With 1,300 dead, the clash between farmers and semi-nomadic herders, mainly from the Fulani ethnic group, have displaced tens of thousands and schools have turned into migrant camps.
Gbajimba, Nigeria – On a sweltering Tuesday afternoon in early September at the Gbajimba camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in central Nigeria’s Benue state, thousands of women and men stood in a queue to receive food aid from the International Committee of the Red Cross. As dozens of young men draped in green reflective vests unload bags of rice and highly nutritious flour from two trucks, the queue dragged on. Soon, the camp bustled with people hauling bags of food aid to their rooms.
In one corner of the camp, 13-year-old Hyacienth Ternege played hide-and-seek with a small group of children. Their carefree laughter and chatter mixed with the cacophony of voices in the open, dusty field of the camp where families received food aid.
“We stopped going to school after the problem started getting worse and people were running away from our villages,” Ternege says, referring to the vicious farmer-herder conflict that has forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes. That same violence has pushed tens of thousands of children out of school.
At the root of the deadly conflict is the competition for natural resources like water, farmland and grazing areas. In addition, Nigeria’s population has snowballed over the past decades to more than 180 million, leading to the expansion of farmlands, human settlements and infrastructure all of which encroach on old migration routes.
Farmers often accuse herders, mostly from the Fulani ethnic group, of allowing their cows to destroy their crops. Herders, in turn, grumble over the loss of their livestock to militias as well as gangs from local communities who attack them, triggering blood-chilling reprisals.
Also known as Peul, Fulbe and Fula, Fulani cattle herders and the Tuareg people are the two largest pastoralist groups in Africa. The Fulanis roam with their livestock across the West African Sahel and Central Africa.
The nine-year Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast region, as well as long spells of drought in the extreme north, have made fewer areas available for grazing, pushing the pastoral Fulani people southward in search of greener pasture and freshwater. Eleven states in the arid north, which account for about 35 percent of Nigeria’s total land area, are grappling with dry seasons, deforestation and inappropriate agriculture.
However, this southward migration has pitted herders against settled farming communities, prompting deadly clashes and tit-for-tat killings.
Nigeria’s Middle Belt region appears to be the hotbed of this crisis, with Benue, Plateau, Taraba and Nasarawa states recording far more bloodshed and destruction than Adamawa in the northeast and Enugu in the southeast.
A recent report from the Brussels-based International Crisis Group says that more than 1,300 died in the first half of this year due to the herder-farmer conflict, claiming six times more lives than the brutal Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast, which has displaced more than 2.1 million people. The report also says that the violence between herders and farmers has displaced at least 300,000 people and is now the West African nation’s biggest security threat.
Benue state has seen far more fighting since a controversial law banning open grazing was implemented in November 2017, forcing herders to move their livestock to neighbouring states. Taraba and Ekiti states have similar laws, and more states are considering the same options following the seeming inability of the central government to address the bloody tussle.
The Benue state government estimate that some 102,000 children are out of school due to the conflict. For a country with about 10.5 million children out of school, the highest in the world, allowing more children to be deprived of education could be disastrous. In Plateau state, where these clashes have reportedly begun since 2002, officials say at least 750, 000 children are unable to attend school citing looming threat to security as a major factor.
Across the city of Makurdi – the Benue state capital – and nearby towns, huge billboards explaining the merits of the law tower over roadside stalls and farmlands. Red marks cancel out grazing options prohibited by the law while touting the law as a mechanism for peace.
As of March this year, the Benue State Emergency Management Agency reported that 175,070 internally displaced persons are housed in nine camps across the state. Of this number, 80,450 children are like Ternege whose classrooms are being used as camps. Since the violence escalated late last year, schools in the affected areas were closed.
Ternege’s father, his two wives and 12 children fled their village to Guma local government area following attacks blamed on ethnic Fulani herders in early January. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, the Benue state government organised a mass burial for 72 dead people, prompting angry protests and anti-Fulani sentiments that rippled beyond the borders of Benue to other states in Nigeria.
Nigeria is evenly divided between Christians mainly in the south and Muslims in the north. The Fulanis are predominantly Muslim and most farming communities are Christians, so it is easy for the conflict to stoke ethnic and religious tensions. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, who is also from the Fulani ethnic group, has been accused of not doing much to address the crisis.
The central government, which proposes cattle ranching as a solution to the crisis, has deployed security forces to tackle the problem. It has set aside 179 billion naira ($493.33 million) as part of a 10-year National Livestock Plan under which nearly 100 ranches would be built in 10 states. In May, the government also approved 10 billion naira ($27.56 million) for the reconstruction of communities caught up in the violence.
Back in Gbajimba, the International Committee of the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières, Catholic Diocese of Makurdi, the Benue state emergency agency and other local NGOs are providing support for around 24,019 people in the camp.
“It is very painful,” Udah Enoch, the headteacher of a primary school near Guma local council, says of schools slowly turning to camps. “When schools have no children, what would teachers be doing there?”
Enoch believes children affected by the conflict would have setbacks whenever they resume learning and might not make much progress even when teachers teach them in camps. Even when normalcy returns, he argues, enrolment rates would be “low” because some people have “completely” left their villages and might not return.
Though Ternege’s smiles belie his inward feelings, he says, “(I) really miss going to school to learn and meet with my friends.”
“Without our school there is nobody to teach me very well like my teachers in our village,” the teenager adds.