A Fulani nomad drives his cow after a sandstorm raised by the "Harmattan wind" north of Agadez, Niger, December 19, 2006. The wind sweeps down from the Sahara desert between December and March, bringing with it a thick dusty haze.
Florin Iorganda / Reuters

On March 16, armed men thought to be ethnic Fulani herders entered the farming community of Egba in central Nigeria’s Benue State. Ostensibly angry about the loss of grazing pastures to expanding croplands, they proceeded to slaughter at least 80 men, women, and children. The Egba massacre represents the bloodiest episode in a string of clashes between pastoralist and agriculturist communities in rural Nigeria that, according to Nigerian media, claimed approximately 620 lives during the first seven months of 2015. Indeed, since the Fourth Nigerian Republic’s founding in 1999, farmer-herder violence has killed thousands of people and displaced thousands more in Africa’s most populous country.  

This phenomenon is not limited to Nigeria. Throughout much of the western Sahel—the transition zone between the Sahara desert and savanna—and the territory immediately to its south, conflicts between farmers and herders have reportedly become more commonplace over the past 15 years. Flash points include northern Cameroon, southwestern Niger, and the Inland Niger Delta, an area cut by rivers and lakes in central Mali. While local factors play a role in each incident, the overall upsurge in farmer-herder violence largely stems from the culmination of several decades-long trends—namely, an expansion of cultivated land, environmental changes in the Sahel, the general breakdown in traditional conflict resolution mechanisms, and a rise in rural insecurity.

The leader of the displaced Fulani herdsmen Haruna Usman (L) sits next to men from his tribe in Nigeria, March 22, 2014.
Afolabi Sotunde / Reuters

SOUTHWARD

The north–south migration patterns of many West African herders date to the European colonial era. With the (often brutal) pacification of the countryside by colonial agents, pastoralists gained access to large swaths of previously insecure territory. Herders entering these regions for the first time usually found ample pasturelands for their livestock, a consequence of years of near incessant political upheavals and slave raids that had compelled many indigenous communities to abandon the savanna in favor of more easily defendable areas such as the Jos Plateau in modern-day central Nigeria.

Even as sedentary groups began to utilize the plains at the beginning of the twentieth century, relatively low population densities minimized competition over resources between agriculturists and pastoralists. In many areas, farmers and herders formed symbiotic relationships. The herdsmen offered goods such as milk, meat, and fertilizer to farmers, who provided grain and other agricultural products in exchange. Customary institutions that managed much of the land usually kept grazing corridors open to traversing pastoralists. Although conflicts involving herders and farmers did break out periodically, these clashes were the exception rather than the norm. 

This dynamic began to change in earnest during the 1970s, as rapidly expanding agriculturist populations encroached upon traditional rangeland. West Africa’s high fertility rate—three of the world’s five fastest-growing countries are located in the region—means this trend has continued unabated up to the present day. Meanwhile, agrobusinesses have in recent decades enlarged their holdings at the expense of pastoralist populations, fencing off previously open pastures for the production of crops such as cotton and rice.

Deteriorating environmental conditions in the Sahel have further exacerbated the shortage of arable land available to herders in much of West Africa. Already devastated by historic droughts in the 1970s and 1980s, the Sahel has in the last two decades experienced widespread soil degradation from volatile weather patterns widely attributed to climate change, poor land management, and overgrazing.

Deteriorating environmental conditions in the Sahel have further exacerbated the shortage of arable land available to herders in much of West Africa. Already devastated by historic droughts in the 1970s and 1980s, the Sahel has in the last two decades experienced widespread soil degradation from volatile weather patterns widely attributed to climate change, poor land management, and overgrazing. The resulting ecological crisis has driven large numbers of herders southward, deep into the savanna. This influx has placed additional pressure on contested land resources. What’s more, many of the newcomers lack any familiarity with local communities, raising the probability of violent misunderstandings.

Although a growing scarcity of arable land has served as a major driver of farmer-herder clashes, recent academic literature suggests that many of the conflicts also feature a political dimension. The general movement in West Africa toward decentralization has created new provincial elites whose interests lead them to favor sedentary populations over pastoralists. Herders often find themselves deprived of viable legal options in cases of land and water disputes with farmers, prompting some to resort to violence. At the same time, socioeconomic changes over the past couple of generations have greatly diminished the influence of many traditional authority figures (such as chiefs and district heads) who previously acted as arbiters between farmers and herders. 

Another factor contributing to the violence is the rise in rural insecurity in many parts of West Africa. Political conflicts and the proliferation of small arms have made life increasingly perilous for herders. Criminal gangs in particular have preyed upon pastoralists, stealing their livestock and kidnapping family members for ransom. These threats have led many herders to equip themselves with semiautomatic rifles, increasing the likelihood that land disputes end with appallingly high body counts.

A woman walks on an island made by sand in the middle of the Niger river in Gao in northern Mali, August 8, 2003.
Yves Herman / Reuters
                     

THE GREEN WALL

Beyond the loss of human life, farmer-herder clashes appear to have inflicted a great deal of economic damage on various agrarian communities. A Mercy Corps study published in July 2015 estimated that Nigeria could add $13.7 billion annually to its economy if it could drastically reduce the level of conflict between pastoralists and agriculturists in the states of Benue, Plateau, Kaduna, and Nasarawa. The same report claimed that through 2012, states impacted by farmer-herder violence lost an average of 47 percent of taxes as a consequence of these clashes. Anecdotal evidence suggests that conflicts over land resources have restricted the mobility of many herders, denying them access to certain markets in West Africa.

This is unfortunate. Far from being relics of a bygone era, the region’s pastoralists represent a potential economic asset. Livestock is already a major export for many Sahelian states, including Niger and Burkina Faso; it could also fuel the expansion of tanneries and abattoirs in West Africa’s urban centers, providing desperately needed employment opportunities for impoverished youths. For this to be realized, though, the current bout of farmer-herder violence needs to be calmed in order to cultivate an environment more conducive to modernizing the region’s agrarian sector.

Although jihadist violence may garner more international attention, farmer-herder clashes in West Africa present a serious stumbling block to alleviating local economic and humanitarian woes.
    

Options to reduce friction between pastoralists and agriculturists exist. One is the Great Green Wall for the Sahara and Sahel Initiative, an African Union–backed project that aims to combat desertification in Africa’s dry lands by promoting sustainable environmental management techniques, including the planting of drought-resistant trees along a 4,831-mile-long belt of land stretching from Senegal to Djibouti. Despite receiving official support from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the European Union, the Great Green Wall’s implementation has been uneven, owing largely to a failure of certain African governments to commit the necessary resources.

Yet even if the Great Green Wall is realized, West African states will have to better accommodate the southward migration of Sahelian pastoralists. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that rainfall in West Africa’s interior will decline significantly over the course of the twenty-first century, while birthrates in the Sahel will remain high for the foreseeable future. Governments in the region should establish more grazing reserves and uphold the integrity of those already in existence. Finally, greater attention needs to be given to addressing rural criminality in West Africa, with security forces operating in the countryside receiving additional personnel and equipment.

Although jihadist violence may garner more international attention, farmer-herder clashes in West Africa present a serious stumbling block to alleviating local economic and humanitarian woes. Successful conflict mitigation would yield measurable dividends for the region.