The Political Economy of Nigeria’s Farmer-Pastoralist Tensions

Pastoralists and Global Terrorism

This summer the Global Terrorism Index announced that Nigeria’s “Fulani militants” were the fourth most deadly terrorist organization in the world. The GTI is based on data from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland. There’s indeed evidence that violence has increased. But it’s hard to pinpoint when and how much, and a goal of this post is to also explore some overlooked reasons as to why.

A shortcoming with the analysis is that according to the Consortium’s dataset, only one attack occurred in 2002 and precisely zero attacks occurred between 2003 and 2009. In 2010, only three attacks occurred and 2011 again saw precisely zero attacks. Since the database otherwise goes back to 1970 this makes it difficult to accurately establish the nature of a trend. This is most likely due to the dearth of online newspapers from Nigeria prior to the early 2000s, rather than coding bias. Another problem is that the Fulani, who are traditionally pastoralists, typically clash with those engaged in settled agriculture. Yet “farmers” never appear as perpetrators in Nigeria in the list of 290 incidents between 2002 and 2015. This made it easy for members of the U.S. Congress to seize on the GTI analysis to paint a picture of Islamic extremists senselessly attacking “predominantly” Christian farming communities.

Pastoralists and the Global Economy

My recent road trip through Plateau, Bauchi, Gombe, and Adamawa states with Matthew Page adds important layers of nuance and raises a number of questions ripe for PhD theses research that could clarify latent sources of tension — and help inform a balanced US policy.

(1) Farms regularly violate the boundaries of Federal Grazing Reserves – Cattle herders in Gombe argued that farms often encroach on federal grazing reserves. A visit into the forest about two hours outside of Yola in Adamawa State confirmed this; the grazing reserves are marked by small monuments (pictured below).  One cause of this, according to Pastoral Reserve (PARE), is that the government has not maintained the maps for the federally established cattle routes.  Moreover, federal officials have supposedly geo-tagged the boundaries but the data have not been made public. This could help defuse tensions between farmers and herders simply by formalizing where planting is permitted and where grazers have the right of way.

Crops in South Yola violating the federal grazing reserve demarcations. (Photo by Matthew Page)

Crops in South Yola violating the federal grazing reserve demarcations. (Photo by Matthew Page)

For the pastoralists, this also means that staying on route is increasingly difficult. We walked down paths so narrow that it is impossible for even small herds to pass. Some pastoralists in Adamawa allege the farmers do this is on purpose in order to precipitate the inevitable error of animals straying from a narrow path. This then entitles farmers to (modest) financial compensation for trampled crops. It also opens the door to collusion with local police who allegedly inflate the fines imposed on cattle owners in order to take a cut.

Map of Adamawa pastoral routes.

Map of Adamawa pastoral routes.

(2) Breakdown in conflict resolution-mechanisms

In 1997, during Nigeria’s military years, the Adamawa state government issued an edict establishing a conflict resolution committee that formally remains on the books. Unfortunately, the state legislature has been mired in corruption and party switching for the last several years, rendering the committee inactive. The committee could generate missing institutional trust as well as institutional memory. Several cattle herders further explained that the lag time between a provocation by farmers and a response can be a year or longer. This makes a pastoralist retaliation appear like a random attack, or perhaps motivated by other causes such as religion. Naturally, this in turn makes it easier for the Global Terrorism Index’s “Fulani militant” label to stick. Organizations such as Chatham House have appropriately called for a “balanced response” that does not “securitize” existing tensions.

Unlike other states in the northeast and the Middle Belt, in Gombe the police have convened community meetings with a broad range of stakeholders that have helped diffuse tensions. According to a pastoralist association we met with there, the government sent detailed information about the grazing boundaries to all the Local Government Areas to help prevent farms from spreading onto federally protected pastures. The government also established ranches where cattle can get water in strategic locations, so it is easier to stay on route. If federalism is an incubator for successful policy experimentation, and the accounts from Gombe are verified, then there may be an opportunity for replication.

(3) Demand for beef is rising 

Should we should think about the pastoralists as a wave of Islamic capitalists, responding to a rising demand? The price of beef has gone up (see below) while the lifestyle of those who provide the beef is proving increasingly difficult to sustain. Nigeria has one of the fastest growing populations in the world, and urbanization has been stimulating demand for meat for decades, according to the United Nations. (I also note in my 2014 essay in African Affairs that Abuja, on the edge of the north, is the fastest growing city in West Africa). Food supplies are experiencing added stress now from millions of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). This could increase the risks of food shortages, beyond the initial wave that hit the northeast when farmers abandoned their crops, sellers left Maiduguri’s market, and fishermen fled Lake Chad in Boko Haram’s violent wake (and not to mention a collapsing currency).

