Nigeria’s Fulani conflict: A ‘clash over land ownership’ or a sectarian massacre?


by Hassan John, September 2020


The deadliest conflict currently unfolding in Nigeria is the campaign being waged by Fulani Muslim militias against the mostly-Christian farming communities of the country’s Middle Belt. The International Crisis Group reported in 2018 that these attacks had become six times deadlier than the Boko Haram insurgency. Amnesty International reported that between January 2016 and October 2018, “at least 3,641 people [were] killed by Fulani herdsmen” while a Foreign Affairs report from January 2019 says the Fulani herdsmen “killed more than 10,000 people in the last decade”. According to the Global Terrorism Index, in 2019 deaths from terrorism in Nigeria increased by one third over 2018 as a result of “a substantial escalation” in violence by Fulani extremists.


It is important to note that these are only the official figures. The true number of deaths is likely to be much higher. There are no available statistics regarding the kidnapping of Christian schoolgirls with the aim of marrying them off to Muslim men, or the destruction of property and forceful confiscation of land belonging to Christian communities in the Middle Belt region of the country, particularly in Plateau, Taraba and Adamawa states. Thousands of people have been displaced in this Fulani land-grab operation.


The scale of the violence has prompted Christian Solidarity International to issue a Genocide Warning for Nigeria. Meanwhile the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief has appropriately entitled its new and well-documented report “Nigeria – Unfolding Genocide?”.


The Nigerian government has been accused of not taking decisive action to end this tragedy, which has already gone on for over a decade. The government simply dismisses these killings as a clash between herders and farmers over grazing fields and retaliation for cattle rustling. This interpretation is echoed by international institutions, media outlets and NGOs, which often explain the rise in violence by pointing to the desertification of grazing land brought on by climate change.  


The violence is about much more than land rights and environmental shifts


But this violence is about much more than land rights and environmental shifts. To help understand why the Fulani herdsmen attacks seem to defy a solution, it is necessary to bring in some context.


There are an estimated 18 million nomadic Fulani in Africa’s Sahel region – stretching from Mauritania in the northwest to Sudan in East Africa. Nigeria has a Fulani population estimated at some 7 million; over 98% of them are Muslim.


Usman Dan Fodioa Fulani scholar whose family migrated from the Senegal region in the 19th century, stirred up a revolt and opposition to the Hausa tribal rulers by introducing what he called ‘pure Islam’. Dan Fodio launched a Jihad that swept over the Hausa Bakwai regions of northwestern Nigeria before spreading across central Nigeria. He established the Sokoto Caliphate, constituting an Islamic theocratic hegemony. Religious cleansing and the mass enslavement of ‘infidels’ were characteristic of this Fulani-led Caliphate. The northern emirates of the present-day country are direct descendants of this violent, sectarian political entity.


The defeat of the Sokoto Caliphate and the Kano Emirate by the British colonial army in 1903 brought to an end the political and religious ambitions of the Dan Fodio Caliphate to rule the region as far as the Atlantic Ocean. But the Fulani struggle for power and Islamic dominance re-emerged shortly before Nigeria’s independence when the northern region opposed what was perceived as a southern Christian plot for dominance, leading to a deadly riot in Kano in 1953.


Despite concessions to the north, the presumption that the country’s three major autonomous regions – the Yoruba Kingdom, the Igbo nation and the northern Caliphate – could work out a political arrangement collapsed in 1960, three years after independence, and by 1966 the cracks could no longer be papered over. An attempt by the military to force a political solution through a bloody coup failed. In 1967 the country was plunged into a civil war that pitted mostly-Christian secessionists in the southeast against the federal government. The civil war killed over a million people, predominantly members of the southern Christian Igbo tribe, and cemented the dominance of the Muslim north in the central government. Nigeria has yet to recover from the religious divide caused by that war.


When pressure for democracy brought an end to the more than 30 years of military dictatorship that followed the civil war, the military carved out a unitary government with skewed electoral delineation and a constitution that favours northern political interests. The Sokoto Caliphate’s influence in the political arrangement was already entrenched. 


Yet dissatisfied with the power shift in 1999, the northern regions went still further in establishing sharia law, which conflicts with the secular constitution in many regards concerning non-Muslims. The religious crisis continued to mount. 


The Kaduna riots in 2000 set the stage for subsequent sectarian bloodletting that erupted in Jos, Plateau State, from 2001. The Hausa and Fulani herders who had settled in Jos became involved in the continuous attacks and killings, which both the federal and state government were unable or unwilling to stop. Attacks by Fulani herdsmen spread from Jos to other regions of the Middle Belt.


Analysts and critics, especially from the Christian community, have criticised the federal government for turning a blind eye to the Fulani atrocities, accusing its officials of harbouring hereditary allegiances to the Sokoto Caliphate. Indeed, President Muhammadu Buhari is the patron of Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore, the Cattle Breeders Association, a powerful political force protecting all Fulani cattle breeders. The Association has made several statements justifying the killings by the Fulani herdsmen.


It is in the interest of the Caliphate and most northern politicians to protect the Fulani herdsmen and try to remove religion from the equation, so as not to give Islam a bad name. Ascribing the killings to ethnic clashes over grazing fields caused by climate change is more acceptable to the international community. However, the proponents of these narratives still need to explain the mass graves of women and children who ‘clash over grazing land’ as well-armed and well-trained Fulani militias continue to engage in battle with Nigeria’s security forces.


The brutality of these massacres, and the intentionality and preparation shown by the massacrers, point to another explanation, one rooted in the bloody history of the northern caliphates. These attacks are part of a political project, another battle and another front in a two-century-long struggle to impose and expand Islamic rule in West Africa. The settled Christian populations of the Middle Belt stand in their way, and so these militias have embarked on a well-funded and well-organised campaign to drive them out.


This grim reality is well understood in Washington DC. Over two years ago, President Trump acknowledged following a White House meeting with President Buhari: “We’ve had very serious problems with Christians who have been murdered, killed in Nigeria. We’re going to be working on that problem… because we can’t allow that to happen.” But it is still happening, with impunity. Time is running out to address this crisis, and the narrative of ‘farmers versus herders’ serves only to obfuscate it. 


Hassan John is Canon of the Anglican Diocese of Jos and its Media Director. He is a trained journalist and writes for international media organisations including CNN.