HotSpots H2O: Farmer and herder violence continues in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, a consequence of drought and climate change

A farm in the middle belt of Nigeria. Photo © Immanuel Afolabi

Christian Thorsberg, Circle of Blue

Nigeria’s central states, a region known as the Middle Belt and nicknamed the country’s “food basket”, have been overwhelmed by violence for more than a decade. Videos posted on social media show angry farmers who burn down the houses of nomadic shepherds, newcomers in the Middle Belt in search of fertile land. In other films, shepherds are seen taking revenge by letting go of cattle towers to graze in the fields and ruin the farmers’ crops. And in other reports, direct and devastating violence, by and against both sides, is evidence of the escalation of the peasant-shepherd conflict. Researchers from the International Crisis Group say that over 10,000 people have been killed and 300,000 displaced in the Nigerian Middle Belt over the past decade.

The conflict is a result of extreme heat and worsening droughts, by-products of climate change, which is affecting the Sahel and neighboring countries more than anywhere else in the world. The temperatures rise here 1.5 times faster than the global average. The land has become too dry to hold water. So when it comes to seasonal rains, they trigger floods and landslides. Traditional water reserves and irrigation systems with open wells are difficult to maintain with inconsistent rainfall.

All of this is a burden, to say the least, on residents of the Sahel and Nigeria, where more than two-thirds of the population depend on agriculture or ranching for a living. Scarce resources are exacerbated by the influx of people. Violent attacks by the Boko Haram uprising and booming population growth in northern Nigeria have pushed shepherds south into the Middle Belt. In the central states of Benue, Plateau, Adamawa, Nasarawa, and Taraba, shepherds – most of whom are of Fula or Fula descent – meet an established farming community. According to the International Crisis Group, the deadliest interactions between shepherds and farmers take place at the grassland borders that separate the land of the two groups.

“The shepherds have to move from A to B in search of greener pastures. But their cattle route is often blocked by farmers who get angry and attack the shepherds, ”said Salihu Musa Umar, a member of one of the largest shepherds’ associations in Africa and founder of the Farmers and Herders Initiative for Peace and Development France 24 observers. “When these attacks take place there is no justice and so the shepherds feel betrayed and begin retaliatory attacks. It’s an endless spiral. “

Critics say the Nigerian government’s tepid response has encouraged vigilante justice and fueled ongoing violence. In 2019, the government released its National Livestock Transformation Plan, which included a shift from free-range herds to limited grazing reserves in areas most severely affected by violence. But two years later, these plans are already behind schedule. In Nasarawa, where seven reserves are planned, the questions of cultural change and feasibility remain. Will shepherds easily accept a fundamental change in their practice? Will extensive reserves be ready by 2028, the date envisaged in the plan?

Despite bureaucratic dawdling, the population and climate pressure will not suddenly stop. Nigeria’s fertile “food basket” is getting warmer and warmer, with unpredictable rain events adding to the complex tensions of this conflict.

“It has an ethnic dimension because most of the shepherds are Fulanis,” says Oladosu Adenike, a Nigerian ecofeminist and climate activist. said Vice. “There is a religious dimension. There is a political dimension. But if you drop labels and look at them holistically, it’s a struggle for survival, a struggle for resources that are becoming scarcer due to climate change. “

Christian Thorsberg is an intern at Circle of Blue this spring and a fourth year student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He will graduate with majors in Journalism and Creative Writing this June, and will join Medill’s MSJ program to focus on magazine writing and environmental issues. His passion is to make urgent climatic and cultural phenomena that often appear slow or invisible and explores such topics in his reporting, poetry and fiction.

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