Sept. 7 (UPI) -- Violent clashes over land have claimed thousands of lives in Nigeria and identity-based conflicts have increased ahead of a pivotal 2019 election.
More than 1,300 people have been killed in the escalating conflict from January to June 2018 as attacks between nomadic Fulani herders and native farmers have shifted from spontaneous reactions to provocations and most recently planned attacks, according to a report by the International Crisis Group. The total is six times greater than those killed by the Boko Haram militant group in the same period of time.
The two sides existed in relative peace for decades, with the herders and farmers forming a symbiotic relationship in which herders would bring their cattle to eat the leftovers from the farmers' harvests during the rainy season and in turn share milk with the farmers.
However in 2013, the groups were forced to compete over increasingly limited resources, spurring the violent clashes that persist to this day.
"It is not a situation in which the groups are basically antagonistic to one another or mutually incompatible. In many areas, they had lived largely peacefully with each other, over many decades or even centuries, until the resource conflict introduced new tensions to their interactions, new complications to their relationships," Nnamdi Obasi, senior adviser on Nigeria at International Crisis Group, told UPI.
As the conflict has escalated in the following years, structural issues such as a lack of government security and an influx of weaponry have led to the formation of militias that look to police violence in communities throughout the country themselves.
"For far too long, both herder and farmer communities were left largely unprotected and so killings and reprisals went on, unchecked," Obasi said. "The absence of the government's security presence also created an environment of impunity, with groups taking laws into their hands, attacking other communities."
With an election that could shift Nigeria's leadership in 2019, the country faces challenges such as reforming the livestock sector and mending relationships between ethnic and religious groups.
The pastoralist lifestyle of the Fulani herders is at the center of the conflict as various factors pushed the herders closer to the farmers' territory and left them increasingly competing for little space and few resources.
Environmental degradation over the course of three to five decades, Boko Haram's insurgency in the northeast and increasingly organized banditry in the northwest have forced herders to move south, while farmers continued to expand their settlements and in turn blocked traditional herding routes.
Obasi noted that while pastoralism created little conflict through many centuries when human population density in the region was very low and there were vast open spaces and clearly designated grazing routes, some practices are no longer sustainable.
"Pastoralism is a longstanding cultural lifestyle that will not be terminated overnight. Desirable as it is that cattle be confined and bred only in reserves and ranches in order to stop farm trespass, cattle rustling and resultant herder-farmer conflicts, the transition to that goal is not achievable overnight," he said. "There has to be a phased process from Pastoralism and indiscriminate grazing to breeding cattle only in reserves and ranches."
Overwhelmed by the ongoing violence, some states took it upon themselves to implement laws to restrict grazing, which they viewed as a central cause of the conflict.
In May 2017, Benue state passed one of the strictest laws, requiring herders to buy land and establish ranches and prohibiting any grazing outside of said ranches as well as forbidding transportation of cattle by any means other than road or rail.
The law was supported by farmers -- who make up 90 percent of the state's population -- but resisted by herders, who argued they weren't consulted by the government, nor were they given time to purchase land.
Benue's laws ultimately drove herders away from the area and into Nasarawa state where they engaged in violent clashes with farmers.
"The transition from open grazing to ranching should be managed with greater sensitivity and commitment by all parties," Obasi said. "The state government needs to ensure that the interests of all groups are properly accommodated, and avoid creating the impression that it is seeking to scare any particular group away from the state."
In July, the federal government announced a National Livestock Transformation plan, which intends to encourage a transition from open grazing to confined grazing in ranches and other grazing areas in a 10-year period from 2018 to 2027.
"Responses are mixed. Some herders groups are favorably disposed to the plan and have actually endorsed it publicly. They understand that roaming cattle across the country is encountering increasing problems, and that breeding cattle in reserves and ranches could indeed offer significant advantages, so they are receptive of the government's plan," Obasi said.
Others have called for the time period to be extended to 25 years.
"The farming groups that have suffered much of the recent violence cannot contemplate doing so for much longer. And experience shows that the government's policy attention span is usually so short or limited that, in 25 years, it may have completely lost sight of the plan and the goals it was intended to achieve," said Obasi.
Mending religious divides
Over time the conflict has taken on religious and ethnic elements, as the herders are predominantly Muslim members of the Fulani ethnic group and the farmers are predominately Christian with a mix of other religions.
