A long-simmering conflict threatens to finish what Boko Haram started

NGR181208AA0001ABUJA, Nigeria – Isa Salisu ran almost a mile non-stop to escape his attackers at a military checkpoint in Jos, a large city in north-central Nigeria.

“Three of us were returning from the cattle market,” said Salisu, a 20-year old herder, recalling how he and two friends were driving from Bukuru, a city around 150 miles from Abuja in north-central Nigeria, to their home in Barkin Ladi closer to the capital. “Our vehicle was ambushed.”

Knife-wielding youths belonging to the Berom, a Christian ethnic group of farmers, attacked Salisu’s car. The other two didn’t make it. They were hacked to death. Salisu and his friends were Muslim members of the Fulani ethnic group who mostly raise cattle.

The attack was another incident a budding religious war that could grow far worse than the conflict against the Boko Haram, the Islamic State affiliated terrorist group that rampaged across the country’s remote north for almost a decade until Nigerian forces finally launched a serious campaign against them two years ago.

But the Boko Haram insurgency pushed herders south into farming regions. That has set off competition for land and resources.

Conflicts between herders – mostly ethnic Fulani herders who are Muslims and Berom and other farmers who are predominantly Christians – have already claimed 3000 lives in north and north-central Nigeria, according to government statistics.

In April, the United States Agency for International Development organized a three-day conference in Abuja, Nigeria’a federal capital where leaders and farmers as well as religious and ethnic leaders identified a proliferation of arms, diminishing farmlands and grazing pastures due to climate change and incendiary media coverage of religious clashes as escalating tensions between farmers and herders.

Like with the Boko Haram menace, the government has been too slow to push back on those trends and quell the carnage, said critics.

“There are various factors responsible for these conflicts, but mostly it’s due to the inability of government to take decisive action,” said Nurudeen Kyaagba, a researcher with the Kaduna-based African Research and Development Agency, a think-tank seeking to find lasting solutions to conflicts between farmers and herders in the West African country, the most populous on the continent.

The latest large-scale violence occurred in June when a group of Fulani attacked Gashish, a Berom community. Around 300 were killed. Barely able to escape to safety, Francis Chong, president of the Gashish Youth Development Association, said his two brothers died in the violence. “The herdsmen took positions, surrounding the entire villages,” he said.

Berom youths responded by blockading sections of the busy Jos-Abuja expressway to avenge the death of their kinsmen. They attacked commuters identified as Muslims like Salisu.

The Nigerian government signed onto a protocol for the free movement of people with the Economic Community of West African States, which allows herders from 15 countries in the region to cross each other’s borders or relocate within their respective countries. But Chong claimed President Muhammadu Buhari and other officials were not acting to smooth relations between newcomers and those already on the land.

For Comrade Peter Ahemba, president of the Tiv Youth Organization, an umbrella body for youths of the Tiv, an ethnic group of Christian farmers from Nasarawa, the conflict started when the local legislature passed the Anti-Open Grazing Law, which bars herdsmen from locating anywhere they please. The herdsmen responded by assaulting farmers on their own land.

“This crisis, aside from the killings and loss of lives, affected our economic activities,” said Ahemba. “Our people have not been able to access their farms because of the destruction of houses and the fear that is still prevailing.”

The UN Security Council recently issued a statement condemning the conflict and calling for action.

“These attacks have had a devastating humanitarian impact including through the displacement of a large number of civilians in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad, and represent a threat to the stability and peace of West and Central Africa,” the statement said.

Alhaji Muhammed Hussaini, local leader of a Fulani herder’s welfare group, the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, agreed that the government needed to do something. Christian thieves have been stealing his members’ cattle, he said. The Fulani have no recourse but to take matters into their own hands, he said.

“Injustice is the major cause of this lingering crisis,” said Hussaini. “Certain criminal elements both within the Fulani and natives who connive to rustle cows. Once a Fulani man loses his cows, he knows no peace because for him cattle is only means of livelihood.”

According to Hussaini, the Fulani community had lost more than 500 of their kinsmen since 2012 and more than 20,000 cows to rustlers.
Salisu feared the conflict would escalate from arguments over land to a full-blown West African religious war.

“I can’t see myself return home now,” said Salisu, who escaped with a knife wound on his chest and now lives with relatives in Jos. “I can only go back to Barkin Ladi if our security is guaranteed.”

Photo: August 11, 2018 - Lafia, Nasarawa State - Regina Gideon, 35 and a farmer sitting with her two children. She was displaced from her village, Ihuman in Awe Local Government Area of Nasarawa State, North Central Nigeria after armed herders sacked her ancestral home.
Credit: Ali Abare Abubakar/ ARA Network Inc. (08/11/18)

Story/photo published date: 08/30/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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