By Masara Kim
JOS (SundiataPost) – Plateau State communities are gradually recovering from armed conflicts that severed relationships between farmers and herders for years.
Armed conflicts in the Central Nigerian State are nearly two decades old. But the conflicts that birthed the worst divisions between the State’s leading economic actors – farmers and herders started in 2010, mostly in rural areas.
Thousands of people including serving lawmakers and ranking village Chiefs were killed at different times and locations. Yet, attacks, despite several mitigation efforts, only increased in scale and fatality.
In June 2018, over 200 people were killed in a single night, in Gashish District of Barkin Ladi Local Government Area. The attacks lasted a week, spilling to three other Local Governments – Riyom in the west, Bassa in the north and Bokkos in the south of Barkin Ladi, with more deaths and destructions in their wake.
About 130,000 villagers were displaced according to local Officials. Over 30,000 of those displaced who could not afford accommodation elsewhere stayed in Internally Displaced Persons Camps till December 2019 when government escorted them back to their ancestral homes.
Cattle graze in uncultivated farms in Nghar village
Few of them who had attempted going back on their own were either threatened or attacked. Government therefore had to provide the returning IDPs with armed securities while partnering local actors – the media, civil societies, nongovernmental organizations, community associations and among others, the media to facilitate peace. Gradually, securities were withdrawn to allow for voluntary acceptance of each other by the conflicting groups.
For the first time in a long time, in Nghar village of Gashish district where about 90 people were killed in a single day, farmers and herders had New Year celebrations together in January 2020. “We all danced here,” said Mr. Irmiya Magit, spokesperson of the displaced Nghar people, pointing to an open space in front of an only Church in the village.
“We ended the fanfare at about 7pm but they (Fulani herdsmen) pleaded with us to continue but we also appealed that it was not safe for both of us because criminals could take advantage of the gathering,” said Magit.
Twice, there were reports of attacks in the village after the New Year unity fanfare, but no life was lost. The farming villagers also continued their normal life though sometimes apprehensive. As the rains started in March 2020, many farmers who previously feared getting attacked in their farms as was previously the case, eventually cultivated their farms without intimidation.
A woman who didn’t want her name mentioned specifically said she was looking forward to acquiring animal droppings from the herders to use on her farm. “The chemical fertilizer is expensive and harmful to the soil they say. And this farm laying fallow for two years needs organic manure to regain nutrients,” said the mother of four.
In September, 2019, a herder in neighboring Riyom LGA, Mr. Usman Alhassan told MK that farmers getting displaced deprives herders of free leaves and crop stocks from harvested farms for their livestock. Alhassan shares a close relationship with a native herder. He treats all her animals whenever they fall sick, and is a passionate farmer too. His wish was for farmers to return to displaced communities and resume their farming activities for that old mutual relationship to regrow.
Covid-19 and peace negotiations
Nigeria recorded its first coronavirus case in February 2020. When the global emergency spread in the country, officials restricted movements and public gatherings. This ultimately affected peace dialogues. Stakeholders can no longer move to meeting venues and such meetings even if possible, cannot accommodate more than 20 people.
The fear of the virus and the general focus on the pandemic equally forced a reduction in security patrols. Communities previously divided by conflicts were therefore left to build their own peace. By constantly mingling and interacting, the villagers perhaps gradually got used to one another, and forgot their past hurts.
The threats are not completely over yet. But most reported attacks since the return of the villagers in Barkin Ladi and Riyom are more of criminality than clashes. Many of them armed robberies, some kidnappings and some targeted assassinations, usually by outlawed criminal syndicates.
In January 2020 for instance, a military convoy was attacked in Gindi Akwati village with three soldiers killed. The media reported the attack but not its underlying causes. A popular Muslim Hausa tin miner was later found to be the target. He often carried cash with him, and returned home mostly at nights, but with military escorts. On the night of the attack, the ambushers – also Muslim herders meant to rob him but needed to take out the military defenses first.
This essentially means that while third party reconciliation, reconstruction and rehabilitation might be slow due to the coronavirus pandemic, deliberate forgiveness and reintegration is already taking over the once segregated communities, thus restoring hope for the Nigeria’s future in food security.