My Land, Not Your Land

Farmer-Herder Wars in the Sahel

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


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.

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