The Deadliest Conflict You’ve Never Heard of

Nigeria’s Cattle Herders and Farmers Wage a Resource War

A Fulani shepherd stands at the boundary of a farm watching over grazing cattle in Paiko, Nigeria, November 2018 Afolabi Sotunde / REUTERS

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

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