “roughly 80% of the Sahel’s farmland is degraded [and] the land available to pastoralists is shrinking… Declining grain and food production is forcing pastoralists into a desperate search for fertile pasture.” As herders travel further distances in search of water and land for grazing, they come into conflict with local farmers, who accuse the herders of encroaching onto their land and damaging their crops. The increased conflict has strained the capacity of traditional leaders to reduce tensions and resolve conflict amicably. This has contributed to the breakdown of historical dispute settlement mechanisms and conflict turning to violence.
The escalation of violence must also be seen in the context of the growing power and influence of Islamist extremism across the Sahel. Multiple groups, such as the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP), a splinter of Boko Haram and an affiliate of the weakened Daesh caliphate in Iraq and Syria, continue to extend their networks in Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Burkina Faso. While not necessarily sharing an identical vision, some Fulani herders have adopted a comparable strategy to Boko Haram and ISWAP and demonstrated a clear intent to target Christians and symbols of Christian identity such as churches.
The APPG received numerous reports that Christian pastors and community heads are specifically targeted. During many of the attacks, herders are reported by survivors to have shouted ‘Allah u Akbar’, ‘destroy the infidels’ and ‘wipe out the infidels.’ Hundreds of churches have been destroyed, including over 500 churches in Benue State. As the Bishop of Truro concluded in his report for the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, “the religious dimension is a significantly exacerbating factor” in clashes between farmers and herders and “targeted violence against Christian communities in the context of worship suggests that religion plays a key part.”
Examples of atrocities
Jim Shannon MP, Chair of the APPG, summed up the group’s concerns when he said: “Attacks by armed groups of Muslim Fulani herdsmen have resulted in the killing, maiming, dispossession and eviction of thousands of Christians.”
• Four Christian farming villages were attacked by herders in the Ropp district, Plateau State. The attack killed 21 people. One survivor said: “They were trained terrorists with guns. They killed those who couldn’t run – the aged, the children and the blind. A pastor was their first casualty. They surrounded him. They killed him and then they rejoiced, shouting ‘Allah u Akbar’ and ‘we have got a hero’.”
• Deaconess Susan Essam described a similar attack in Jos: “On the outskirts of the city, under the foothills, are two houses close together, where Sarah [not her real name], her husband and children, her mother, uncle and other family members lived. The Fulani had for a long time been coming around that area to graze their cattle and it was alleged that a Fulani boy was killed around there, but no evidence of that has been seen. On the late evening of Thursday 27 September, they came and killed nine people in one house and three in the other, including a pregnant woman. They shot Sarah’s husband and children and so she begged them to kill her too, but they refused, saying that they wanted her to cry and bear the pain.”
• Describing an attack in Ngar village, a survivor called Margaret said: “I called my sister’s cellphone, Naomi is her name, she lived in the village not too far from me and we had been communicating during the attack, but this time a Fulani answered the phone. We later saw that she was raped and her wrists cut off before she was shot through the heart. They took my brother, his wife and all their six children, tied and slaughtered them like animals. 18 people were killed in the house that day, the rest were all burnt alive.”
• Lydia, from Ningon village in Gashing District, said: “They capture cows and surround our villages. They use pick-ups, guns and loot and burn our homes. Before the attack, the Fulani told us: ‘There’s no point in sowing because we won’t have a harvest to reap’. They were hacking and killing people, making sure that those that were shot were finished off. They wore black and red – red to conceal blood splashes on their clothes as they butchered their victims.”
• Antonia Aje, from Karamai, said: “We hid in the bushes until the gunshots subsided. When we returned, I saw my brother-in-law’s body on the ground, hacked to pieces by a machete. My mother-in-law is so traumatised that she cannot live alone… Our home is destroyed. The hospital was burnt. They tried to burn the roof of the church by piling up the chairs, like a bonfire.”
• Veronica, from Dogon Noma, said: “We tried to run. But we were surrounded. It was an ambush. They shot me. I raised my arm, pleading for mercy. My six-year-old daughter did the same. But the man behind her struck her with a machete and pulled her to ground. Another man attacked me with a machete twice, once to the neck and once to my hand. I was so confused. I lost consciousness. When I woke up, I saw my daughter on ground – she was dead – with my chopped finger in her mouth.”
• During the writing of this report, the killings have continued. As recently as 2 April 2020, more than 300 Fulani herders reportedly attacked the Christian village of Hukke, near Jos, killing seven and setting fire to at least 23 homes. One survivor said: “I saw the Fulani as they came towards me, they started shooting, I fell and they passed over me into my house and killed my two sons, they then went straight to the pastors house and shot and killed him, they set some houses on fire and left.”
On 7 April, Fulani herders attacked Nsah village in Kwall district of Plateau State, killing four people, including Pastor Matthew Tagwi. One survivor said: “This issue of COVID-19, we don’t know anything about it, but our problem is Fulani who are killing us.”
On 14 April, Fulani herders killed nine people including a pregnant woman and her three-year old child in Hura near Maiyanga village, Plateau State. A survivor said: “Fulanis came and almost surrounded the village shouting in their language; some shouting ‘Allah u Akbar, come out, come out!’ amidst gunshots.” The traditional ruler of the area, Ronku Aka, condemned the attack and said: “the incessant killing is more dangerous than Coroner [sic] Virus.”
