Ethnic stereotyping has become rife in ascribing blame for rising instability in Nigeria, including the notion that ‘foreign’ Fulani pastoralists are responsible for much of the crime and violence. Conciliation Resources’ preliminary research as part of the XCEPT programme sought to explore whether there was any validity to this widely held view.

We found that most pastoralists avoid violence where they can and much pastoral movement is managed peacefully. The challenge is to maintain or increase peaceful pastoralism amid broader insecurity and growing unpredictability of pastoral movement due to climate change and other pressures.

Who are the pastoral Fulani?

Nigeria’s pastoral population raise cattle, sheep and goats, as well as camels in semi-arid areas of the far north. These herders tend to be mobile and transhumant – moving their animals between wet and dry season pastures and to daily grazing areas and watering points.

A proportion of pastoralism in Nigeria occurs across international borders, much of this by members of the Fulani community, an ethnic group found across West and Central Africa. Fulani pastoralists have been accused of being ‘foreign herders’ responsible for crime and conflict, despite many of them having been born in Nigeria or being long-term residents there.

Even within Nigeria the Fulani are internally varied. This can be seen in the differences in lifestyle, occupation and culture between settled Fulani people who live in towns and those who are pastoralists; in dialectical differences in the Fulfulde language between regions; and social distinctions between Fulani clans. Other pastoral groups in northern Nigeria include Arab and Buzaye (Tuareg) camel herders, and Shuwa Arab cattle herders are also present across the Chad Basin.

Pastoralists are directly impacted by the socio-economic pressures and politics that are at the root of insecurity in Nigeria. Disputes over access to land and water, and weak justice systems have enabled violent clashes between farmers and pastoralists to escalate and entrench. There is usually impunity for perpetrators and cycles of conflict can run for years.

Fulani herders have been stigmatised as instigators of violence. This is due to several factors: the role of some Fulani in armed groups, with acts of violence by some having repercussions for pastoralists in general; the fact that they have a regional presence, in addition to their large population in Nigeria, compounding views that they are ‘outsiders’; and because, for some, as an expression of opposition to Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, himself an ethnic Fulani.

Researching cross-border movements

In February and March 2022, I conducted initial fieldwork for this cross-border study with fellow researchers Abdullahi Umar Eggi and Amina Bashir Bello, visiting rural areas in Kano, Jigawa, Bauchi, and Gombe States of northern Nigeria. In these areas the scale of cross-border movement of herders to and from Niger is quite large, practised by most of the pastoral households we interviewed.

We investigated the composition of transhumant groups, the herders’ movements, their experiences and challenges, and how they interact with resident pastoralists and farmers. We spoke with herders, agro-pastoralists, farmers, traditional leaders and security personnel; to both women and men, working in the Fulfulde, Hausa, English and Arabic languages. 

The most striking finding was that cross-border pastoralism was generally not associated with conflict or criminality in the areas we worked in. Neither the resident farmers and pastoralists nor the pastoralists from Niger reported experiences of violent conflict. The herders from Niger were widely perceived as being law-abiding and peaceful.

Part of our research involves documenting patterns and types of mobility. In the long dry season, some herders with camels, cattle and sheep from Niger move into the borderlands of northern Nigeria and in some cases as far south as Bauchi and Gombe States, but many stay nearer the border. They do not go to southern Nigeria and probably not into the Middle Belt. These transhumant herders return to Niger with the first rains.

What is less well known is that there is also a significant movement of Nigerian herders in the other direction, into Niger in the wet season, possibly as large or larger than the southwards dry season movement from Niger. This is chiefly due to the extent of cultivation in northern Nigeria, which has consumed most of the natural habitats (‘bush’), leaving little space for livestock until crops are harvested at the end of the rainy season, when herders return across the border from Niger.

Avoiding insecurity

Our field sites were more peaceful than other areas of northern Nigeria, but in a sense that was the point: cross-border pastoralism was a normal part of life.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of pastoralists crossing into our study areas had increased, as it included herders who had diverted their transhumance routes from conflict areas – avoiding banditry in the north-west and both military and armed groups in the Chad Basin.

This relocation of herders and the adjustment of migration patterns from conflict zones to more peaceful areas suggests a tendency to avoid insecurity – chiefly because there is a heightened risk of rustling in conflict zones, and the animals of a pastoral family are its wealth.

The evidence we have so far suggests that it is not inevitable that pastoral movement causes conflict. It depends on how pastoral mobility is managed, at regional and local levels, and on the context in which it occurs. Clearly the behaviour and actions of any particular herding group is important, as there is variation between pastoralists. But in lawless and insecure areas, there are numerous conflict drivers that are likely to be more important than cross-border pastoral mobility.

An evolving conflict

Pastoralism offers an important lens through which to explore how conflict is evolving in Nigeria’s northern borderlands. Pastoralists themselves perceive and are impacted by drivers of violence, from climate change, land use, demographic expansion and the presence of armed groups. Increasing unpredictability of pastoral movement due to such pressures is making it harder to manage. Yet their voices, and those of rural communities’ more widely, are often absent when diagnosing the cause of conflict or identifying ways to address it.

Our upcoming fieldwork across Nigeria’s borders with Niger and Cameroon will seek to explore this further, looking to draw out a truer picture of pastoralism and cross-border conflict, and how herders and other communities can better anticipate potential hotspots and manage pastoral movement efficiently, effectively and peacefully.