Anne Mucheke in Lagos
Benue State is in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, home to farming communities who are indigenous Tiv, Idoma and Igede speakers. The land is fertile — good for soy beans, potatoes, yam, groundnuts and mangoes — and its farmlands make good fodder for cattle.
It is also the centre of a deadly conflict, which pits settled farming communities against seminomadic herders looking for land on which to feed their cows. Although tensions between the two groups go back centuries and straddle some of Nigeria’s most volatile ethnic, religious and geographical fault lines, the conflict has worsened in the past few years.
Professor Zachary Gundu of Benue State University believes that the crisis in Benue is a resource-based conflict, exacerbated by desertification in northern Nigeria, which is pushing herdsmen further and further south.
“Nigeria has a livestock population of several million cattle whose owners are mostly nomadic, unlike other countries where they remain in ranches,” Gundu said. And though the issue might be most pronounced in Benue, it is happening across Nigeria’s Middle Belt, he added.
Increasingly, the conflict is taking on religious and ethnic dimensions: the farmers are mostly Christians, whereas the herdsmen — known as Fulani, after their ethnic group — are Muslim. This was highlighted by an attack on a church in the town of Ayar Mbalom in May, during which 19 people were killed, including two priests.
At a service to commemorate the victims of that attack, Benue governor Samuel Ortom said 492 people had been killed in his state so far this year. An estimated 170 000 have been displaced from their homes.
It wasn’t always like this. Emmanuel Tachia, a Lagos driver originally from Benue, has happy memories of Fulani herdsmen visiting his community when he was a child.
“The Tiv have always been a welcoming people so we never saw the Fulani as enemies,” he said. The Fulani women, part of the grazing caravans, would make yoghurt from the cows’ milk and barter this with the local farmers.
In return, his mother would give them yam, guinea corn and unprocessed cassava flour. He remembers a particular Fulani man, a Christian called Kenneth, who would bring his father bushmeat, usually antelope that they had caught while hunting. It was a treat for the entire family.
The Fulani never encroached on the farms. If they did, the issue would be settled peacefully and the community knew they were not out to threaten them.
Chris Ngwodo, a political analyst, said that traditional mediation systems are not being used anymore, so even minor disputes can turn violent. “We have a complete breakdown of law enforcement and thereby gaps by the federal agencies and the traditional institutions in cases of cattle rustling,” he said.
Too often, this breakdown in the rule of law — both state and traditional — means that communities take matters into their own hands.
It doesn’t help matters that Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, is himself from the Fulani group, fuelling perceptions that the government is not doing its bit to rein in violent herdsmen. The Catholic Bishops Conference recently called on Buhari to resign, saying Nigeria’s security forces were taking sides — and committing abuses — against Christians.
These days, Tachia and his family’s interactions with herdsmen isn’t so cordial. Tachia narrowly missed being caught up in a New Year’s Day attack on Makurdi town, in which 73 people were killed. His 18-year-old nephew was arrested by security forces on suspicion of being involved in a vigilante militia, and detained without charge for over a month. Tachia’s brother and his family were forced to leave home, fearing for their safety.
“My elder brother fled his home and only had time to hire a pick-up [truck] and get some of the produce off his farm. […] Once they eat what they salvaged, they won’t know where to get more food,” he said.
Theirs is not an isolated experience. Governor Ortom has warned that the state could experience famine if the conflict is not brought under control soon, farmers will be unable to reap their harvests.
Although the needs of grazing cattle lie at the root of this conflict, it’s not just the cows that might go hungry.