In February 2016, more than 500 people were killed in several villages in the Agatu area of Benue, one of the States in North-Central Nigeria. Since 2013, there have been more than 50 deadly attacks involving nomadic herdsmen and host communities in that State alone. According to newspaper reports, there are now at least 100,000 internally displaced persons living in various camps in Benue State.

Tragically, these clashes are not unique to Benue State. In nearby Adamawa State on February 27, 2018, 20 persons lost their lives in another instalment of these deadly clashes. There are similar reports across the country, from North to South. In a sense, these clashes are not entirely new, but they have taken on more deadly forms in recent years, with the protagonists, notably the nomadic pastoralists, gaining access to automatic weapons. Unsurprisingly, the violent clashes have descended into a vicious cycle, with reprisal attacks triggering even more violent clashes between the communities, leaving hundreds dead in their wake.

Resource Struggle

At the heart of these violent clashes is a desperate struggle for fertile land, aggravated by ethnic divisions, religious differences and political intrigues. Nomadic pastoralists are mainly of the Fulani ethnic stock, and they are mainly from the North-Western and North-Eastern parts of the country, areas that have been disproportionately affected by desert encroachment, drought and other effects of climate change. Typically, the Fulani pastoralists move about the country, down south, in search of pastures for their herd. By and large, they practise open grazing.

Open grazing was always unsustainable, but as the population increased and arable farmers in host communities required more lands for their own livelihoods, open grazing gradually became a lightning rod for violent clashes in Nigeria. Agriculture is still the main source of employment and livelihood of the majority of Nigerians, especially those living in rural areas. For good measure, most of the farmers are smallholders practising land intensive, labour intensive subsistence farming. For many of them, losing their land practically implies losses of livelihood, and becoming entrapped in hunger and starvation. This is one reason why these struggles for land have effectively become existential struggles for their very lives.

The herdsmen argue that they have a right to livelihoods as bonafide citizens of the country. The farmers in the host community say that they have a fundamental right to lands that have been held by their forebears in their communities for centuries, and these lands are their principal means of livelihood. This is where the government should step in with appropriate interventions to deal with an issue that has become a major security and economic priority. Instead, successive governments have spent years scratching the surface and practically turning a blind eye to the issue.

Politicians Playing the Ostrich

Given the sheer frequency and increasingly violent nature of the herdsmen-farmers clashes across the country, it is remarkable that there has not been one case of a successful prosecution of offenders, at least within the last five years. This has fuelled damaging rumours that the security forces are not only complacent but also complicit in the conflict. For example, surviving residents in Benue State told journalists that they saw herdsmen dressed in combat gears, armed with automatic weapons as they parade their communities unhindered by security forces. The governor of the State, Samuel Ortom, alleged in a press statement issued on February 3, 2018 that the nation’s top police chief is complicit, following the latter’s call for the suspension of the law banning open grazing: “(The intervention of the inspector general of police is) a clear case of a man who is either on a mission to mislead the nation or is complicit in the attacks on Benue communities and the killing of many people by terror herdsmen”. For their part, the Fulani herdsmen did not deny the allegations of attacks on the farming communities, but said that they were reprisal attacks in response to cattle rustling, and the killing of one of their leaders by Agatu and Tiv militiamen.
Aside the lack of prosecution and effective response from security forces, the federal government has not been able to put forward an effective policy response. At best, the government has put forward vague general statements condemning the violence and encouraging Nigerians to “tolerate one another”. A recent response, apparently rushed, from the agriculture minister proposed the establishment of “cattle colonies”. The proposal generated more controversies, with some taking exception to the use of the word “colony”, and others fearing the federal government would forcefully acquire land for herdsmen from historic owners across States in the country. The president has said very little on the matter, in fact going so far as to make a joke about it in a recent meeting of the nation’s governors and past heads of state. Across the country, there is a gloomy sense of despair that the federal government under President Buhari is unwilling or unable to engage with a crisis that is unfolding into a full-scale security and humanitarian crisis.

A Clear and Present Danger

As a report by the NGO, MercyCorps, reveals, the impact of the crises is not only in terms of the human losses, which is troubling enough. It is also in the enormous economic losses incurred, and the associated food security and humanitarian implications. Smallholder farmers constitute the biggest producers of food crops in the nation, and pastoralists provide the bulk of the nation’s meat. The clashes between the two communities have precipitated severe losses in productivity and revenue.
In the year 2012 alone, four states in Northern Nigeria – out of the 36 states in country – lost up to $2.3 million in internally generated tax revenue. That is just the loss in tax earnings, in a nation where there are leakages in the tax system and majority are engaged in the informal sector. To gain a clearer picture, in a scenario of peace between the herdsmen and farmers, Nigeria stands to gain up to $13.7 billion in macro-economic progress, in those four states alone! As it stands, many of the smallholder farmers and herdsmen have suffered losses of income, with the farmers bearing the brunt of the losses, partly because of their sheer number. Worse still, others have suffered total losses of livelihoods as they have become displaced and now temporarily settled in refugee camps. For a nation that has always struggled with food sufficiency and relies significantly on exports, this is a dire situation. And unless there is a decisive and comprehensive response, it can get much worse, potentially driving the nation over the cliff. So, what are the options?

Innovative Pathways For Efficient Land Use

There is widespread consensus that the nomadic mode of pastoralist production is putatively unsustainable in its current form. Open grazing may have passed with little incidents in the past, but it seems now to the lightning rod for most of the controversies and violent clashes. On the other hand, traditional farming methods, with the low uptake of innovation, lends itself to inefficient land use. In Nigeria, yield per hectare is significantly lower, in comparison with those of other developing countries. This is mainly on account of the low uptake of innovation, both for enhancement of productivity, response to climate change, and value addition beyond the farm gate. If Nigerian smallholders do better in terms of innovation uptake, they will need much less land to sustain their livelihoods.

Thus, for the pastoralists, ranching appears to be the most viable, long term solution to the requirements of the herdsmen. While there are some cultural obstacles to persuading nomadic pastoralists to sedentarise, there is an understanding that this culture is not set in stone, and the movement of these herdsmen is more pragmatic than cultural. Not all Fulani communities are nomads, for example. However, in order to make ranching work, the government needs to invest heavily in supporting ancillary services and infrastructures, including veterinary services, irrigation facilities and pasture management. This does not have to be provided freely to the herdsmen, no more than free land and services should be offered to farmers. The ranches can operate as commercial entities, with appropriate subsidies provided in a public-private partnership. There is a strong economic argument for this partnership, given the current rate of tax revenue losses and potential macro-economic gains outlined in the foregoing.

The ranching intervention should be combined with policy interventions aimed at smallholder farmers across the countries. In addition to up-scaling subsidised inputs which have been offered on some scale in the past, the government needs a more focused intervention to support farmers – perhaps in cooperative groups – to engage more productively in value added activities. They also need better support with forward linkages in the agricultural and food industries. This will help improve their income levels and have positive reinforcing effects on rate of innovation uptake and improved productivity.

Written by Seun Kolade. He is a senior lecturer in strategic management at De Montfort University, Leicester. He can be reached at