Armed Herdsmen

Rural banditry in West Africa has exploded on the basis a long-term crisis located in climate change. As the climate becomes drier, there is an increase in the southward migration of pastoralists from the Sahelian belt in search of water and pastures for their livestock, creating pressures on the available land and water resources. Meanwhile there has been population growth and the development of more extensive cultivation by farmers across stock routes, usually used by pastoralists to access pastures and water resources, which results in crop damage by the cattle of the nomads as they try ply these routes and seek to find alternative ones.


There has been a massive expansion of the phenomenon of rural banditry in Northern Nigeria over the past decade. As the phenomenon grows, popular narratives creating meaning, context and (mis-)understandings have been emerging. The narratives emerging on rural banditry in the media and in popular discourse are becoming part of the drivers expanding the conflicts. The growth of rural banditry has been grafted upon a background of intense competition over increasingly scarce land and water resources in rural communities. The problem is that the protagonists in these growing conflicts are being reduced in an over simplified manner to nomadic Fulani cattle herders, who are mostly Muslims, and sedentary farmer communities of several other ethnic extractions, who are often non-Muslim. These two distinct groups are usually depicted as perpetrators and victims, respectively. The reality is more complex and more serious.

The danger of the unfolding dynamics is the expansion of hate speech, stigmatisation of communities, growing distrust due to the escalation of the current Nigerian industry of negative stereotyping between “the one” and “the other”. The result is the rise of ethnic and religious bigotry, culminating in chains of attacks and counter or revenge attacks being exchanged between these different groups. In the end more lives are lost on a daily basis, properties are destroyed, communities are dislocated and misery is growing. All government appears to be doing as the crisis grows is providing some relief materials to affected communities and repeatedly making the promise that the perpetrators of the atrocities will be found and prosecuted. Meanwhile at the level of affected communities, the positions of opposing groups are hardening and the conflicts and atrocities are spreading, while the conflicts are becoming more intractable.

No one appears worried about the manner in which the mass media is mass-producing discourses and narratives that are intensifying the conflict. Each day, there are numerous reports in the media “briefing” Nigerians on the latest set of atrocities that have been committed. The emerging narratives appear to offer logical explanations for rural banditry in Northern Nigeria by both reconstructing particular incidents and analysing their escalation patterns and dynamics. These reports often make use of compelling primary information (like quotations) that describes the gory details of the incidents, their direct and indirect effects on the people, the situation in the communities in the aftermath of attacks, etc. Specifically, these media accounts often make use of statements ascribed to eyewitnesses, or the reactions of community leaders, security commanders or government officials, to validate their claims. Most of these reports are inflammatory material, freely dispensing of hate messages in the form of threats and counter-threats, accusations and counter-accusations. The media has become a key actor producing what Professor Suzan Benech has described as “dangerous speech”; that is, hate speech that ‘has a reasonable chance of catalysing or amplifying violence by one group against another. Lest I be misunderstood, I am not calling for censuring of the media but for a higher sense of responsibility. The recent study by the Nigeria Security and Reconciliation Programme has, for example, shown that multi-ethnic criminal gangs are often the perpetrators of the crimes but almost every headline talks of “massacres by Fulani nomads”.

Given the multifaceted nature of the problem of rural banditry in Northern Nigeria, there is no doubt a need for in-depth research towards a better understanding of what is going on. There is too much emotionally charged mis-understanding on the subject masquerading as factual accounts for us to even engage the process of thinking through policy frameworks that could address the problem.

Rural banditry in West Africa has exploded on the basis a long-term crisis located in climate change. As the climate becomes drier, there is an increase in the southward migration of pastoralists from the Sahelian belt in search of water and pastures for their livestock, creating pressures on the available land and water resources. Meanwhile there has been population growth and the development of more extensive cultivation by farmers across stock routes, usually used by pastoralists to access pastures and water resources, which results in crop damage by the cattle of the nomads as they try ply these routes and seek to find alternative ones. This is the context that has intensified the crisis of nomadism in Nigeria, indeed in West and Central Africa.

The reality today is that we have gone beyond a crisis of nomadism to a broader crisis of the Nigerian State. The rural peace established by the British occupation which was completed in 1903 has basically crumbled and rural banditry by well armed criminal gangs, most of them multi-ethnic, is emptying Northern Nigeria of objects of value, and the greatest objects of value in rural Nigeria are cattle. Both farmers and nomads are losing their cattle to these destructive gangs and the process is leading to a multiplier effect of gangsterism as dispossessed youth join the criminal gangs, in turn extending their reach and impact. As communities lose their cattle and the blame game develops, killings and revenge killings grow leading to the intensification of insecurity in the country. Part of the effects of the process is massive population displacements, and as the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) grow, farming becomes impossible in many places and the risk of famine is today very real as rural banditry is adding millions to the huge number of IDPs created by Boko Haram and other conflicts.

Given the multifaceted nature of the problem of rural banditry in Northern Nigeria, there is no doubt a need for in-depth research towards a better understanding of what is going on. There is too much emotionally charged mis-understanding on the subject masquerading as factual accounts for us to even engage the process of thinking through policy frameworks that could address the problem. Too many communities today are thinking about and planning the “final solution” rather than talking, negotiating and seeking credible mediators. More efforts should be made to ensure that lines of communication and dialogue are sustained between and among all the different parties that are usually pitched in conflicts generated by acts of rural banditry.

The media has to engage in more refined investigative journalism that brings out the complexity of unfolding events. Nigeria needs to avoid the path of negative stereotyping and also ensure more balanced and factual reporting on issues related to rural banditry. It is also important to sensitise the media on the relevant international standards on reporting issues of conflict and banditry.

Governments, development partners and civil society must work closely to support peace building initiatives and facilitate awareness and capacity building initiatives aimed at addressing disputes between groups. The media has to engage in more refined investigative journalism that brings out the complexity of unfolding events. Nigeria needs to avoid the path of negative stereotyping and also ensure more balanced and factual reporting on issues related to rural banditry. It is also important to sensitise the media on the relevant international standards on reporting issues of conflict and banditry.

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It is even more important for the Nigerian State to initiate efforts for a more positive and effective presence in rural Nigeria. What we have today is a relay between an absent State and an occupation State coming in after things have already got out of control. Concrete efforts should be made towards strengthening the reach of governance institutions in the rural areas through the installation of adequate law-enforcement and administrative systems, especially around areas of persistent conflict.

A professor of Political Science, development consultant and expert, Jibrin Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development and Chair of the Editorial Board of Premium Times.