Horrors on the Plateau: Inside Nigeria’s farmer-herder conflict

The violence in central Nigeria is now one of the country’s deadliest security threats after Boko Haram in the northeast and banditry in the northwest.
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Plateau, Nigeria – Mary Hommes wiped her face with a red scarf as she recalled the August day when attackers ambushed her village in central Nigeria’s Plateau state.
“We heard about an attack around 5am [on August 2],” the 29-year-old told Al Jazeera three days later. “Before we knew what was happening, everywhere was in disarray.”
Mary saw three women run into the bush with their babies. She ran in the opposite direction.
“That was how I was able to escape,” she explained, struggling to hold back her tears.
From a nearby vantage point, Mary witnessed the violence that followed.
“They (the assailants) asked them (the three women) to keep their children on the ground. They said they were going to kill the three women and the women were begging for a pardon.
“They started shooting them.”
The assailants left the three babies – a three-month-old girl called Ruth and two boys, aged 18 months and two years old – wailing near the lifeless corpses of their mothers. Roughly two hours later, when the violence had ended, Mary emerged from her hiding place to rescue them.
Residents of Maiyanga, a village in the Bassa Local Government Area (LGA) which was formerly home to 400 people, many of them subsistence farmers from the Irigwe ethnic group, said they are not sure how many people were killed that day – but that it was more than was reported by the police.
The assailants, they said, were herders.
According to the authorities, between July 31 and August 2, similar attacks took place across communities in Bassa and its neighbouring LGA, Riyom.
On August 5, Plateau state’s commissioner of police, Edward Egbuka, said that 17 people had been killed by unnamed “criminals” and 85 buildings had been burned in the two LGAs.
However, locals who spoke to Al Jazeera said that figure is grossly inaccurate. More people were killed and more areas were affected, they have insisted.
Residents of Maiyanga and Kishesha, another rural community in Bassa, said no fewer than 20 of their relatives lost their lives on August 2 alone.
They said that the attackers, heavily armed and dressed in military camouflage or long black coats, shot their relatives or slit their throats. They also razed several houses.
Local media reported that at least 400 homes were set ablaze by the assailants in Kpachudu, Kpetenvie, Nche-Tahu, Tafi gana, DTV, Zahwra and five other villages in Bassa. Like Maiyanga, these areas are dominated by subsistence farmers from the Irigwe ethnic group.
Plateau state is home to about 40 ethnic groups and has been a hotbed of conflict.
The clashes, mostly between Muslim Fulani herders and Christian farmers from the Berom and Irigwe ethnic groups, is often painted as ethnoreligious. But analysts have said climate change and scarcity of pastoral land is pitting the farmers and herders against each other, irrespective of faith.
The majority of Irigwe and Berom farmers grow acha (a grain known as “hungry rice”) and millet while the chief cash crops are yams, sorghum, corn, potatoes, cowpeas and rice.
The Fulani, meanwhile, are nomadic pastoralists, often of northern extraction, who have travelled to central and southern parts of the country in search of greener pastures for their livestock. In some cases, the pastoralists permanently settle in their host communities.
However, across the years, pastoral land scarcity compounded by increasing urbanisation has forced herders onto farmlands and restricted areas, such as national parks and conserved forests. This often results in the destruction of crops and ends up snowballing into a conflict between the herders and local farmers.
In retaliation, aggrieved farmers and members of farming communities sometimes attack the herders and their livestock.
Abdullahi Abubakar, 39, is a Fulani pastoralist who said his descendants have been in Plateau state for more than a hundred years.
In July last year, his son was slaughtered while herding cattle. Thirteen-year-old Mustapha had been tending to the livestock when he was attacked.
His suspected killer, an Irigwe farmer, is currently in prison while on trial.
Mustapha, who his father described as being “really good with arithmetics”, was in his final year of primary school.
If someone destroys your farm, is it justice to kill the cow and the owner?
Abdullahi Abubakar
“I feel very bad,” said Abdullahi.
“They (the farmers) kill our cows one after the other. When they kill our boys, they cut their heads. They shoot them to death or slaughter them.”
He believed the killing of herders and their livestock is not proportional to the destruction of farmers’ crops. “It is not a justification. If someone destroys your farm, is it justice to kill the cow and the owner?” he asked.
The herder-farmer clashes are also fuelled by the dichotomy between those who consider themselves “indigenes” – the Berom and Irigwe people – and the Fulanis, who are regarded by many as settlers.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), this tension was at the root of the first documented clash – triggered by the appointment of a Muslim politician who was not considered an “indigene” to the post of local coordinator for the federal poverty alleviation programme – in 2001.
