Nigeria’s military appears to have the ISIS-affiliated Boko Haram extremist group on the run. But a different kind of conflict now threatens to undermine the government’s gains in reducing violence in Africa’s most populous country. Armed clashes between mostly Muslim herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers are fueling a new, and even more intensive, era of instability. The conflict over land and natural resources has drawn little notice internationally and urgently needs more attention from Nigeria’s federal government.

Cattle herders in the Benisheik area of Nigeria.
Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Ashley Gilbertson

Tensions between nomadic cattle herders and more settled farming communities have a long history in Nigeria's north and along the country's "Middle Belt," the rough dividing line between the largely Muslim north and the Christian south. Over the past year, what were once recurrent, low-level clashes mostly confined to these areas have spiraled into a deadly crisis that is inflaming religious as well as ethnic hostilities locally and nationally.

Disparate forces fuel the violence. Within Nigeria, the expansion of farms has blocked many traditional grazing routes used by herdsmen moving south as the Sahara desert advances in northern Nigeria. And corrupt politicians have essentially grabbed choice pieces of land.

Greater disruption comes from the outside. Environmental breakdown in neighboring countries—such as the 90 percent shrinkage of Lake Chad—has sparked an influx of foreign herders whose lack of familiarity with Nigerian populations often sparks violent misunderstandings.

At the same time, weaponry from Libya and Mali is pouring into Nigeria, much of it through mercenaries and transnational crime syndicates. The country has 350 million, or 70 percent, of the 500 million illegal arms in West Africa, according to the government. And a surge in cattle banditry has prompted herders who never carried weapons before to arm themselves to protect their livelihoods. Adding to the combustible mix, many farming communities have established self-styled militias for home defense.

Although Boko Haram is still a threat, more deaths last year were tied to pastoral conflicts than the extremist group—470 people killed in cattle rustling incidents and 1,425 killed in clashes between farmers and herdsmen.  

The federal government’s response has been criticized as slow and uncoordinated. Communities where the attacks occur get little security and there’s a perceived lack of political will to prosecute those behind the assaults. Abuja’s passivity, given the country’s history of sectarian violence, is dangerous as the farmer-herder crisis takes on ethno-religious overtones.

The growing resolve of state governors to address the conflict offers some cause for optimism. A dozen northern state heads met at the U.S. Institute of Peace in October and concluded states must lead in promoting ethnic and religious harmony. They called for community policing and met again in January to discuss the issue.

State initiatives may contain low-level conflicts in some areas. But without a coordinated state-federal effort—one that improves security and addresses the competition over natural resources—the violence already destabilizing parts of West Africa’s linchpin nation will only widen and intensify.

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