Why you should care
An under-the-radar ethnic conflict is eclipsing the infamous terror group as the biggest security threat facing Africa’s largest economy.
Haruna Usman’s biggest worry for many years was the pests that feasted on his harvest of millet, corn and groundnut in the small farming village of Maha-awo in Nigeria’s northwest state of Zamfara. Life was peaceful for the 50-year-old with three wives and 25 children. Then, in April, his life tipped into tragedy.
Bandits killed his 22-year-old son Sulaiman and, days later, forced his family to flee Maha-awo. They fell victim to the escalating violence that’s ravaging northwest Nigeria and eclipsing Boko Haram as the biggest security threat to President Muhammadu Buhari’s recently reelected regime.
The crisis started as tit-for-tats between rural farmers and herders over cattle destroying crops in 2011. But it has now exploded into a full-fledged ethnic conflict between two of Nigeria’s most prominent communities: the Fulani, traditional herders with a population of seven million, and the Hausa, farmers with an estimated population of 25 million in Africa’s largest nation. The violence has claimed more than 300 lives since the start of 2019, security experts say, threatening to exceed the 411 civilians who died in clashes with Boko Haram in all of 2018.
[The clashes are] the biggest challenge facing Nigeria and the new administration.
Murtala Abdullahi, researcher, Global Initiative for Civil Stabilization
The Fulani-Hausa conflict has claimed more than 4,000 lives since 2011. More than 500 villages and towns were attacked, and 25,000 cows were stolen in 2018 alone, according to local authorities. These tensions, until now largely confined to Zamfara, Kaduna and Katsina states, are now spreading — through abductions, assassinations and raids on villages. The violence is spilling over into the neighboring states of Niger, Kano and Sokoto. And while the federal government has posted special forces in the violence-struck region since 2017, they’ve been unable to douse the conflict — in fact, both sides are accusing the government of bias. The crisis is exploding at a time where Nigeria is still battling shocks from a crippling recession in 2016.
“[The clashes are] the biggest challenge facing Nigeria and the new administration,” says Murtala Abdullahi, a researcher with the Nigerian-based think tank Global Initiative for Civil Stabilization.
For sure, the Boko Haram conflict and the ethnic violence involving the Fulani and Hausa — the community to which Usman belongs — are very different, says Luqman Majidadi, vice president of the Northwest National Youth Council of Nigeria, a pressure group that champions youth-friendly policies and development. While the insurgency that has caused 35,000 deaths is fueled by religion, the ethnic violence is driven by a shortage of resources such as land and water, poverty, unemployment and poor governance that has led to social fissures.
But both crises point to a failure by the administration to pick up early signals and resolve tensions in time, analysts and local leaders say. “[In the beginning] the situation demanded a simple dialogue or a fair administration of justice,” says Majidadi. The government did get some bandits to surrender their arms. “That was the closest it came to peace, but it failed,” adds Majidadi.
Following the initially limited clashes between herders and farmers, Nigeria’s government responded by closing cattle markets and introducing anti-grazing laws to protect farmland that was turning barren. But these moves infuriated the Fulani.
Nigeria has fewer than 225 security personnel for every 100,000 civilians, so authorities often seek help from local militias to govern during conflicts. Buhari’s government has mostly partnered with Hausa militia, which has since been accused of extrajudicial killings of the Fulani. They’ve also been accused of extortion and abductions for ransom. That, in turn, has fed retribution from Fulani bandits, deepening the cycle of violence.
But because the government has failed to bring the violence under control, it is also losing support from the Hausa — some even smell a conspiracy because Buhari’s father was a Fulani community leader.
To many Nigerians, the spiraling ethnic conflict is also a reminder of the political neglect that fed the rise of Boko Haram. As internal refugees move to neighboring states, the parallels are only growing. Refugees escaping Boko Haram are today spread across the Lake Chad region. Major Nigerian cities — from Abuja to Kaduna, the capital of the northwestern province by the same name — have recently witnessed large protests by youth demanding more proactive political engagement from the country’s government to cool the ethnic crisis.
“This is a multilayered crisis and the approach adopted has to reflect the nature of the crisis,” says Abdullahi. “The government’s reactive approach is far more expensive, less comprehensive and probably may never solve the problem.” Ultimately, he says, the government needs to seek long-term fixes to the rural economy, border security — to stop the flow of illicit arms — and unemployment.
Buhari certainly has his task cut out for him. The country’s porous border with Niger — which is in a state of civil war — allows the bandits to source heavy weaponry from the neighboring nation. Then, they target regions where the military is absent. If the region’s communities are seen as collaborators with the government, they’re punished.
They burn houses and cash crops and demand that locals cook and feed them. The local communities are effectively held hostage by the bandits.
Usman escaped to the outskirts of Gusau, the capital city of Zamfara state, but he pines for the more peaceful past he left behind. Even with a huge family, he always had enough to feed all his children and wives. Now, they’re homeless, and he’s forced to beg for food. “I never knew this day [would] come,” he says.