The move “was seen by some as a provocation and was strongly opposed by Christian groups”, HRW researchers noted.
The tensions turned violent on September 7, 2001, when a Christian woman attempted to cross a barricaded street outside a mosque during Friday prayers in Jos, Plateau state’s capital city.
“She was asked to wait until prayers had finished or to choose another route, but she refused and an argument developed between her and some members of the congregation. Within minutes, the argument had unleashed a violent battle between groups of Christians who appeared at the scene and Muslims who had been praying at the mosque or who happened to be in the neighborhood,” HRW reported.
This conflict later spread to other parts of the state, like the farming communities nearly 50km (31 miles) away in Riyom.
HRW said groups of primarily young men on both sides of the religious and ethnic divide retaliated and sought to avenge real or rumoured attacks. In one instance, on September 11, 2001, some Fulani militias invaded the village of Rankum, home to a mainly Christian Berom community.
Stephen Jugu, a former community leader in Rankum, told Al Jazeera that assailants attacked the village and burned down his house. His grandfather and two others were killed. Stephen fled.
“We moved to different parts. Some entered Jol district, some in Barkin Ladi district. Everybody found a way to escape death,” the now 52-year-old explained, sitting in an abandoned structure that used to house displaced people in Vwang, Jos South.
He was once a successful commercial farmer who grew acha and millet. But, like many others, after the attacks, he left his farm and livestock to start a new life in a new community more than 32km (20 miles) away.
Today, he barely gets by working as a tin miner.
His former home village has been renamed Mahanga by the new occupants. Although the Berom and Fulani communities now occupying Mahanga signed a peace accord in 2018, Stephen said he wouldn’t dare return out of fears for his safety.
In the years since 2001, the intercommunal conflict in Plateau has become a recurring problem. A Nigerian government investigative committee found that between September 2001 and May 2004, it resulted in the deaths of more than 53,000 people.
Between 2001 and 2018, about 60,000 people were killed and more than 300,000 displaced across four Nigerian states due to the farmer-herder conflict, according to a survey conducted by development and policy advocacy firm Zinariya Consult with support from Global Rights and Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA).
Joseph Ochogwu, one of the lead researchers on the survey and an associate professor at the Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, explained that of the 300,000 people displaced “176,000 [were] in Benue, about 100,000 in Plateau, and 100,000 in Nasarawa and about 19,000 in Taraba”.
The growing conflict now constitutes one of Nigeria’s major security threats after the Boko Haram rebellion in the northeast and the banditry ravaging the northwest.
After Mary rescued the babies in Maiyanga, she made sure that the two boys were sent to live with relatives in nearby villages. Then she fled with her husband, a rice farmer, her two children and the three-month-old baby girl, Ruth. With the baby in her arms, she trekked 20km (12 miles) to the town of Kwall, where they took shelter with some distant relatives.
Later that day, Ruth’s father came to meet them, but he had to return to Maiyanga to bury his wife, so he left the baby behind.
In the days following the attacks in July and August, dozens of displaced people who had fled their different villages converged in Kwall. On August 5, Mary was among those gathered for a meeting at the town hall, where representatives of a local humanitarian crisis group had come to assess their needs.
At the gathering sat Talatu Sunday, 33, who told Al Jazeera that she fled her village of Kikoba – 20km (12 miles) away in neighbouring Kaduna state – with her three children when the attackers came.
Her husband, Yakubu Friday, did not make it.
“He was found around a river basin. He was slaughtered like a cow. Not gunshot,” Talatu said, crying.
In Kikoba, the couple, who first met when they were just children, were potato and vegetable farmers who would cultivate their individual plots before combining their produce to sell.
Now Talatu and her children – two boys aged nine and seven, and a girl of four – stay in her uncle’s house in Kwall; her dreams of growing old with Yakubu shattered.
“Anything that God opens the door for me [to have], I will use it to take care of the family,” she said. If security were to improve, she hoped to one day return to Kikoba to continue farming on their now abandoned plots, so that she might better provide for her children.
Forty-year-old Sunday Madaki sat in Kwall district hall wearing an oversized, faded coat and torn shorts.
He mopped his face with a dirty towel as he described how his wife and 12-year-old child were killed in an attack on Kishesha village.
“We were not looking for trouble. We were just at home and … all of a sudden we started hearing sporadic shooting.”
Sunday asked his wife and child to flee, but the assailants trailed them and killed them, he said.
“If you are lucky to run away, you run away. By the time you are running, they will trail you like a dog.”
He lost five members of his family in total.