On 19 April, Fulani herders attacked Ntiriku village in Kamuru, in Kauri Local Government council of Kaduna State, killing three women and burning 63 homes. Another man died during the attack, suspected to be as a result of cardiac arrest. The village head, Dauda Rogo, said: “Why did the Fulani leave the Muslims who are farmers and attack only Christians if this is not a religious issue? This is more than grazing land or farmers and herders’ fight over land.”
Attacks by Fulani herders have led to periodic retaliatory violence, as farming communities conclude that they can no longer rely on the authorities for protection or justice. Some local vigilantes, led by youths, take matters into their own hands by going on violent reprisals against Muslims who they believe are backed by the Government. Such retaliatory violence cannot be condoned. However, their reprisals must be seen in the context of an urgent need for the authorities to enforce the rule of law to protect all its citizens.
As the Co-Chair of the APPG Baroness Cox has argued: “While the underlying causes of violence are complex, the asymmetry and escalation of attacks by well-armed Fulani militia upon these predominately Christian communities are stark and must be acknowledged. Such atrocities cannot be attributed just to desertification, climate change or competition for resources, as [the UK] Government have claimed.” Vice Chair of the APPG Fiona Bruce MP said: “Targeted attacks against churches and heightening religious tensions indicate that religious identity plays a role in the farmerherder conflict” and Vice Chair Lord Alton of Liverpool said: “Some local observers have gone so far as to describe the rising attacks as a campaign of ethno-religious cleansing. Armed with sophisticated weaponry, including AK47s and, in at least one case, a rocket launcher and rocket-propelled grenades, the Fulani militia have murdered more men, women and children in 2015, 2016 and 2017 than even Boko Haram, destroying, overrunning and seizing property and land, and displacing tens of thousands of people. This is organised and systematic.”
The influence of politics
Political actors working to further their own interests have deepened religious divisions. Politicians in Nigeria often blame challenges on other identity groups and then present themselves as the only ones their group can trust to protect them and to fight for their resources. This is exacerbated by indigene/settler tensions, where certain groups are legally considered “indigenes” of an area and are afforded certain rights over groups considered “settlers”. As these groups often fall along religious lines, this can lead to political and violent conflict between religious groups over rights and resources. The influence of politics on famer-herder violence may help to explain why there was an escalation in conflict in Nigeria in 2018 in the run up to the national elections.
Nigerian Government response
Another of the main drivers of the escalating violence is the Nigerian Government’s inability to provide security or justice to farmer or herder communities. Failure to prosecute past perpetrators of violence, or heed early warnings of impending attacks has facilitated the rise of armed militia which often form along ethno-religious lines to protect community interests. According to SfCG, 36 different political, ethnic, or communal “militias” were involved in inter-communal violence in 2019 resulting in the loss of over 1,000 civilian lives.
The inability of the Nigerian Federal and State Governments to protect Christian farmers, and the lack of political will to respond adequately to warnings or to bring perpetrators of violence to justice, has fostered feelings of victimisation and persecution. The APPG agrees with Amnesty International’s conclusion that failure to protect communities, as well as cases of direct military harassment or violence, combined with an unwillingness to instigate legitimate investigations into allegations of wrong doing, “demonstrate, at least, wilful negligence; at worst, complicity” on the behalf of some in the Nigerian security forces.
Criminality also plays an important contributory role in the violence. Rural communities across Northern and Central Nigeria, including Fulani herders and farming communities of diverse ethnic and religious identities, have lost their livelihoods to village raids, cattle rustling and kidnapping.” SfCG report that this growth of criminality has coincided with the skyrocketing price of cattle.
Moreover, ‘conflict entrepreneurs’ are taking advantage of the Boko Haram violence in the Northeast, and general insecurity in Nigeria, to engage in widespread ‘rural banditry.’ These gangs of criminals instigate fear and violence to raid communities for livestock and plunder. This violent criminal behaviour can also cause further violent criminal behaviour, as people displaced from their communities and robbed of their livelihoods are more likely to become criminals themselves in order to survive.
Evidence received by the APPG suggests that the ready availability and low price of firearms in Nigeria has played a role in escalating violence. The ongoing instability in Libya has led to a huge increase in the number of firearms flowing into the country. Combined with the huge supply of weapons left over from civil wars in Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone, as well as the domestic Nigerian arms manufacturing industry , this means that firearms are readily available in Nigeria and have fallen dramatically in price in recent years. The high price of cattle and the low price and ready availability
of guns has led to herders in particular being well armed with sophisticated weaponry, which they sometimes acquire through black market channels or through wealthy cattle owners who arm them to protect their herds.
Another factor that is widely considered to have exacerbated the conflict between farmers and herders is the spread of ‘fake news’ via social media. Such mis- or false information often incorrectly attributes stories, and even footage, of violence from other African countries, to farmers or herders in Nigeria. This has led to heightened tensions, violent reprisals and an environment in which peace building is increasingly difficult.
Reporting on this conflict is difficult for media outlets, as they may not have the resources or access to first-hand information to engage comprehensively with the issues. Among those who are able or willing to report on the violence, there is a tendency to focus only on the most severe cases and to overlook widespread smaller-scale attacks. This makes it even harder for commentators to decipher truths from untruths or to unpack the scale and nature of conflict.
Commentators must not shy away from describing conflicts as motivated by religion or ideology when that is the case. Given the sensitivities involved, there is a pressing need for local and international actors to weigh carefully the multiple drivers of conflict, highlighting cases of atrocities whilst being careful not to exacerbate tensions by promulgating a biased narrative.