Photo: Abubakar Balogun, Unsplash

Climate change fuels dispute between farmers and herders in Nigeria

Scarcer pasture and arable land, floods and terrorist groups are fuelling the conflict between farmers and herders in Nigeria. Despite numerous attempts at a solution, the situation is not easing.

Abuja (KNA) – Ahmadu Ogah Onawo finds clear words. He is the Andoma of Doma, a traditional regent in Nasarawa State in central Nigeria. “In the early hours of the morning, at one or two o’clock, people come to me and tell how their family was attacked or an aunt was murdered. We in the countryside know what the conflict means.” During the national conference in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, he speaks forcefully about the deep and complex dispute between farmers and pastoralists. Today, the whole country is affected; urgent action is needed, he stresses.

The conflict has been debated in Nigeria for years as it has become increasingly brutal. Only at the beginning of August, eight people were killed and two injured, according to information from the television station Channels TV. For a long time now, this has had nothing to do with the original incidents, such as when a few cattle trampled over a field. At the same time, the supposed religious component in the conflict – Muslim herdsmen here, Christian farmers there – should not serve as a simple explanation.

According to information from the Nigerian news agency NAN, the introduction of fenced grazing areas, which should have existed since independence in 1960, is now being discussed again. Three years ago, the government under President Muhammadu Buhari relied on the ruga concept. Ruga means “settlement” in the language of the Fulani – the ethnic group traditionally keeps cattle and partly lives semi-nomadically until today. However, other ethnic groups protested against this because they criticised that the Fulani were being unfairly allocated land.

Land is becoming scarce in Nigeria, where the population has quadrupled in the past 60 years. In addition, there is climate change. On the coast, the beaches are getting narrower, and in some places whole districts have been washed away. In the North, the desert is spreading, which is accompanied by the cutting down of entire forests. Rising prices for cooking gas – within a year, the price of a five-kilogram cartridge has more than doubled to almost ten euros, according to information from the National Statistics Office – are making families more dependent than ever on firewood. “Climate change is one of the most significant causes of conflict and extreme violence, and at the same time it is very rarely talked about,” says Priscilla Achakpa, president of the non-governmental organisation Women’s Environment Programme. It affects all Nigerians.

Inland, too, rivers increasingly burst their banks during the rainy season. In 2020, 69 people died and around 2.4 million lost their homes, gardens or farmland. Dozens have already died this year. And some regions are yet to experience the heavy rains that destroy valuable farmland and infrastructure.

The permanent security crisis is also affecting agriculture. The terrorist group Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) has spread further towards the capital Abuja in recent months. The “threat from Islamist insurgents and other armed groups” has reached critical levels, says Anietie Ewang, Nigeria expert for the human rights organisation Human Rights Watch. Fearing attacks, farmers are leaving their fields fallow and pastoralists are forced to find new pastures. In July, the UN World Food Programme said 19.5 million Nigerians were “facing high levels of acute food insecurity.”

“When farmers are at war, the whole nation suffers. We urgently need to defend peace and security,” says General Abdulwahab Adelakun Eyitayo.

Non-governmental organisations stress that solutions must be found at the local level. This includes early warning systems and meetings to discuss problems before they escalate. For years, there has also been criticism that suspected perpetrators go unpunished, those behind the crimes are not identified, and weapons are not traced. Most of the time, one reading prevails: “Fulani terrorists” are said to be responsible for the massacres. This is what the Nigerian political scientist Jibrin Ibrahim, a well-known social critic in the country, recently criticised on Twitter. The “ethnic stigmatisation” must stop.

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