The Fulani are a large and internally diverse population spread across West and Central Africa, with their largest concentration in Nigeria. In very broad terms, they can be divided into two main categories: the (semi)-nomadic and transhumant pastoralists, who raise cattle and sheep and, contrary to popular belief, usually also cultivate crops on a subsistence basis; and settled Fulani, who are not pastoralists and live in urban areas and villages as traders, farmers, traditional rulers, educated professionals. Social divisions among the Fulani population can be quite strong. For instance, Fulani pastoralists often claim that settled elites who form part of the political class in northern Nigeria do not serve their interests. This can be seen in some of the land disputes where politicians and business elites, some of whom are Fulani, have taken over pastoral land, grazing reserves and forest reserves at the expense of smaller scale farmers and herders. These land grabs are happening at significant environmental cost as the extension of cultivation into protected areas has destroyed tree cover and reduced savannah biodiversity in northern Nigeria.
Variations in armed actors and conflict dynamics
Over the past decade, conflicts between farmers and herders in Nigeria and the wider region have increased. Most of the conflicts, essentially, are resource-based but they can take ethnic and religious forms. Concurrently, there are still relatively good relations between farmers and herders in some areas, including across religious lines (e.g. in parts of Plateau and parts of Bauchi/Gombe) even where violent conflicts have occurred nearby in the same states. Pastoralists are decentralised in their social organisation, with individual families traditionally having significant freedom in their animal husbandry and mobility. Fulani clans (lenyi) are still important as they link families into large kinship networks. In armed conflicts with other ethnic groups, Fulani may mobilise on an ethnic basis or through smaller kin groups, depending on the situation. Among farmers and pastoralists, conflict actors sometimes circulate between different sites of violence.
The conflicts that often come under the ‘farmer-herder’ label may be typologised according to categories that may converge over time and space.
First, rural conflicts that are not initially triggered by a clash of livelihoods (sedentary vs semi-nomadic or farmer-herder), but by political or religious/ethnic mobilisation. The spread of major urban riots (ethno-religious collective violence) into rural areas has been a key trigger in Plateau and Kaduna states. However, these kinds of conflicts may transform in their dynamics after they start.
Second, criminality, especially the spread of ‘rural banditry’ - the proliferation of armed gangs who kidnap for ransom, rustle cattle and kill indiscriminately. Many of these gangs operating in central/northern Nigeria are Fulani, but other Fulani pastoralists are among the main victims, as well as the wider Nigerian public. These gangs of bandits are criminal networks with rural-urban links. Fulani communities in parts of Plateau, Taraba and Adamawa have responded by setting up state-registered vigilante groups to fight the banditry. Zamfara is a key epicentre from which these criminal groups have spread.
Third, conflicts involving young Fulani men entrusted with the cattle of their families or as hired herders. Many of them seek to rear their animals peacefully, but huge pressures resulting from the blockage of livestock routes, reduced access to grazing land and often hostile local populations can easily lead to disputes. Some of the young herders have social problems of drug and alcohol abuse. Others are violent and are reported to deliberately destroy farms and attack farmers. In other cases, herders moving in small groups are attacked and later retaliate.
Fourth, conflicts arising directly from competition over access to land and water - such as riverine areas or traditional grazing reserves, or where pastoralists have moved into new areas as in parts of southern Nigeria, where gazetted grazing reserves do not exist. The blockage of migration routes and the spread of cultivation into grazing areas, or the encroachment of cattle onto farms can trigger conflicts.
Last, jihadist insurgency and predation, which in the Nigerian case has primarily involved attacks by Boko Haram on the diverse pastoralist groups of Borno, who include Shuwa Arab, Fulani, Koyam, e Bodoyi (the latter two are regarded as Kanuri subgroups), and, with their kuri cattle around Lake Chad, Buduma (Yedina) (some of whom joined the insurgency). In other areas of West Africa, pastoralists have been recruited, notably into the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).
Framings of conflict: a ‘Fulanisation’ and ‘Islamisation’ agenda?
As the Fulani have a regional distribution and conflicts have become widespread due to the crisis in the pastoral economy, interpretations of what is happening often take an ethnic or religious line. In Nigeria some individuals, mainly Christian, have framed the conflicts as being part of a supposed ‘Fulanisation’ agenda, usually also linked to ‘Islamisation’. The idea is reinforced because President Muhammadu Buhari is Fulani, even though few of those in his government are and the pastoralists perceive that Buhari has neglected them. However, the Fulfulde language and Fulani culture are weakening and giving way to Hausa, so it is difficult to understand how ‘Fulanisation’ will happen.
In the Global Terrorism Index, the Fulani are portrayed as an ethnic terrorist group. This index aggregates conflicts that people of Fulani ethnicity are involved in and labels them as ‘terrorism’, while mass violence against Fulani communities, of which there has been much across the centre and north of Nigeria and in other parts of the region, tends not to feature. The violence is thus portrayed as being one-way, rather than as a dynamic with often many different armed actors involved and high numbers of civilian casualties across ethnic lines. Criminal gangs of bandits in north-west Nigeria, who are often Fulani in composition, are labelled as ‘Fulani extremists’ in the index, not as ‘criminals’, ‘bandits’ or ‘cattle rustlers’. Are they working towards a wider ethnic agenda? Outside researchers should perhaps make more effort to understand conflict dynamics and use accurate social categories.
There are different types of conflict and insecurity in the rural areas of Nigeria involving and affecting pastoralists and farmers. Not all conflicts are the same and there are different actors, interests, and groups involved within the Fulani. The above typologies summarised some of the contributing factors – such as social problems, pressure on livelihoods, criminal gangs, and ethno-religious divisions – which contribute to conflict and militancy.
Fulani communities have been victims of attacks – and not just reprisal attacks – that have then triggered protracted ethno-religious conflicts with settled agriculturalists; they are not only perpetrators of violence. Ethnic militias who may be Christian in terms of social identity but possibly not motivated by Christianity can be extremely violent, against each other (Tiv-Jukun) or against the Fulani. The same applies to inter-ethnic conflicts between Hausa and Fulani, for example, in Zamfara.
In situations of armed conflict, Fulani pastoralists tend to take revenge against groups or individuals perceived to have harmed them. Such retaliation is often extremely violent and disproportionate to the original grievance. At present there appears to be no explicitly jihadist movement that the pastoral Fulani have mobilised into on a communal or ethnic basis in Nigeria, and indeed the pastoral Fulani in Borno regularly fight the Shekau faction of Boko Haram. However, some individuals and possibly families have joined, particularly ISWAP (Islamic State in West African Province), while others have reached an accommodation with ISWAP but have not taken up arms. Due to the marginalisation and growing alienation of pastoralists from the state, there are risks if they are exposed to radical ideologies such as promoted by ISWAP or ISGR. These should be taken seriously and offset through effective development strategies that support pastoral and agricultural livelihoods and promote education in rural areas.