How climate change is provoking clashes between herdsmen and farmers in Nigeria

| 22nd February 2018

Fulani herdsmen

The Cambridge Climate Lecture Series has announced CHIAGOZIE UDEH as the climate communications competition winner. Udeh’s winning piece highlights the role that climate change is playing in driving conflict between herdsmen and subsistence farmers in Nigeria, resulting in more than 1,000 deaths.

Our farms are under attack and our children and women are left vulnerable to the violence of the Fulani herdsmen, who would rather kill humans than risk losing their cattle to hunger.

Climate change is not ranked among the five top causes of conflict in Nigeria - namely: tribalism, resource control, religion, land and trade.  But that reality has been altered. 

The past thirty-six months have been fiercely violent for several Nigerian states, which have experienced rampaging Fulani herdsmen killing many subsistent farmers whilst trying to protect  their land from grazing herds. A number of reasons have been given for the violence, but no connection has yet been made between the herdsmen migrating south and the effects of climate change. 

Herdsmen - for whom cattle is a source of livelihood and wealth - have killed approximately 1,000 Nigerians. Myetti Allah - the umbrella body of the herdsmen - justify the killings in the name of self-defense.

Under attack

Having lived in southeastern Nigeria for the past two decades, I have never witnessed a more turbulent time than the past three years. This is not to suggest that life has always been smooth, but we have hitherto enjoyed relative peace. Now, our farms are under attack and our children and women are left vulnerable to the violence of the Fulani herdsmen, who would rather kill humans than risk losing their cattle to hunger.

The Fulani herdsmen are nomadic and habitually migratory. They annually move from north to south with their cattle in search of grazing fields. The movement is seasonal. Now with climate change, the movement pattern has been markedly altered.

Due to expansive desertification, drought and unchecked deforestation in northern Nigeria, the herdsmen naturally seek greener pasture further south. As the resultant migration has intensified, so too has violent clashes over grazing lands between local farmers and pastoral herdsmen, whom the former accuse of wanton destruction of  their crops and forceful appropriation of their lands. 

The emerging conflict is further compounded by the shrinking of Lake Chad from 45,000km2 to 3000km2 in less than three decades. The consequence according to the United Nations, is the displacement of about 10.5 million people. It’s a combination of these factors that has pushed herders from north-eastern Nigeria, the region closest to Lake Chad, to the southern parts of the country.

The spiralling rise in killings by the Fulani herdsmen coincides with the assumption of office by President Muhammadu Buhari- also a Fulani- who may be standing for reelection in 2019.  In the two and a half years that the Buhari administration has been in power, over 50 percent of the casualties recorded have been in the south-east and north-central geographical regions.  Farming communities in Benue, Kogi, Taraba and Nassarawa in the north and Enugu, Abia and Anambra in the south-east have incurred the highest casualties.

Climate change

The government’s response has ignored climate change as the source of conflict exacerbating the herdsmen's grazing crisis.  Historically, since the existence of Nigeria, the Fulani herdsmen have grazed their herds in the north and intermittently in other areas. But incremental drought with resultant desert encroachment forced them to regularly look southwards for greener grazing areas. 

As Mary Ikande observed in an article published on “With regard to precipitation at the coastline, the eastern part records 430cm, the western region records 180cm, the centre of Nigeria records 130cm, the upper north is the driest zone and records only about 50cm”. 

These statistics, which merely confirm pre-existing academic research on rainfall patterns in Nigeria, point to the underlying problem.

According to an International Center for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) publication released in November 2017, “over 80 percent of Nigeria’s population depends on rain-fed agriculture leading to a high risk of food production system being adversely affected by the variability in timing and amount of rainfall.”

With the rising attacks, some Nigerian states have enacted anti-grazing laws that make grazing in open fields or farms a punishable offence. Whereas such measures have reduced the tension in some affected states, in places like Benue state, it has failed. 

Green vegetation

The 2018 New Year day herdsmen attack resulted in the gruesome murder of 73 people in rural Benue communities. The attacks occurred despite the  anti-grazing law the Benue state government had enacted which prohibited indiscriminate and open field grazing.  The herdsmen had vowed not to obey the law.

The Federal Government’s response has been lethargic and its reaction, if any, has always been the deployment of security operatives to affected areas. 

In developed and some developing countries, cattle herds are ranched with provisions made for growing their choice species of grasses. Nigeria must do the same. Ranching has been widely recognised as a solution, but entrepreneurs are reluctant to take advantage.

The onus is on the government to take the first step and introduce policies that will make ranching attractive such as an effective ban on open grazing, easy access to land, improved species of grasses and compulsory inter-state transportation of cows by trucks.  This will also create thousands of green jobs for unemployed youths.

Intensifying the pace of the Great Green Wall project (a reforestation plan for sub-saharan Africa to  combat desertification) in the 11 northern pilot states where it is meant to take place is now imperative. Implementation of that project will help return green vegetation to the north.

Political lethargy

Nigeria also needs to change its policy on climate change from a vision into action. It is distressing that Nigeria is not yet a member of the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) - a 43-nation group of most vulnerable countries that negotiate as a bloc at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

It speaks to the lethargy that characterises such issues of great importance. Joining the CVF will give Nigeria the opportunity for knowledge-sharing with countries facing similar challenges. 

Nigeria can’t escape or ignore the impact of climate change on the herdsmen crisis. 

The best way to tackle it is to approach the herdsmen and explore the opportunities they present to empower people. In a country with terrifying unemployment, this moment should be seized to stop a naturally-induced crisis from becoming politically explosive.

This Author

Chiagozie Udeh is the winner of the Cambridge Climate Lecture Series (CCLS) article competition 2018 and is a climate change policy research associate at Selonnes Consult Ltd.