In Nigeria’s Middle Belt, the conflict between cattle herders and farmers has intensified. Disputes have centered around an expanding agricultural population, land scarcity for both cattle grazing and farming, and has, in turn, created this cycle of conflict where neither of the two groups’ needs are met. Various news outlets have reported the death toll to be about 4,000 and as having been fueled by an ethno-religious dimension, seeing as conflict exists primarily between Muslim Fulani herders and Christian farmers of various ethnic groups. Bloomberg’s latest report on the Nigerian conflict states that it is only traveling further south.
Questions of land distribution have been looming over the country since the days of British colonization and continue to be a prominent issue affecting the Nigerian political landscape, but it is critical to understand the issue at hand as multi-faceted and being the result of a number of different issues that affect each other. The director of Amnesty International Nigeria makes the case in its 2018 report that the conflict “has nothing to do with religion or ethnicity; it is largely about land access and grazing.” The director further goes on to say that the government has a hand in exacerbating the conflict by politicizing it in a manner that brings stark religious or ethnic divisions into the equation. Therefore, the conflict begins to resemble existing narratives of ethnic and religious strife.
Taking a closer look at this particular conflict and the specific needs of both cattle herders and farmers to make a sufficient living, more people have been pointing to the state of the environment as being an integral part of the conversation as arable land becomes harder to come by, displacing both herders and farmers. Continued land degradation and resource scarcity that has resulted from changing climate patterns have brought the farming and herding populations closer together, affecting the livelihoods and income of both groups. In efforts to crush the root causes of conflict and violence, recognizing and combating the environmental degradation of climate change are as crucial in the long run as curbing ethnic and religious strife for the purpose of protecting both the human and economic security of the Nigerian people.
The Buhari government has decided to invest in “Ruga settlements”, which would distinguish grazing areas in hopes of reducing clashes among the two groups, but there have been accusations from some community members that this will be a means of Islamizing the state. But experts, including members of Amnesty International Nigeria, have said that there is potential for the Ruga settlements to be a compromise for both herders and farmers. However, the government will need to act with caution by promoting a dialogue between populations, removing the partisan valance from these actions to prioritize the needs of both communities, and ensuring that land the government has no rights to is not seized in the settlement process. It is clear that both sides want to live in peace, and the government has a responsibility to achieve these ends.
In addition to these measures, there needs to be attention paid to the environmental aspects of the conflict, as environmental detriment has long-lasting and even irreversible effects. Just as ethno-religious conflict is understood as an issue of national security, climate change should be seen through the lens of compromising national security as well. It is imperative that this issue is examined in its totality if there is to be a discourse about long-term peace and stability as it relates to this conflict between cattle herders and farmers.
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