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One of the world’s deadliest conflicts is one that many people don’t even know exists. Its battleground is the lush, fertile region that stretches across the center of Nigeria. Clashes between two groups there have killed more than 10,000 people in the last decade, almost 4,000 of them in the last two years alone.
The conflict is mainly between the sedentary crop farmers and the nomadic cow herders of Nigeria’s middle belt, where competition over diminishing land and water resources has turned lethal in an environment of near-total impunity.
A different source of violence in Nigeria often overshadows this one: Boko Haram, the terrorist organization operating out of the country’s northeast. But according to the International Crisis Group, in 2018 the conflict between herders and farmers was six times deadlier than Boko Haram, with a death toll of 1,949, almost double what it was the year before.
The Nigerian government has not kept official figures on the conflict, let alone effectively responded. Rather than help find solutions, some government officials have made matters worse by attributing blame to groups on both sides before conducting investigations. And many politicians are using the conflict to exploit social divisions for political purposes, especially in the lead-up to the general election scheduled for February.
Better leadership is sorely needed. The government must address the root causes of the conflict by reforming cattle management practices and improving policies on agriculture and land access. It must also strengthen mechanisms for conflict resolution, investigate the attacks, prosecute perpetrators, and respond to instances of violence with symbolic gestures such as visiting and supporting communities affected by this crisis.
Nigeria’s middle belt is the country’s breadbasket, and home to between 50 and 100 ethnic minority groups. The crop farmers in this region are predominantly sedentary landowners, mostly from the larger of these ethnic groups: the Berom, Jukuns, Tivs, Idomas, Mambila, and Nyandan. For decades, nomadic herders from the north, mostly Fulani, have traveled to the middle belt to graze their cattle during the dry season, which runs roughly from November until June. The crop farmers and nomadic herders worked together in relative peace. When conflicts occasionally arose between the two groups, they addressed them through local mediation.
But in the last decade, climate change has brought about desertification, which has diminished Nigeria’s supply of water and arable land while population growth has increased the demand for them. The Nigeria Conservation Foundation, one of the country’s leading environmental organizations, estimates that Nigeria is losing about 350,000 hectares of land per year. Major water sources are shrinking. Lake Chad, for example, which touches Cameroon, Chad, and northeast Nigeria, has shrunk by as much as 90 percent since the 1960s. Over-grazing in the Mambila Plateau, home to cattle rearing settlements, has further destroyed the available farmland. Human settlements in the middle belt are expanding. Resource-intensive industries, such as beef, have expanded to meet the demand of this larger and richer population.
These shifts, which the Nigerian state has not effectively managed, are causing violent conflicts over resources. Clashes are often triggered by misunderstandings between farmers and herders that arise, for example, when cattle wander onto farmlands to graze and accidentally destroy crops. Absent trust between the two groups or effective justice systems, minor disputes often snowball into fullblown crises. Members of the farming communities retaliate by killing or rustling cattle; cattle herders then demand compensation or attack farming communities, killing unsuspecting villagers, including women and children. Many farming communities have also accused herders of rape. And the cycle goes on, pushing the limits of local mechanisms for conflict resolution past their breaking point.
When clashes have turned violent, there has been little to no accountability for the perpetrators. The government, responding to criticism in a December 2018 report by Amnesty International, claims to have prosecuted 843 people for the killings. But this data is unreliable, and even if it is accurate, the number is miniscule relative to the scale of the violence. Members of both groups frequently feel compelled to take justice into their own hands through reprisal killings. Nigerians do not trust the government to intervene effectively because of its failure to do so thus far, and because of the perception that it is biased in favor of the herders.
The costs have been devastating. In addition to the lives lost, thousands of people have been displaced to other parts of Nigeria. Thousands of children are out of school. Farming capacity has been badly damaged. Food prices have shot up, alongside poverty and hunger. A nationwide food crisis is looming. To make matters worse, many fear that Boko Haram has infiltrated the conflict and will exploit it to wreak even further havoc in the country.
The Nigerian government has failed to work with the herders and farmers to resolve disputes or address the root causes of the conflict. Some members of the affected communities have accused the government of bias—or worse, of stoking the violence for political gain. In 2018, a former Minister of Defense from Taraba State accused the army of protecting the killers and called on the ethnic minorities to rise up and defend themselves. Some leaders of the Tiv in Benue also accused the Nigerian military of providing cover for the killers so they could take over Tiv lands.
The government is also somewhat constrained by the religious framing of the conflict. Because the farmers are predominantly Christian and the herders predominantly Muslim, Nigerians, foreign diplomats, and journalists alike tend to interpret the conflict in religious terms, and sympathize with one side or the other accordingly. Although this framing may be oversimplified, the failure of the Nigerian government to investigate who is funding the killers, hold cattle owners responsible for where their cattle graze, or properly account for the number of people displaced or killed has bred distrust and created a credibility problem for the government. Furthermore, the current president, Muhammadu Buhari, is Muslim Fulani, leading Christian leaders and farmers in the middle belt to perceive him as insufficiently harsh on the herder killers or those who fund them. Buhari’s government isn’t doing nearly enough to overcome this perception and signal its objectivity.
The environmental pressures on cattle herders don’t stop at Nigeria’s borders. Poor border security has allowed for an influx of illicit weapons and armed herders from neighboring countries, such as Cameroon and Niger. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, there are 300 million illicit weapons circulating in Nigeria. Nigeria needs to tighten its borders and develop a better system for mopping up illicit weapons. This will require bold policing, coupled with more sophisticated intelligence gathering. Security agencies, for their part, won’t be able to function effectively until they build more trust in the communities in which they operate.
There have been small signs of progress. In June 2018, the government finally introduced its first ever comprehensive strategy to manage livestock, called the National Livestock Transformation Plan. The NLTP is built around six pillars: economic investment, conflict resolution, law and order, humanitarian relief, strategic communication, and crosscutting issues (such as research and innovation). So far the plan has been implemented in fits and starts, and countrywide ownership of the process is still lagging. Some communities that will be affected by the NLTP do not have substantial information about how it will work, or faith that it will be effective. For the plan to succeed, the government needs to educate the public about its provisions, get more affected parties invested in its success, and ensure that the plan is strictly carried out. Unfortunately, none of this will happen before election season, and the prospects of successful implementation depend heavily on the outcome of the elections.
The conflict in Nigeria’s middle belt unfolds against a broader national backdrop of insecurity, political turmoil, and economic pressure. Many Nigerians deeply distrust the government, and a general sense of anger over its failure to address violence, corruption, and poverty pervades the country. What’s more, national elections are approaching in February, and insecurity in the middle belt could present serious obstacles to their success. People displaced from the middle belt will have a hard time voting, and holding safe and fair elections in the worst affected regions will be difficult. Rumors already abound that the fighting is a cover for voter suppression. Many politicians have been accused of inciting violence in areas where they are unpopular. Government officials will have to help the affected communities overcome these barriers, by securing and publicizing polling places, among other measures, if the election is to succeed.
But the task before Nigeria’s government has a longer horizon. The country’s governing officials must demonstrate a nonpartisan commitment to peace—not just to get through the elections but in order to find a lasting solution to the harvest of death in the middle belt. Beyond the election, the government needs to invest in alleviating poverty, improve the security agencies, visibly prosecute and punish those who break the laws, and communicate clearly in words and in actions its commitment to the safety and security of all Nigerians.