Clashes between cattle herders and farmers over scarce resources have reached crisis levels in Nigeria as the death toll escalates. Adding fuel to the fire is the alleged bias of media reporting and the politicisation of the conflict. Report by Tom Collins.
Moments after Nigeria’s former Vice-President-turned-opposition-party- leader Atiku Abubakar had crafted a motley coalition from 38 of the country’s lesser-known parties, with the sole vision of wrestling power from President Muhammadu Buhari in the 2019 elections, the heavyweight politician approached the media carrying a sign saying ‘#Buhari, Nigeria Lives Matter, Stop the Killings.’
The sign referred to the quickly-unfolding crisis in Nigeria’s middle belt where northern and predominantly Muslim herders are clashing with largely Christian farmers in a battle over land, as the pastoralists move further south to escape desertification and conflict in the Sahel.
Brewing for around two years, Abubakar’s explicit message appears on the back of the conflict’s recent escalation. Indeed, middle belt unrest has killed more people in Nigeria this year than Boko Haram.
It also shows how the issue is being politicised and hints at the inflammatory role played by a Nigerian media gripped in the throes of an election period. Buhari, never quick to act, has so far offered very few solutions.
Unless a compromise allowing both farmers and herdsmen to maintain their livelihoods can be envisaged and the media ceases to exacerbate rifts within Nigerian society, the conflict looks to only grow worse.
Explaining the conflict
At its most basic, the conflict is a dispute over land and resource allocation. A number of factors are currently increasing competition and disagreement over resources in Nigeria.
One is environmental. “The increase in southern migration by the herders is connected to the increasing scarcity of arable land, which is of course connected to climate change,” says Ini Dele-Adedeji, Nigeria researcher at SOAS University, London.
As the Sahara grows ever bigger, traditional grazing land is turning to desert and herders are forced to look further south to sustain their cattle. This then produces an unfortunate dilemma over how land should be used: either for grazing or farming.
Adding to this debate are the unintended consequences of recent policy shifts in Nigeria. During his presidency, Buhari has made a concerted effort to focus on smallholder farming and agriculture as a way to kick-start the economy.
“There’s a government push towards agriculture to try and make the economy less oil-dependent,” says Sola Tayo, Nigeria specialist at London-based research group Chatham House. “This artificial boom in agriculture has meant there’s a greater demand for farming land, leading to the view that cattle pastoralism is old-fashioned.”
By linking certain practices to the economy – and what may benefit the economy – some ways of life are being viewed as more outdated than others. Many think cattle herders should find permanent ranches on available land far away from farming communities. Yet, as Tayo points out, Nigeria’s rapid population boom is increasing the scarcity of land and resources available for all its citizens.
Media stokes the fire
Sadly, in virtue of the identity of the two groups, the debate has the propensity to escalate by exposing certain fault lines within Nigerian society. Herders are traditionally Muslim and of the Fulani ethnic group; who, in the circumstances of competing interests, may be seen as intrinsically opposed to middle-belt farmers who are Christian and not associated with the extreme north.
Taken within the context of an upcoming election, then, the media has the power and motivation to aggravate fissures and whip up ideas of two diametrically opposed groups. Although analysts are struggling to find an explanation for the conflict’s sudden intensification, this is perhaps why.
Indeed, it is worth considering that many of Nigeria’s large media houses are based in the south, an area traditionally associated with Christianity. As such, Tayo argues that the herders are overwhelmingly portrayed as the engine of aggression in the conflict.
“The image portrayed is one of rampaging herdsmen who are heavily armed,” she says. “There is this idea of an organised armed group who have been going around terrorising communities in the middle belt.” In fact the violence is two-way and many Fulani herdsmen have complained about attacks on their own communities going unreported.
Southern politicians have also been quick to jump on the bandwagon in order to chip away at Buhari, who is himself a Fulani Muslim. His detractors accuse the President of allowing the conflict to continue, arguing it benefits his own religious and ethnic group.
“It’s being portrayed as a land-grab by Muslims who are trying to Islamicise parts of Nigeria,” explains Tayo. Yet while Buhari has so far done very little to curb the crisis, accusations that he is complicit are easily exposed as thinly veiled attacks on his presidency.
On the contrary, Buhari is under considerable pressure from his own community to stop the bloodshed. These elements combined, therefore, are fanning the flames of the conflict. “You have a very active media, including very toxic narratives emerging from some politicians on social media, and it is making people very scared,” concludes Tayo.
Outside the middle belt
The concern, of course, is whether the heightened identity gulf between these two groups will have any effect on the rest of Nigerian society, where communities peacefully co-exist.
Dele-Adedeji argues that many in Nigeria are simply unaware of what is actually happening as very few of the facts are reported. “The misreporting of events is sometimes driven by anti-northern sentiment but also just an absence of the actual facts,” he says. This, he argues, is adding to the anxieties rippling around Nigeria. “It’s certainly adding more fuel to the fire because many Nigerians, especially in many parts of the south and different parts of the country, don’t know exactly what’s happening.”
In this space the conversation is overwhelmingly shaped by the whims of the media. “So with the way the narratives are being framed, it’s only increasing xenophobia and putting people up in arms who believe Christians are under siege and need to protect themselves against Muslims,” he says. Matthew Hassan Kukah, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, professes that “community relations have been damaged at all levels”.
With politicians and the media intent on using the conflict to fit their own agendas, the mantle now falls to religious leaders around the country to instil a sense of calm in their communities and resist exporting the unrest outside the middle belt.
Buhari, as a Fulani Muslim, must find a way to represent his constituency without being seen to advance their interests at the expense of southern, Christian farmers.