Nigeria’s conflict is a result of environmental devastation across West Africa

, The Conversation, February 22, 2018

is experiencing a major conflict between nomadic herdsmen and indigenous
farmers. In 2016, the conflict led to the death of 2,500 people, displaced
62,000 others and led to loss of US$13.7
billion in revenue
. In January 2018 alone, the conflict claimed the
lives of 168 people.
herdsmen are predominantly Fulanis, a primarily Muslim people scattered
throughout many parts of West Africa. The farmers, meanwhile, are mostly
Christian. Therefore, when violence erupts between the two groups, with
symbolic results like churches being burnt down, it is unsurprising that the
dominant narrative in Nigeria and abroad is that this is a conflict motivated
by religion and
missing is the environmental perspective. Nigeria spans more than 1,000km from
a lush and tropical south to the fringes of the Sahara Desert in the north.
And, in Nigeria, the Sahara is moving southward at a rate of 600 metres a year. At the
same time, Lake Chad in the country’s far north-east has largely dried up.
Fulani herdsmen who once relied on the lake have thus moved further south in
search of pasture and water for their livestock. The further south you move,
the more the population becomes Christian, hence when resource conflicts emerge
they appear religious.
The lake
has lost 95% of its original size. The Nigerian portion has almost entirely
disappeared. wiki

conflicts between herdsmen and farmers aren’t entirely new. A drought in the
late 60s, for instance, kicked off struggles over land use across the
, and the Fulanis do have a history of strategic
annexation of territories
. What’s new this time round is that the
conflict has taken on an entirely different scale, as a problem once restricted
to the north of Nigeria has become a major issue in the country’s south.
This is
because environmental devastation has necessitated widespread migration of
Fulanis from all over West Africa to the south of Nigeria, which has been
unable to prevent nomads from other countries from coming in along its long
borders. The influx of new people has disrupted the existing dynamics and
relationship between predominantly farming local communities and nomadic
environmental explanations are largely ignored in favour of talk of ethnic or
religious conflict. Such talk quickly becomes highly emotive, preventing a full
analysis of all the driving forces behind the conflict. The dominance of the
“ethnic war” narrative therefore makes it harder to develop holistic and
sustainable solutions and, in a country that is a mix of cultures and
religions, puts national unity and peace-building at risk.
from the authorities
government’s response to all this has been near silence. In the vacuum,
political explanations have emerged, often from people with a vested interest.
For instance, elites and political leaders from affected regions suspect the
president, Muhammadu Buhari, who himself is Fulani, of being complicit in the
attacks (though they have stopped short
of directly accusing him
). There’s no evidence the president has
anything to do with the conflict but, in a hierarchical society like Nigeria,
the word of elites can be taken as gospel.
central government has proffered solutions such as cattle “colonies”, which
take lands from indigenous farmers and give it to the Fulanis to graze. But
among the farmers this only reinforces worries of an ethnic land
The president
has often spoken of “recharging” Lake Chad to its former size, perhaps using
water diverted from
the Ubangi River
in the Congo basin, and he recently spoke on the
subject at an African
Union conference
. Yet the lake still is not really built into the
government’s strategy for
the farmer-herder conflict
lake, peaceful people
So what
would a sustainable and just solution to the conflict actually involve? Lake
Chad certainly will need to be “recharged”, along with a massive programme of
tree growing and sustainable water management. This will require the engagement
of neighbouring countries – who have serious environmental
of their own – and the support of international donor
agencies, but it would go a long way towards stemming the migration southward
and should reduce incidences of conflict.
government must also recognise, publicly, that this is at root a conflict over
resources exacerbated by environmental problems. It must point this out when
the need arises, rather than waiting until half-truths dominate public
Nigerian media, for its part, often thrives on emotive narratives. But this
story of conflict between herders and farmers calls for less sensationalism and
more investigative journalism that helps reveal further nuances to the complex
issue. This isn’t a simple tale of ethnic conflict – the environment cannot be