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Fulani herders endure stigma and frustration in Nigeria

Katrin Gänsler
September 12, 2018

The mockery of pastoralist Fulani over their enthusiasm for cows has made way for the slurs of "terrorists" and "militia" as disputes with others in West Africa lead to bloodshed. In Nigeria they face other problems too.

herd of cows in Africa
Image: DW/K. Gänsler

The voices of the two boys, neither older than 16, carry over the sound of more than 20 cows trotting through the grass. Day in and day out they have to ensure the animals are well grazed and watered in the fields of Jos in central Nigeria's Plateau State.

Looking on, Idris Abdullahi Bayero considers himself lucky. The 29-year-old graduate of history and international studies at the University of Jos was once just like these boys, living in the bush and on the move with his family and their cows, calves and goats.

Education is one of the main challenges facing the Fulani who have traditionally led a nomadic existence across western and central Africa. Although most now live in more permanent settlements, these are still often far from schools or other facilities such as healthcare centers.

A portrait of Idris Abdullahi Bayero
Idris Abdullahi Bayero herded cattle as a boy and sold his cows to pay for universityImage: DW/K. Gänsler

"We are not treated equally"

Often Fulani are not able to begin or continue much more than a basic education because they are expected to care for their livestock from a relatively young age. Cows are not only the pride and joy of the Fulani – they are also their bank. Bayero, who is now job-hunting, was able to finish school with the support of his community. To continue to university, he had to sell his cows.

"Well, actually I sold a lot of the cows that I have. Any time I want to pay school fees, I will go to the bush and catch one of them, take it to the market and sell it. That's how I paid my school fees. Yes, even though I don't want it to be like this. How I wish I would have had something where I get income and leave my cattle," he says.

Life has not been so easy for Miriam Mohammed, 20. She was only able to attend school for a short while before she became a mother of two small children. She lives in a small settlement, an hour's drive from Jos.

"My problem is I was born here but we are not given equal rights. They don't want to see me on this land. And the government is doing nothing about it. The government is supposed to look into this problem and treat us as equals, just like any other person born here. But we are not treated equally. They don't want us on the land. I was born here but I don't know why they don't want me to be here," she says.

Mohammed is angry about the lack of infrastructure, which has long been an issue, and the negative image the Fulanis seem to have acquired.

The conflict between Fulani herders and farmers in Nigeria is long-running. Clashes – with both sides armed – have resulted in hundreds of fatalities since the start of this year alone.

Read more:  West Africa: Fulani conflict getting worse

Three women wearing cry as they embrace each other
Women console each other at the funeral of the victims of clashes between Fulani herdmen and farmers in Nigeria's Benue state in January 2018Image: Getty Images/P. Utomi Ekpei

Frustration brings danger

Media reports attribute blame to the Fulani. The Voice, a daily newspaper in Benue State, wrote: "Armed Fulani militia last Wednesday killed three persons in Gwer local government area of Benue state." The term is often used in talk shows, including Sunrise Daily on Channels TV.

"This stigmatization will actually lead to serious animosity between these two conflicting parties or groups because Fulani will begin to look at other tribes as their enemies. They will become radical day by day," Bayero warns.

Bayero says there is a danger that an unequal situation will get worse and that the frustration at being blamed for the conflict could see young Fulani especially lured into crime or terrorism.

"You see, my cow is rustled. Me, I'll maybe be killed. My brother has been killed and nothing is done about it. In fact, they start looking at the state as their enemy, too. So from there the terrorists will use to take advantage of it, convince them – use them."

That is an aspect people often forget, especially Christians in Nigeria's Middle Belt region, where Plateau and Benue states are located. They complain about cattle destroying their fields and accuse the Fulani of spreading Islam southwards and starting a jihad against Christian communities.

A picture of Father Blaise Agwom
Catholic priest Blaise Agwom brings ethnic and religious groups together in Plateau StateImage: DW/K. Gänsler

Fulani 'need to tell their own story'

Still, some Christians firmly disagree. Blaise Agwom, a Catholic priest and head of the Dialogue, Reconciliation and Peace Center in Jos, is one of them.

"Because of this stigmatization, there are places where a normal Fulani youth can't enter now because they have been described as 'Fulani terrorists.' There are a lot of good and peace-loving Fulani who cohabit peacefully with their local communities or neighbors," he says. 

Father Blaise organizes meetings and workshops for young people from different faiths and ethnic groups. A peaceful life is still possible.

The 77 Percent: Fulani telling their own story

"I feel one of the ways for the young Fulani generation is to also get friendly towards the media. They need to tell their own story. Unless you tell your own story, nobody will tell it for you. So, they need to rescue themselves by using the media to change the narratives," he said.

That's exactly Bayero's goal: when he is out and about in Jos he tries to convince people he encounters to join him in opening up about the Fulani way of life. The stigma around young Fulani is not helpful, he believes, and education is a way out.

"Now I have this dream, this campaign. My own priority is to take education to the doorstep of my people because they are the most backward, most abandoned people. They are the most isolated people. Government doesn't care about them. Since government doesn't care about them they don't talk," he says.