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the price of meat from cattle has gone up while key crop prices have remained flat. (No cattle price data available after 2008. Why?)

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the price of meat from cattle has gone up while key crop prices have remained flat. (No cattle price data available from FAO after 2008. Why?)

(4) Pastoralists are planting crops – Mixed farming, whereby herders settle and sometimes trade commodities such as manure fertilizer for harvested crops, was noted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as a phenomenon a decade ago. I met IDPs and Fulani who are now engaged in farming in South Yola. This is important because it indicates a departure from traditional economies and also suggests (based on very limited observation) peaceful co-existence between the “new” farmers and existing ones. This too may prove difficult to sustain over time, as the legal status of these farmers as “strangers” becomes salient in a competition for scarce land.


Research Agenda:

Is there an African start-up that wants to create a smart phone app with geo-tagging that helps the pastoralists avoid straying from their routes? This could help increase livehoods, match supply with demand, and defuse local conflicts. Perhaps organizations such as the Open Government Partnership and Enough is Enough Nigeria can also generate pressure for greater transparency of federal grazing boundaries as another source of data-driven peacebuilding. Publicizing the grazing boundaries would also clarify where farmers can legally plant.

In none of our interviews did pastoralists bring up religion. Even when prompted, cattle herders insisted it was irrelevant to the conflict. What is the contemporary basis for inter-ethnic harmony and intra-ethnic conflict in agrarian communities of the northeast?

What’s the price of cattle? Naturally it varies based on quality, and is influenced by supply and demand. But it also varies based on the location, and herders say close proximity is more important than migrating for a higher price. And how does demand relate to conflict triggers over time? Are the “new” farmers growing mostly for subsistence or for surplus? If you know of any subnational data on cattle prices, please post a comment. And if you know of any funders who would like to support a small collective of college students in Adamawa willing to gather data on these issues, send me an email.


4 thoughts on “The Political Economy of Nigeria’s Farmer-Pastoralist Tensions

  1. jacob

    Hi Carl,

    Thank you so much for your research. I have a few questions you might be able to answer:

    1. Were the demarcated grazing pastures adequate for grazing?
    2. Were there class dimensions within the lagged clashes?
    3. How did pastoralists alter their seasonal grazing routes following provocation/disputes?
    4. Did pastoralists complain about rustling or criminal gangs?

    Thank you very much and I hope you enjoy the rest of your sabbatical!

    Best regards,


  2. Yinka Fashagba

    The price of cow depends on the size but far cheaper in the north than in the south. The cattle rearers are into business just the same way most southern farmers are into farming, mostly for subsistence. So when the herdsmen graze on farms that are operated either for subsistence or commercial, they undermine the economic interest of the farmers to advance their own. The farmers often rise against the Fulani because the latter do not see their action as wrong. Most often when an affected farmer complain to the herdsmen he gets attacked. This is very common. It has nothing to do with religion. But most herdsmen that attack are those that are constantly on the move. Those who have settled in different communities over a Long period have integrated with their host communities. In fact, l know of some in my town that have stayed for over 40years. They have raised families and grand children. So they speak the local dialect, and established different form of relationship with host communities. However, they are made to pay rent on the land they occupy.

  3. Dr. Carl Post author

    Hi Jacob,
    I’m not sure what the answers to 1 and 2 are, but those are definitely the right questions to ask. I would love to know, and one of the main reasons why I wrote this post is because we need much more research on this issue. My impression though is that the cattle herders we spoke with feel like the pastures are adequate, but the problem are that (a) the boundaries are not enforced well and (b) there are few channels for effective communication and mediation before tensions escalate.

    With regard to #3, there were different responses. In Gombe, they said they were able to arrange for a neutral “escort” using the conflict resolution committee coordinated by the state. If true, this is an interesting step that could be replicated elsewhere. But it would still only be an interim step if grazers are being pushed into new spaces in search of water, and if more and more farmers (some of them IDPs engaged in subsistence agriculture) are planting on grazing lands. With regard to #4 criminal gangs: yes! Though they said that the rustling problem is much worse in Zaria and some other parts of the north.

  4. Babangida yohanna

    I wish you know them, they will always deny. But the fact is most of the causes are religious. Hausa people are also farmers why are they not attacking them. Seems you fail to visit Plateau state, Benue, and Nasarawa where the whole thing is obvious. They are just back to conquer the worrios their grand parents could not, I mean Danfodio the 1804 jihadist.

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