“But I have forgiven them (the attackers),” he muttered, explaining that his Christian faith teaches that vengeance is for God and not something for men to seek.
Sunday and his remaining seven children now live in his brother’s house in Kwall, and will not return home until they are certain that Kishesha is safe.
While suspected Muslim herders have attacked Christian farming communities, gangs of armed Christian youth have also attacked Muslims.
In August, an attack on Muslims travelling through Jos for a religious event reportedly led to the deaths of more than 30 people.
The state government responded by imposing curfews.
Abdullahi Ardo, the Plateau state secretary of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, a group that represents the interests of the Fulanis, said “both sides are at fault” and to blame for not abiding by past peace deals.
But, he added, the media had not been fair to the herders. “When the Fulani are killed, they will be buried but no media will broadcast,” he said.
Still, he said that he was hopeful that both groups can co-exist without conflict as they had for many years before.
But Confidence McHarry, a lead security analyst at SBM Intelligence – a Nigerian geopolitical intelligence platform, believed there is no end in sight to the clashes, which he said have followed the same pattern as other conflicts in Nigeria – starting out as being about resource control before becoming “an ethnic conflagration” and “then, over time, religion shifts into it.”
Using media reports, Confidence has tracked more than 177 deaths in Plateau state resulting from the herder-farmer clashes between 2019 and 2021. But, local journalist Masara Kim said many deaths go unreported.
Masara, who has lost two siblings to the crisis, said the attacks are becoming more sophisticated.
“When it started in the 2000s, you [would] hardly see five out of 200 people armed with guns,” he said, explaining that back then many used “machetes and other crude weapons”. Now, however, guns are more widely used.
A special task force, codenamed Operation Safe Haven, has been deployed to Plateau state since 2001, with members based within 30 minutes of some of the villages attacked on August 2. But with the Nigerian security forces facing a Boko Haram rebellion in the northeast and banditry in the northwest, and with military operations taking place in more than 30 of Nigeria’s states, Confidence believed they do not have the capacity to tackle this conflict.
Plateau state police spokesperson, Gabriel Ubah, said the police mobilise teams to communities when there are reports of attacks. “We try our best to ensure that arrests are made and investigate,” he explained.
Abdullahi from the Fulani association believes the solution could be for the government to support local vigilante groups to combat the violence.
“Each community has vigilantes who know their hamlets very well. The government should empower the local vigilantes more. They know the nooks and crannies of their environment,” he told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, for a lasting solution, experts have suggested banning open-grazing – the system that allows indiscriminate grazing of farmlands by cattle – and instead promoting ranching, which would allow pastoralists to access a large expanse of land for grazing without encroaching on farmers’ land.
Nigerian herders must accept “modern animal husbandry”, said Femi Falana, a lawyer and rights activist, pointing to Botswana, South Africa, Mozambique, Kenya and Ethiopia, where ranching has been adopted.
“The worsening insecurity in the country including the violent clashes between herders and farmers can only be seriously addressed if policymakers are prepared to abandon primitive ideas and embrace scientific solutions,” he added.
On May 17, 17 governors in Nigeria declared a ban on open-grazing but President Muhammadu Buhari questioned the legality of it, saying the government was working on alternative solutions.
One of those is the National Livestock Transformation Plan (2018-2027), which aims to provide ranches across the country. As part of its commitment, the Federal Government, in July, approved a 6.25 billion naira ($15m) investment to launch a pilot scheme in Katsina state.
Meanwhile, back in Kwall, Arogo Jesse, the assistant secretary-general of Kwall Youth Development Association, said the town was fast turning into a refugee camp.
“For now, the displaced persons meet every day in the morning from 10am to 12pm to pray and meet again later around 4pm. We don’t have much food for the IDPs and that is why we provide at least one meal for them in the afternoon,” Gastor Barrie, the chairman of the Relief and Intervention Committee in Plateau state, told Nigerian media.
Mary, her family and baby Ruth are still living with her extended family, who have also housed a few other displaced people in their simple mud home.
Solomon Daylop, a lawyer from Riyom and the founder of the Emancipation Centre for Crisis Victims in Nigeria (ECCVN), drove to where baby Ruth now lives following the August 2 attack.
Mary told the ECCVN team that, with nobody to breastfeed the infant, she was rejecting all food and feeding her was a challenge. Solomon promised to regularly check up on her and to assist with support from his organisation.
Mary has since told Al Jazeera that Ruth has gradually adjusted to her new environment and is feeding.
The coming months will not be easy, especially with the uncertainty about where they will all end up. But for now, at least, Ruth is safe.
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