Boko Haram may dominate headlines about Nigeria, but more than twice as many citizens are being killed in battles over land between farmers and herders than they are by jihadists.
After decades of government inaction, skirmishes over resources have become blood feuds and threaten to morph into something even deadlier.
The conflict already claims more lives than the Boko Haram insurgency.
According to a report by the International Crisis Group released last year, more than 2 500 people were killed by the violence across the country in 2016. According to the Global Terrorism Index, there were 1 079 deaths attributable to Boko Haram the same year.
“If nothing is done urgently, it’s going to get worse,” warned SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based advisory firm, in late November, saying its “worst-case scenario” was already “materialising”.
That scenario came true in the first week of January, when at least 80 people were killed in the central state of Benue alone.
Nomadic herders and sedentary farmers are fighting for fertile land in Nigeria’s “middle belt” – the agricultural heartland between the palm-fringed shores of the tropical south and the semi-desert north.
Drought and desertification have forced the herders and their estimated 135 million head of cattle to abandon old grazing routes and move further south, encroaching on the fields of sedentary farmers.
Nigeria already has 180 million inhabitants and is set to become the third most populous country in the world by 2050, according to the UN.
Rapid population growth is aggravating the situation, while government inaction is allowing old wounds to fester.
“Nigerian security apparatus has failed woefully, thereby creating an environment that emboldens herdsmen to use violence to access private property for grazing purposes while farmers resort to self-help to defend their land,” said SBM Intelligence.
Abandonment of the state
Laws establishing migratory routes and grazing areas for the nomadic herders date back to 1965 but have mostly never been applied.
The proliferation of farming settlements and the expansion of large agricultural farms restricts their movement, said Ibrahim Thiaw, deputy executive director of the UN environment agency (UNEP).
Nigeria’s situation is not unique, said Thiaw, a former minister of agriculture in Mauritania.
“The majority of West African countries have always given priority to agriculture despite the importance of livestock in job creation and the economy,” he told AFP.
“This dates from colonial administrations, which favoured agricultural exploitation for the needs of the big cities.
“But since independence, African states have been unable to integrate pastoralism and invest more in this sector.”
Under pressure after the New Year carnage in Benue, President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration last week set up a committee to create ranches of several thousand hectares (acres) to avoid future confrontations with farmers.
But the ranches are being met with stiff resistance, particularly in the central states of Benue, Taraba and Ekiti, which have all recently banned free grazing on their land.
A more serious concern is that the conflict has taken a turn to identity and religion, accentuating the split between a predominantly Muslim north and largely Christian south, particularly as elections approach in February next year.
For weeks now, politicians have increased violent diatribes against the herders – most of who are Fulani Muslims -accusing them of “massacring Christians” or wanting to “forcibly Islamise” areas where they are in the minority.
“There are a lot of confusing messages and the use of the conflict for political ends is very dangerous,” said Tog Gang, head of conflict management for the NGO Mercy Corps in Nigeria.
Many settled herders who have lived peaceably alongside farming communities for decades have now found themselves targeted, even though they may have nothing to do with the violence, he added.
Nigeria’s presidency last Sunday attributed the recent attacks in Benue on Boko Haram Islamists who had infiltrated the ranks of the herders.
But according to most observers, armed and violent nomads are often from neighbouring countries such as Cameroon, Chad or Niger at the end of the rainy season.
In Benue state, whose southeastern tip borders Cameroon, many herders just “destroy everything because they have no relationship with the indigenous community,” said Gang.
In recent months, tens of thousands of people have fled their villages fearing more violence linked to the movement of cattle.
Fields have been abandoned and cattle herds decimated, destroying the livelihoods of both.