Herder-Farmer Clashes: A Call for Working People’s Unity


The herder-farmer clashes have been treated in a simple ahistorical manner by most of the media in a way that demonizes the Fulani. But, the complex relationship between nomadic and sedentary communities can be traced back almost as far as the beginnings of agriculture. For most of this time, both sides benefited from their co-operation. It is only recent changes, mainly damaging the herder communities, that have led to the rise in inter-communal violence.

The Epic of Gilgamesh was written in Mesopotamia four thousand years ago. It tells of Gilgamesh, a king of the farmers of Uruk and his companion Enkidu who was born on the steppe and roamed the land with animals. Later, three thousand years ago, the early texts making up the Book of Genesis tell the story of Cain the farmer, who killed his brother Abel the shepherd.

Until at least the 15th century, before the advent of nation-states and Western imperialist expansion, much of the world remained outside the reach of any central state authority. These areas were inhabited by pastoral, nomadic and semi-nomadic communities. Their living space has shrunk ever-since and now they only survive on the fringes of modern states.

Pastoral livestock breeding has been practiced for centuries in the Sahel and other arid regions of the world. Mobility of pastoral communities and their herds has been the key feature of their means of livelihood and socio-cultural life. It allows them to take advantage of the volatility of rainfall – and grazing – in time and space. Thus, transhumance has been governed by a predominant North-South pendulum movement. During the dry season, the herders move South in search of water and pasture for their animals. In the rainy season they head North to avoid the humid weather unfavourable to their flocks. They also thus avoid the tsetse fly, responsible for transmitting animal trypanosomiasis (as well as sleeping sickness in humans).

This was nomadic means of sustenance was developed in interaction with sedentary farming communities. Conflicts were a part of the relationship between the two types of users of the territory and resources. But these were often secondary to a range of interactions that included negotiation, mutual benefits and trade. At the heart of this symbiotic relationships lay the exchange of manure, to fertilize the fields, for crop residues, to complement the animal diet.

The co-operation went beyond this core trade off; communities traded milk, meat, grain and vegetables and often married each other’s sons and daughters. In many places the seasonal arrival of the pastoral communities was celebrated with music and dances. All this was the result of a long-term process, over generations, weaving networks of community alliances. This included the traditional authorities who had a prominent role in allocating land, settling disputes and collecting fines.

Underlying trends leading to the current crisis

Over the course of the twentieth century, several factors contributed to the weakening of these alliances, and to the escalation of tensions between pastoralist and farming communities, resulting in the violence we know today.

Population growth and urbanization have played a major role in increasing the demand for food – the population of Nigeria is now four times larger than it was in 1965. This has led to an increase in the land used for cultivation, to the detriment of pastoral corridors and pastoral access to water bodies that used to take up as much territory as the farmland. At the same time, globalized capitalism has favoured the expansion of large-scale cash crop production, putting further pressure on land resources and availability of food.

Climate change has increased the volatility of the rains and increased droughts. This has led to a shortening of the period when the herds can stay in the North. As a result, herders have had to start their journey South earlier in the year, sometimes passing through cultivated land before harvest and thus destroying crops. The droughts of 1914, 1931 and 1942 were the earliest signs. This combined with attempts from herders to avoid the jangali, a tax on cattle applied in the North under colonial rule. In some areas, climate change and the widespread availability of cheap trypanocides has also led the herders to extend their stay further south, into areas where traditional alliances were weaker or non-existent, increasing the occurrence of conflicts.

From the end of the 1960s, agricultural policies turned away from pastoralism. They favoured agricultural development through individual irrigation pumps, which facilitated the extension of cultivated areas to more arid areas and into the dry season. From the 1990s on, the FADAMA Development Projects, funded by the World Bank, contributed to the widespread adoption of intensive dry season farming of onions, tomatoes etc. This denied herders access to the crucial dry season water and grazing resources.

Finally, the role of traditional authorities in regulating land use and settling disputes was weakened by the establishment of the three-tier system of government after independence. Traditional rulers were largely supplanted by the local governments, the judiciary and the police. These institutions derived their authority from a mode of organization and power based on sedentary constituencies.

Farmers were more likely to constitute the electoral base of local politicians, as against herders who would leave the area periodically. On the other hand, inputs, hydraulic infrastructure and grazing reserves remain the responsibility of State Governments, which prevents local governments from taking an active part in the management of the common spaces used each season by the herders.

All these events led many pastoral communities to settle in the Middle Belt and in the South. The authorities started thinking about sedentarization as a necessity that would eventually impose itself. The colonial administration led experiments in Jos in the 1940s. In the 1950s the World Bank suggested the establishment of grazing reserves where pastoralists could settle in villages.

This culminated in the Grazing Reserve Act, 1964, which aimed at separating livestock breeding from farming. This faced many problems in its implementation. Only a few of the reserves initially planned were actually established. They were established on poor land and thus yielded poor quality pasture. They benefited only the rich herders who could afford a certificate of occupancy. They were also disconnected from a broader economic ecosystem (farmers, markets, etc).

