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West Africa: Fulani conflict getting worse

Philipp Sandner
May 7, 2018

Whether in Mali, Niger or Nigeria, the nomadic Fulani herders often find themselves in conflict with farmers over scarce resources. But there is more to it than that: Often it becomes a struggle for political supremacy.

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

The mood is tense in the Menaka region in eastern Mali. According to Reuters, armed men raided two villages earlier this week and killed at least 16 people belonging to the Tuareg ethnic group. By the end of April, at least 40 Tuareg had been killed. The governor of Menaka, Daouda Maiga, described the perpetrators as Fulani, who were linked to the terrorist group, the so-called "Islamic State" (IS). Maiga said the act may have been a retaliatory strike after the Tuareg had supported French troops in an anti-terrorist operation.

In fact, in the Mopti region, several hundred kilometers west of Menaka, there is an Islamist Fulani preacher, Amadou Koufa. Since founding an armed group in 2015, the country's Fulani minority have come under suspicion of collaborating with extremists.

Read more: Nigeria's communal violence: It's about more than land

But it's not that simple, says Abdoulaye Sounaye from the Leibniz Center for Modern Oriental Studies (ZMO). "You cannot reduce everything to religion," he told DW. While this has great potential to mobilize people, it also has political and economic power. "Nevertheless, it would be more of a conflict between the population groups and the Malian government."

Fulani used as a scapegoat

The Fulani people (also known as Fulbe or Peul) are one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa, with at least 25 million members. However, because the Fulani are scattered throughout the region, in most states they are a minority. Traditionally, they live as nomadic pastoralists. Conflicts occur frequently, days DW journalist Usman Shehu — he himself a Fulani from Nigeria.

Even though the situations vary according to the country and region, there are recurrent patterns. "Our politicians repeatedly call opposition groups terrorists. The same thing now is happening to the Fulani people. Because they are vulnerable people who live in the bush and are mainly uneducated, they use them as scapegoats."

Nigerian journalist and blogger, Aliyu Tilde, is part of a team that works to solve territorial conflicts on behalf of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) — especially in Mali and Nigeria, where Tilde says conflicts with the Fulani have escalated. He was involved in the documentation of many incidents in Nigeria.

"You'll find hat whenever there is a conflict, it is not usually the Fulani who begin that conflict," he told DW, "You will find that they were under attack and they were trying to protect themselves, or they were carrying out a reprisal attack."

Three types of conflicts

In Nigeria alone, one must distinguish between three types of incidents, says Tilde. First is the conflict over land between nomadic herders and farmers. However, if the Fulani's cattle destroyed farmland, this would usually be resolved locally. There is also the possibility of gang criminality. "This is a crime, which must be regarded as such," says Tilde. "If a state cannot enforce its laws, that's a problem."

The third type is the most problematic: In the struggle for political supremacy in Nigerian states, local rulers would often strengthen their own ethnic groups and agitate against minorities.

The consequence of this, says Tilde, is essentially "ethnic cleansing."

For example, the Fulani recalled a bloodbath in Taraba state in June 2017, where around 200 people were massacred. For Major General Benjamin Ahanotu, there was no doubt that the goal was to wipe out the Fulani population.

In January it was announced that the Ministry of Justice had ordered the release of all suspects following the massacre. At the end of April, Governor Aminu Yaminu's assistant was arrested in neighboring Benue. Aminu, who is allegedly linked to the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, is accused of distributing thousands of rifles to the population.

People watch as casket is lowered into grave
Pall bearers lower a casket during a mass burial for 73 people who died in clahses with Fulani herdsmenImage: Getty Images/P. Utomi Ekpei

The same thing happened in other states — usually without much media coverage.

Mistrust increases

There are various reasons for the conflict escalation. Businessman and philanthropist Mo Ibrahim, who uses his foundation to strive for good governance across Africa, says climate change is a driving factor. In an interview with DW, Ibrahim says the erosion of usable farming areas will exacerbate the dispute.

"It happened in Darfur before, it's happening now in Nigeria — it's going to happen everywhere because you have two communities who, over hundreds of years, sorted out a certain mode of cooperation," he told DW. "Now with climate change, the herders need to drive their cattle into areas where they have never been before. And this requires sensitivity and quick action by governments to see how they can bring this community together. A new form of cooperation needs to be developed."

But Tilde says the lack of a state presence in Mali and Nigeria is the biggest problem. In areas where there are no job opportunities, young people are increasingly joining criminal groups. "These can be people of all ethnicities — Fulani, Haussa or Tuareg," he says.

In both countries the state monopoly is not guaranteed. And when the state offers no security and crime goes unpunished, people turn to their own form of justice and the distrust between different population groups increases.

Three women hug, grieving
Grief and consolation during a funeral serviceImage: Getty Images/P. Utomi Ekpei

The duty of states

Current approaches to solving the problem often target the state level. Tilde names Senegal and Mauritania as positive examples in this regard. "Such conflicts now do not exist because of the implementation of legal factors in place between the two countries," says Tilde. Cattle herds have to be registered and cannot cross the border unnoticed. Alternate areas are designated for the cattle, so that they do not graze on farmland.

In Cameroon, the Fulani herdsmen have a better deal, says Usman Shehu, with full rights and obligations. The state receives taxes from the shepherds — but heavy penalties are imposed if their cattle are robbed or killed.

In Mali, action has begun with announcements. The government in Bamako condemned the incitement to ethnic hatred and threatened criminal prosecution accordingly. In Nigeria, a commission has been set up to deal with the conflicts. But experts still remain skeptical as to whether an improvement on the ground can really be achieved.