For decades, fighting in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region has resulted in untold numbers of deaths and is a major cause of displacement and insecurity. Despite the fact that reports of violence in the region often draw parallels to the dangers posed by insurgency and instability elsewhere in the country, the impact of the conflict in the Middle Belt has not received sufficient attention from governments and aid groups nor has it been appropriately established in the popular consciousness. Understanding the Middle Belt provides a prime example of the far-reaching impacts and causes of localized conflicts and illustrates the way in which addressing global and regional problems can lead to long lasting local solutions.
The Middle Belt runs longitudinally across Nigeria and acts as the border between the Northern and Southern portions of the country. An ethnically and religiously diverse geographical area, the Middle Belt contains a population of around 45 million people speaking upwards of 230 different languages. The majority of the fighting within the region has been attributed to the farmers who reside in the central and southern part of the country, as well as the semi nomadic herders who generally occupy the norther portion of the Middle Belt. Most recently, an attack in May of 2023 left over 100 people dead. Although this is the latest in a history of direct violent encounters, the specific death tolls are hard to come by. However, the International Crisis Group estimates that there was an average of over 2000 deaths per year in the period between 2011 and 2016. With a lack of concerted efforts to halt the fighting, there is little reason to assume that this trend has stopped.
Historically, the conflict has been framed along ethnic and religious lines. The majority of the herders belong to a group called the Fulani, a mostly Muslim community found throughout West and Central Africa, while the farmers in the region are mainly Christian. As a result, both sides have made ethnically charged accusations against each other, including attempts at purging, replacement theories, and even genocide. While the nature of this rhetoric is serious, so far there have not been any official verifications.
In reality, the causes of the fighting are much more complex. While socio-cultural attitudes play a role in fueling the unrest, environmental and political factors are equally important drivers. Tensions first arose as the herders began moving further south and entering into competition with farmers for land access. Climate change and instability in the northern region have compounded as droughts and desertification have made it increasingly difficult to find sources for grazing and water, while insurgents and bandits have posed significant risks to herders leading them to seek out resources and safety in the south. At the same time, farmers have had to keep up with population growth and rising demands for food, which has led many to settle on former grazing routes used by herders.
Alongside all of this, is the fact that conflicts between farmers and herders is not altogether specific to the Middle Belt and is a particularly pervasive issue in much of Africa. However, its impact is notably strong in Nigeria which experiences more deaths from farmer/herder conflicts than anywhere else, much of which has been specifically centered in the middle belt. For their parts, federal and state governments, far from providing adequate solutions, have in many cases even contributed to the conflict. The violence has prompted state governments in the Middle Belt to enact laws restricting the nomadism of herders and threatening their longstanding way of life. Some say that these restrictive laws could impede the reduction of conflict since they are seen as furthering harmful attitudes towards the Fulani pastoralists, many of whom are already subject to conspiracy theories centered around their supposed attempts to displace and steal the land of the sedentary farming communities.
The Middle Belt is a prime example of the way that local conflicts are integrated with larger regional and global issues. While specific steps can be taken to reduce tensions locally, such as increased protection for both herders and farmers, as well as protection for the land and water which herders rely on, there cannot be any long-term solutions without addressing regional instability in the rest of Nigeria and surrounding African nations. This will require the efforts of the Nigerian national government to implement appropriate security measures, but will also therefore require collaboration on a broader continental scope, while action to address the effects of climate change will necessarily depend on global efforts in areas far away from the Middle Belt.
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