Climate Change And The Nigerian Farmer-Herder Dispute

As the banks of the Chad Basin continue to recede and degrade, so too does Nigeria’s fragile internal security situation. While Nigeria has certainly not been left untouched by the terrorist cells sweeping Africa’s Sahel region with increasing momentum, the country’s ongoing farmer-herder conflict remains Nigeria’s most acute security issue, a conflict now ranked six times more deadly than the Boko Haram Insurgency with no signs of abating. While political ethnic and cultural factors have affected this dispute singularly, this conflict’s rootedness in climate change appears unique. Leading social scientists have described this climate change as a ‘threat multiplier’ due to the way in which it has exacerbated pre-existing problems within the region, a theory currently playing out across Nigeria with deadly force.

This dispute, predominantly between nomadic herders in the northern region of the country and static farmers in the southern region, was initially a result of desertification and drought in the northern Sahel region of the country, compounded by Islamic terrorism in the north east of the country that instigated mass migration of these nomadic herders south in a search for fertile pastures and a constant water supply. Disagreements and conflict over grassland, property and space has been exacerbated by the increased presence of militias within Nigeria and new government laws banning herder practices in Benue and Taraba state in the north eastern part of Nigeria.

While tensions between herders and farmers have existed since the Fourth Nigerian Republic’s founding in 1999, violent clashes have become increasingly frequent in the last few years, causing significantly more casualties than those by Boko Haram and displacing hundreds of thousands more. In just the first six months of 2018 the International Crisis Group estimated that fighting between farmers and cattle herders over access to land claimed more than 1,300 lives. The growing wave of violence is concentrated in the Plateau, Benue and Nasarawa states in the North-Central geopolitical zone and in the bordering Adamawa and Taraba states in the North-East zone. While data on the scale of the violence perpetrated throughout this underlying geosocial and ethnic conflict is scarce, many Nigerians believe that the nature of this conflict has changed, becoming more intense and far more indiscriminate. Indeed, the availability of weapons on the black market, from assault rifles to rocket launchers has meant that even small disputes have ended with fatal consequences.

Mass abductions of children have also become commonplace within this conflict, carried out by armed groups to earn money from ransoms whilst also intimidating government forces and landowners. These tactics are used by both herders and Boko Haram alike, and therefore make it difficult for the government to allocate appropriate resources to tackle each threat. Kidnapping has appeared to have dramatically increased since December of last year, with kidnappers striking three schools, capturing hundreds of children. While none of these assailants were ever arrested or recognized publicly, they were largely believed to be Hausa speaking herders by the Nigerian population.

The Hausa and Fulani populations, located in the North of Nigeria, are a predominantly Muslim community, whilst the Southern region is largely Christian. This ethnic and religious division has been utilized by certain terrorist groups such as Boko Haram to intensify and manipulate the conflict. These organizations further threaten to involve external actors from neighbouring countries. Politicians have only fanned the flames of this ethnic divide. Last December, State Governors in the South West Nigeria created a regional security outfit known as ‘Operation Amotekun,’ an outfit made up of local Yoruba militia, tasked with protecting southern farmers. While militias within Nigeria’s Middle Belt region are not new, Amotekun has been notoriously unpredictable and infamously violent, carrying out brutal attacks and on Hausa and Fulani peoples. 11 people were reportedly killed by this group in December and January of this year.

Talks have occurred between the two groups recently with minimal government involvement, but with little success. Last month the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN) sought to work with South-West governors on several points of policy, while on March 11, The All Farmers Association of Nigeria and Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association in Ekiti State met in Ado Ekiti to discuss how to solve the problem, after the murder of two farmers by herdsmen earlier that week. However, due to the disparate nature of each group, decisions made within these meetings have not made any significant impacts.

While Nigeria’s geopolitical dynamics are critical to understanding this conflict, at its core, this conflict is being driven by global warming. Globally, the period of 2011-2020 was the hottest decade on record, a scorching record that has appeared to have affected the Sahel hugely. This area of semi-arid grassland was affected more than most regions, with its temperatures increasing 1.5 times more than average during this period causing unprecedented periods of drought and desertification. Within this region lies Lake Chad, a key source of water for over 30 million people from Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. From 1960, the Lake Chad Basin has lost 90% of its surface water, a lifeline for so many. UN, President Buhari of Chad soberly noted to a UN conference in 2018 that, ‘the ‘oasis in the desert’ is just a desert now… Farmers and herdsmen struggle over the little water left; Herdsmen migrate in search of greener pastures resulting in conflicts; Our youths are joining terrorist groups because of lack of jobs and difficult economic conditions.’ If Nigeria’s current security situation does not offer a warning to the rest of the world about the links between national security and global warming it certainly should be by the rest of North Africa. 60 percent of the sub-Saharan population depends on agriculture to survive, food insecurity is intensified by disruptions to rain cycles, planting seasons, and harvests. As temperatures increase and the desertification of the Sahel expands, more African nations will begin to feel increased agricultural stresses, stresses manipulated by growing terrorist organizations.

Up until now, the Nigerian government has dealt with this situation largely by funding counter terrorism initiatives. Now resources must be diverted into constructive initiatives that create dialogues between herders and farmers. Opportunities for both herders and farmers to communicate from all states is essential, allowing both sides to create reasonable working practices to stick to, but also, importantly, to reconcile for past actions. Discriminatory legislation must also be reviewed, such as the outlawing of open grazing or requiring livestock to be moved by rail and road as seen in Benue, Nigeria, in 2017.

Global warming remains a trickier problem for Nigeria to tackle. While Nigeria and several other African nations have been active in facilitating the UNCCD ‘Green Wall Program,’ this is unlikely to stop the desertification of the Sahel region. New sustainable herding management practices must also be implemented, with the help of farmers and aid groups within the region to ensure a fine balance between the use of sustainably used arable and grazing land. Furthermore, investment in ‘green jobs’ within Nigeria could be critical in tackling both global warming and the rise in terrorism. Part of the reason groups like Boko Haram have been able to spread across the country is due to widespread unemployment. Investment in small scale projects could help to placate this drawn out, bloody conflict.

The dispute between Nigerian framers and herders and the ongoing climate change crisis which has driven this tension could be an opportunity to show the world how to effectively solve security issues, caused by climate change. As global warming increases, situations like the one in Nigeria certainly will not be isolated to Africa, but will spread to Europe, Asia and the Americas also. Managing these issues quickly and effectively will be imperative for any future government hoping to ensure the safety of its population.


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