Hundreds of lives have been lost and hundreds of homes have been burned since the start of 2019, raising questions again about the truth behind the violence occurring between Fulani Muslim herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers in Nigeria’s Middle Belt.
While conflicts between nomadic herdsmen and farmers in the Middle Belt date back decades, there’s been a noticeable increase in deadly massacres across several states in the Middle Belt of Nigeria since January 2018, where people were slaughtered and communities razed.
In addition to the seemingly countless numbers of people killed, it has been estimated that as many as 300,000 people have been displaced from their homes by the communal violence.
What’s happening in the Middle Belt of Nigeria can be confusing for onlookers outside the country because of the fact that there are competing narratives.
One narrative labels the Fulani attacks against Christian farmers a “genocide” perpetrated by radicalized Islamic herders looking to drive out Christians from their homes.
A second narrative paints the killings as being part of a years-old conflict exacerbated by several factors, including increased Fulani herdsmen migration due to the Boko Haram insurgency and the desertification in the north.
The following are five key facts you need to know about the Fulani conflict in Nigeria:
1. What’s at the root of the crisis?
What’s at the root of the Fulani Muslim herders versus Christians conflict can vary depending on who is asked.
According to prominent human rights watchdog group Human Rights Watch, the violence is increasingly described in “religious terms” (Muslim Fulani extremists vs. Christian farmers) but the organization stresses that “competing claims to land and other resources are at its core.”
Fulani are an ethnic group of over 20 million in West and Central Africa. According to the Global Terror Index, only a small subset of Fulani herders (extremists) engage in attacks. Herders have been known to travel hundreds of miles while carrying weapons to protect their livestock.
2. How many have died?
Although estimates have varied, one thing is certain about the Fulani-farmer conflict in Nigeria: there was a noticeable spike in the number of killings in 2018.
As the Global Terrorism Index from 2017 notes, Fulani extremists killed about 2,827 people between the years of 2010 and 2016 in 450 separate incidences in Nigeria.
The Nigeria-based advocacy and research NGO International Society for Civil Liberties & the Rule of Law (Intersociety) estimates that no less than 2,400 Christian farming community members were killed by Fulani extremists in 2018.
One estimate from the Christian Association of Nigeria and Christian leaders reported that as many as 6,000 Christians were killed by radical Fulani during the first six months of 2018. However, Intersociety considers CAN’s estimate to be unsubstantiated. CAN could not be reached for comment.
3. What role do Christian farmers play in the conflict?
Amnesty International stated in its December 2018 report on the Fulani-farmer crisis that “both sides in the conflict have increasingly sought to destroy each other’s livelihood with herders setting fire to farms and farmers engaging in cattle rustling.”
As Amnesty International reported last December in its extensive research report, one prolonged attack on Fulani communities in the Taraba state occurred June 17, 2017. The attack reportedly lasted four days with dozens of bodies discovered afterward.
According to Amnesty International, a November 2017 attack on a Fulani community in the town of Numan in Adamawa state took the lives of 80 people, the majority of whom were women and children because most of the men were at a meeting or out grazing at the time.
4. Is there a religious element or is this simply a “farmer-herder” conflict?
While international human rights groups and the Nigerian federal government have framed the situation as being simply “farmer-herder” clashes, Enada and Umeagbalasi disagree with such a label.
“It is really simplifying catastrophic incidents in Nigeria by saying ‘herder-farmer conflict’ and that does not solve the problem,” Enada reasoned. “We need to face reality on the ground and call spade a spade. In Southern Kaduna, a village is almost wiped out and over 200 people have been killed in the last week.”
5. What has been done to stop the atrocities?
One thing that people can agree on when it comes to the conflict is the fact that the Nigerian government and security forces have not done nearly enough to hold perpetrators of the killing and razing in the Middle Belt on either side accountable.
According to Umeagbalasi, no perpetrators of the killings in the Middle Belt have been arrested or tried for their crimes.
Ewang stressed that the federal government must do more to ensure that a security force is in place capable of providing proper security and apprehending perpetrators to try them justice in fair trials.
“They really have to end the impunity that is ongoing for both the farming community side and the Fulani herdsmen side to stop the reprisal killings,” Ewang said. “They have to devise a strategy to protect citizens that actually works.”
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