"There are interests on both sides that seek to amplify these other differences and present them as if those are the issues fundamentally at stake," Obasi said.
Killings in Benue state drove a wedge between two of the nation's largest religious groups as the Christian Association of Nigeria condemned the attacks, blaming Muslims for encouraging herders to execute a jihadist campaign. The Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs responded, stating the CAN was spreading "venom, hatred, calumny and unimaginable malice that smacks of intolerance and political brigandage," according to the International Crisis Group.
While the government works to sort out the land-based conflicts at both the state and federal levels, the Global Peace Foundation -- an international nonprofit committed to peace building -- has seized on the identity-based aspects of the conflict to broker peace.
Since 2014, the foundation has been piloting its "One Family under God" peace-building campaign, which focuses on universal principles and shared values between the two groups to settle the identity -based conflict in southern Kaduna state.
In 2017, the group facilitated a cease-fire agreement between Fulani herders and natives of the state's Kaninkon Chiefdom across eight districts and later facilitated other meetings statewide before holding a 200-member general assembly in 2018.
John Oko, GPF's country director for Nigeria, told UPI the organization selected southern Kaduna state for its pilot program because it presented a microcosm for the identity-based aspect in the country at large.
"Nigeria as a country is predominantly Muslim north, predominantly Christian south. Kaduna state has the same kind of situation," Oko said. "Also Kaduna state's history of violence has been along the lines of identity, every time there's violence in any part of the country Kaduna begins to boil."
Oko said the organization learned from the failures of its predecessors and committed to using a grass-roots approach that focused on remaining a party that was neutral from either group and the government, while providing a safe space for the opposing groups to share dialogue and find common ground.
"At the heart of everything is that Nigerians generally profess faith," Oko said. "It resonates with them to say irrespective of our differences we are members of one human race."
He added the organization's message is also being modeled by the two co-facilitators of this process, the Rev. John Joseph Hayab, a Christian pastor, and Sheikh Abdullahi Haliru Maraya, a Muslim cleric.
"When they are talking to each of these people they are basically saying can you go the extra mile to take up friendship with someone of another faith the way we do," Oko said. "It's one thing for me to talk about something, but modeling and it living it and for people to see that you are living it."
While violence in some areas like the predominately Muslim Zamfara state in the northwest isn't driven by the same religious factors, Obasi warned the government must move quickly to resolve the land conflict or face the risk of the religious element spiraling out of control.
"There's a real risk that if the government doesn't move fast enough in addressing the real issues at the core of the conflict, particularly reforming the livestock sector to ensure that it's managed in a less conflict-prone way, the violence could escalate further and the religious and ethnic dimensions will become even more pronounced. On the other hand, if the government succeeds in reforming the livestock sector in the near future, the long-standing religious and ethnic tensions may persist, but at a much lower level," he said.
The conflict is also poised to have an impact on Nigeria's upcoming 2019 election, which in turn could affect the country's plans to achieve peace.
Obasi said the conflict has disrupted arrangements for voter registration and collection of the private voters cards and has created risky environments for certain candidates to campaign in various areas.
Additionally, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari and his ruling All Progressives Congress Party's handling of the conflict has further polarized the political divide between the herders in the north and the farmers in the rest of the country.
Buhari has alienated himself from voters in the middle belt and the south, where many feel he has a bias toward the herders, which he has denied, Obasi said.
"People in the middle belt and the southern states strongly disapprove of President Buhari's management of the conflict, because they see him as soft on the herders who are mostly his Fulani kinsmen," Obasi said. "On the other hand, most Fulani and others in the far north argue that the president has been even-handed in managing the conflict, and they probably now support him more solidly than before."
The growing displeasure with Buhari and the APC in the south and middle belt has presented the possibility a new government, which may not share the same vision for achieving peace, may come into power.
Obasi noted the Nigerian government has struggled to implement similar sweeping plans in the past and a shift in leadership could severely derail the National Livestock Transformation plan early in its life cycle.
"The priorities, for now, must be to elaborate on the plan properly, secure the buy-in of all relevant groups, start implementation as quickly as possible, and establish strong institutional frameworks that will that drive implementation through the 10-year time frame, regardless of changes in the federal government," he said.
The Global Peace Foundation is affiliated with the ultimate holding company that owns United Press International.