Nigeria’s ‘weather wars’

Is climate change exacerbating Nigeria's Fulani herdsmen conflict crisis?
Photo ILRI / CC BY-SA 2.0 / Flickr

Thousands of people have been killed due to increasing violence in central Nigeria, where herdsmen and farmers have been fighting over access to fertile lands.

Herdsmen – mainly Muslims from the Fulani ethnic group – accuse farmers of grabbing grazing lands and of stealing and killing their cattle. On the other side, farmers – predominantly Christians –  accuse herdsmen of ruining their crops.

Tensions between the two groups have culminated in tit-for-tat violence that is leaving communities deeply scarred and it is uprooting thousands of people.

Factors behind violence

Several factors have been identified as underlying causes of the spiralling conflict. Namely, climate change, government inaction, religious and ethnic tensions, and politicisation of the violence in the lead up to the 2019 general elections.

The recent attack by suspected Fulani herdsmen that killed 19 people – including two priests – in a church in Mbalom, Benue state, added fuel to the flames, sparking fears the conflict might be progressing along religious lines.

This is putting further pressure on President Muhammadu Buhari – whom some have accused of doing very little to end the conflict –  to halt violence. He is a Muslim, Hausa-Fulani leader who announced he will re-run in next year’s election.

Although some have tried to frame the violence as a religious conflict – a view exacerbated by  President Trump’s erroneous description of the violence as a “genocide against the Christians” – several analysts and religious leaders on the ground have dismissed the religion link. Both Christian and Muslim groups condemned the violence.

‘Weather wars’ and impact on economy

In spite of the complexity of the situation, desertification caused by prolonged droughts in the region, fewer rains and fighting for resources, namely land and water, are seen as the most important factors that have exacerbated tensions in recent years.

Decreasing lands for grazing means that nomadic herders have been travelling to other areas of Nigeria – particularly the country’s central zone, known as the Middle Belt – searching for pasture.

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Due to scarcity of land, herders tend now to relocate permanently to areas already inhabited by farmers.  As a result, the two groups have been finding themselves fighting for the control of already scarce resources.

“Dramatic changes in weather patterns are a definite precondition and trigger for the ongoing crisis in the Middle Belt,” security analyst and counter-terrorism expert David Otto told Words in the Bucket. 

“A drought may not directly threaten the national security of Nigeria, but when the consequences [of climate change] are mismanaged and become too overwhelming for  the population, they can lead to internal migration, unemployment, poverty, anger, hatred and inter-communal clashes.

“The government should proactively counter the adverse repercussions of global climate change patterns to avoid that desperate men and women will be left with no choice but fight ‘weather wars’ of survival,” he concluded.  

Some believe the ongoing situation could eventually harm the country’s economy, highly reliant on crude oil sales, by discouraging investments in the volatile nation.

“Dramatic changes in weather patterns are a definite precondition and trigger for the ongoing crisis in the Middle Belt,”

Charity Mercy Corps – which ran a project (2013 – 2017) to train local leaders in conflict resolution, helping resolve more than 500 land disputes peacefully so far – estimated last year that violence between farmers and herdsmen in four states may have cost the country $14 billion or more a year in lost revenues, hampering economic growth.

Boko Haram exploiting crisis?

Killings are mainly blamed on the Fulani herdsmen, which the Global Terrorism Index identified as among the world’s five deadliest terror groups in the world in 2015, along with Boko Haram (also based in Nigeria), the Islamic State, the Taliban and Al-Shabaab.

The report claimed that herdsmen killed 1,229 people in 2014, up from 63 in 2013, describing the violence as posing “a serious threat to stability”.  

Last year, the Index’s report estimated that “Fulani extremists were responsible for 466 terrorist attacks and 3,068 fatalities in four countries” between 2010 and 2016. More than 90 percent of the killings took place in Nigeria.

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In Benue alone, violence has killed hundreds of people, prompting the army to deploy special forces to the region. The federal government implemented a grazing ban in the state in a bid to halt the violence. However, this has sparked resentment among herdsmen, who claim the ban unfairly targets them, according to reports.

Although the Nigerian government has repeatedly condemned “criminal activities” by the herdsmen, it refused to designate them as a terrorist organisation.

According to Otto, Nigeria-based terror group Boko Haram – which mainly operates in the country’s northeast – is exploiting the crisis to increase recruitment of frustrated young farmers and herders who have no choice but resort to violence for their survival. 

“They [Boko Haram]  trap and forcefully recruit local fishermen, herders and farmers – mostly men – who are attracted to the region during the raining season to fish, graze and plant in swampy areas,” he explained. 

Lack of government intervention

In April, Buhari ordered  security forces to crack down on cattle raiders accused of killing hundreds of people. He reassured the government would “not allow these attacks to continue.”

However, some believe violence has been exacerbated by authorities’ lack of adequate intervention to halt the conflict. Allegations of collusion between some members of the army and gunmen have surfaced.  

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“The key problem here is that security bodies are poorly equipped to do their job and further hamstrung by political dependence,” Adedayo Frosh, a Lagos-based West Africa risk analyst with Songhai Advisory, told Words in the Bucket.

“The state governments can legislate and raise the alarm all they want, but the police, army etcetera are controlled by the presidency, and the presidency in Nigeria (now and in former administrations) tends to deploy security bodies based on political interests.”

Rights group Amnesty International claimed that the government’s response to the violence has been too slow and ineffective and, at times, illegal as security forces used “excessive or unlawful force resulting in even more deaths and destruction”.

As part of the Mercy Corps project, herders and farmers worked together to produce honey, grow cassava and rice, and trade with each other at jointly-built markets.

“Having the opportunity to work towards a common goal has helped to improve their relationship, and resolve disputes peacefully,” Mercy Corps peacebuilding adviser Lisa Inks told Reuters last summer.

“By tackling the drivers of conflict, mainly competition for scarce resources, these herders and farmers will be more likely to sustain peace.”


Ludovica Iaccino is a London-based press officer for children's charity World Vision. Previously, she worked as a foreign news reporter for the International Business Times and Newsweek, focussing on Sub-Saharan Africa. She has reported extensively on Nigeria and her work features interviews with local activists, politicians, survivors of terror attacks and analyses on terrorism and development. She is the author of “The Silence of Nyamata”, a historical novel about the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
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