Abdullahi Umar Eggi grew up in a nomadic family in Taraba State, Nigeria, and has undertaken extensive research to understand how and why pastoralism is changing in the region. He’s currently carrying out research on cross-border pastoralism, environmental change, peace and conflict along the borders of Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger as part of Conciliation Resources’ XCEPT research. Here, he tells us about his upbringing, and what he’s learning from his latest research.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you began working in research?

I grew up in a Fulani nomadic family in Karim Lamido, part of Taraba State in northeastern Nigeria. I also spent time in Cameroon during my childhood, as my mother is Cameroonian. Growing up, I would migrate around north-eastern Nigeria and into Cameroon with my family in search of greener pasture for our livestock. This is called ‘transhumance’. It is a central part of our community life and identity; yet it also allowed me to gain a good understanding of the region’s topography as well as its many communities, including communities that weren’t from the Fulani tribe. The region is a patchwork of different tribes – there are around 200 in Taraba and Adamawa States alone.

I attended a nomadic school during my early years. Some of the nomadic schools were permanent structures while others were teaching under the shade of trees. The teachers were normally from the villages near our dry season and rainy season camps. For some weeks, during seasonal transhumance with our animals, there would be no school, but when we reached our destination, the children would proceed with their education in the nomadic school in the new location. These schools were well-resourced when I was young, but sadly pastoralist children nowadays struggle to get a decent primary education.

I met Adam Higazi, the lead researcher on the Promoting peaceful pastoralism project, during my time at University in Jos. We’ve been working togetherfor over 10 years now, exploring different facets of pastoralism across the whole region.

Your XCEPT work explores how pastoralism and conflict interacts along Nigeria’s borders with Niger and Cameroon. What do you think is the perception versus the reality of the relationship between pastoralist communities and conflict?

There is a general misperception in Nigeria of the relationship between pastoralism and issues such as criminality. We realised from our fieldwork that a lot of Nigerian media has a superficial understanding of what is happening on the ground; it’s widely reported that pastoralists from outside Nigeria – from Niger, Chad and Cameroon – are arriving in Nigeria and causing trouble. Our research to date hasn’t shown that to be the case. In Jigawa and Kano, some of the border communities we visited were not Fulani but actually Hausa and Kanuri – tribes seen to be less inclined to be friendly to pastoralists – but they reported to us that the cross-border herders were peaceful. In our study area in the central axis of northern Nigeria (Jigawa, Bauchi, Gombe), we found peaceful cooperation between pastoralists moving south from Niger during the dry season and their host communities.

At the same time, we can’t deny that there are pastoralists who are involved in violence and criminality in northern Nigeria. In Katsina, Zamfara and Sokoto States, towards Nigeria’s northwest, there are serious problems related to banditry. In these areas, many of those undertaking violence are Fulanis recruited into criminal gangs. But some of their biggest victims are Fulani pastoralists themselves; in these areas, pastoralists are routinely attacked and their livestock stolen. This creates the bandits of the future; when young pastoralist men lose their cattle they lose their livelihoods, and it makes them vulnerable to recruitment by criminal gangs.

This partly explains why banditry has rapidly escalated in Nigeria’s northwest, but it is not the whole story. Negligent governance has meant grazing reserves and cattle routes have not been maintained, and ‘land grabbing’ of common land has increasingly been allowed to happen. Despite the peaceful situation in our XCEPT study areas to date, we recorded these kinds of governance failings starting to play out, and worry that it will lead to increased cattle rustling and banditry in previously peaceful areas. Just this morning, my brothers informed me that some of our family’s cattle was stolen in Taraba State, and the gang kidnapped six of the herders. So it’s already starting to happen.

Despite the fact that it’s a very small minority of Fulani involved in criminality, non-Fulani Nigerians have lost trust in the Fulani. But there’s a real lack of understanding of what is going on in northern rural areas, and there are no effective government policies or interventions which separate out the criminal elements amongst the Fulani from the majority that are peaceful. So if things keep going the way they are, mistrust of pastoralists will grow even further.

Your most recent XCEPT research took place along the Nigeria-Cameroon border in Adamawa State, Nigeria. What are some of the things that have most struck you from that fieldwork?

What we observed from the research in Adamawa – as well as the XCEPT research we did in early 2022 in Bauchi, Gombe and Jigawa states – is the pressures of the massive population increases that are occurring in the north of the country. Farmers need more land to meet demand, whilst pastoralist communities continue growing and need land for grazing; so there’s a clash of interest between these two communities. On top of this, land grabbing further reduces land availability.

Environmental protection has also suffered. Traditionally, there was a culture of respect towards nature. Now large-scale farming clears forests and woodland to make way for cultivation, which has degraded the grasses and trees needed for grazing, and increased desertification. All of this means a large number of pastoralists are leaving Nigeria to go to Cameroon because the conditions in Nigeria are no longer conducive for their livelihood. Future fieldwork in Cameroon will help us understand the consequences of this.

There’s been a great deal of focus in northeast Nigeria on the Boko Haram/ISWAP insurgency. What impact has this had on pastoralism in the region, and on the migration you mentioned?

Our previous research in Yobe and Borno states in Nigeria looked at these issues. We found that the Shekau faction of Boko Haram has been extremely predatory towards pastoralist communities in their areas of operation: attacking camps, rustling cattle, kidnapping and killing people. Even last year, my uncle was a direct victim of Shekau – his cattle were stolen and the herder he had hired to rear the animals was killed. Boko Haram attacks resulted in large-scale displacements of pastoralists southwards into Adamawa and Taraba, but also across to Cameroon and as far as Central African Republic. But recently the Shekau faction has been greatly weakened as a result of internal splits and military pressure, so we’re seeing pastoralists return – to a certain extent – to areas that would have been no-go a few years back.

ISWAP, which operates near Lake Chad, is largely tolerant of pastoralist communities, so long as they pay their zakat (tax) to the group. Our XCEPT research will take us to Maiduguri in Borno State to gain an updated understanding of the ongoing insurgency and its impact on pastoralist movement.

Finally, can research like that you’re doing for XCEPT help to bring about positive change in your region?

I think this kind of research can be really helpful. What we realise is that most of the information that people base their opinions and actions on in northern Nigeria isn’t based on what is happening at the grassroots. This has hardened attitudes towards pastoralists and Fulani people, and made it harder for those trying to take action to be effective.

We’ve seen examples of peacebuilding initiatives which show promise, but often the people leading them don’t grasp the local realities of pastoralism. In the next three or four years, pastoralism may become impossible.

Politically, pastoralists suffer from a lack of genuine representation. In effect, there are two levels of Fulani: the ‘town’ Fulanis, who have political influence, and those who are rural, largely nomadic, pastoralists. At the state and federal levels, Fulanis are actually quite well represented, but crucially these people aren’t pastoralists, and there’s a wide gap between them and rural pastoral communities. A lack of education for pastoralists reinforces this, with very few managing to get into positions of influence.

So this research is building a base of knowledge which can assist those who really want to create better responses to the challenges in these regions. We’re gaining access to local-level perspectives which need to be shared with people at the state, federal and international level, but also locally, to help to build confidence and dialogue within communities so that their livelihoods can be protected and they can co-exist more peacefully.

Top photo: Pastoralists at home on Jereende Pampo, a small island on the River Benue, Yola North LGA, Adamawa State, Nigeria. Recently arrived migrant farmers are trying to take over the island for cultivation, reducing the space for grazing there. Conciliation Resources/XCEPT researcher Abdullahi Umar Eggi is furthest to the right.