The laws establishing grazing reserves were never properly applied. Only a few reserves were put in place and at high costs. Their protection was never effective. Governors use them as land reserves. They keep being encroached for land clearing, whether by individual farmers or by the private sector. Eventually, most grazing areas and corridors disappeared.

Over the decades, pastoral herders have thus found themselves progressively trapped in the margins of a territory that is increasingly constrained. The demographic, climatic and political trends do not allow any kind of hope for spontaneous relief. The current clashes between a minority of herder and farmer communities originate from this historical context. They need to be understood and dealt with as such.

Instead, these events are being mixed up with identity or ethnic politics, criticism of the current government and the general context of violence. This has generated two major dangerous lines of speech.

The obsessive focus on the Fulani

The media focus of blaming one particular ethnic group for all troubles is a diversion by politicians who have an interest in the continuation of ethnic chauvinism as a smokescreen for their own misdeeds. It feeds from fantasies that need to be debunked.

Pastoralism is not practiced only by the Fulani. Many other communities practice transhumance, like the Shuwa Arab, the Buduma, the Koyam and some Kanuri communities for example. Obviously, the immense majority of these pastoral communities are Nigerian. Some herders from Niger might seek pasture in Northern Nigeria in exceptionally dry seasons. They represent a minor fringe of the pastoral population and are no more involved in violence than any other group.

Tensions over the use of land and resource affect all groups, not only the Fulani. Herder communities are victims at least as much as they are perpetrators of violence. The attacks on their communities are far less reported in the media, if at all.

The Fulani are not a homogeneous group. Many of them belong to poor, rural communities, some are even sedentary. The majority of them are workers, just as are many farmers. Politically, sociologically, economically and ideologically most Fulani are at odds with the, now urban based, Fulani aristocracy.

Many commentators tend to draw a direct link between the Jihad of Usman Dan Fodio, from 1804, and today’s clashes. But most pastoral Fulani today practice a moderate form of Islam tolerant of non-Islamic Fulani traditions (Fulbe culture). It is true that some Fulani communities have recently been displaying more visible signs of religious practice.

But this has also been the case for many other communities, Christian and Muslim alike; as is often the case in contexts of general insecurity. In any case, Fulani religious practices are varied. The idea of a Fulani jihad is often contrived to give a dog a bad name, to hang it.

The tendency to view any kind of rural violence through the prism of herder-farmer conflicts, (thus making the Fulani responsible for all such violence) hides many other forms of violence, from kidnapping to cattle rustling and plain banditry, where the Fulani are not more involved than any other ethnic group.

This is not to say that herder-farmer clashes are excusable. Government authorities must be held accountable for their responsibility to protect citizens (all citizens, Fulani included) and in creating an environment conducive to peaceful interactions. But all violence must be treated equally and on the basis of the actual acts perpetrated and not according to the ethnic origin of the perpetrator. Otherwise, the feeling of abandonment of many rural communities, leading them to form militias to defend themselves, will keep opening up new cycles of violence, which could escalate to genocidal levels.

The ruling class appropriating resources further

The solutions put forth by the government to deal with the increasing violence are evidence of their (voluntary) misunderstanding of the underlying mechanisms of the conflicts presented above. Rather they promote solutions that will serve themselves and the wider rich class.

With both the Johnathan and Buhari administrations, the ways explored have progressively shaped a two-phased national livestock plan. The long-term aim is to convert all herders to ranching, but in the meantime, the revival of grazing reserves is seen as a temporary solution.

The government does not seem able to draw the clear lessons from past attempts at establishing grazing reserves. Moreover, ranching is put forward as the ultimate solution, to put an end to pastoral mobility and to finally modernize livestock production systems, perceived as archaic and unproductive. However, this private version of grazing reserves will only favour the rich and powerful. It will support their efforts to appropriate land, both pastoral and agricultural, to the detriment of the mass of the people. As a result, conflicts between the poor and disposed of each community will continue.

Reclaiming territory for all working people

Away from ethnic scapegoating and political diversion, the solutions to the conflict are to be found in several areas. Globalized capitalism is responsible for some major factors behind these clashes, including the expansion of large-scale export agriculture and climate change. Our workers’ struggles must join the ranks of climate change activists globally. We must also adopt creative designs for agriculture, both in crop production and livestock breeding, taking advantage of past and existing experiences in collective ownership, use and management of resources.

The most urgent task lies in the rethinking of institutions that promote dialogue and negotiation between communities. These should build a shared understanding of their joint territory, taking into account its many uses by all communities. These institutions must be designed and run by working-class people including farmers and pastoralists, and thus draw their legitimacy from their inclusiveness. They would need to take the form of joint committees, ensuring collective decisions over the use of common territory, and collective settling of disputes.

We must must not fall for ethnic scapegoating, leaving the rich and powerful to plunder and appropriate further resources to themselves. Rather all communities must defend their collective right to their resources and design solutions to manage them together.

by Enyioha KUSHIM





Previous articleWorking People Of Ghana And Nigeria, Unite!
Next articleLASPOTECH Struggle: No to Further Attacks on The Workers