"I've lost everything": how innocent Fulani pay the price for attacks

by Bashir Aliyu Limanci, May 2022


When Muhammad Hardo (not his real name) and a cavalcade of desperate refugees relocated to Bojinji, a village near the city of Bauchi where most of the residents are Hausa, he expected to be well received by the locals. He was in for a big shock.


After sealing a deal to buy a farm to convert it into a human settlement made of waddle and daub, Hardo was quickly summoned by the village head, who had been told by the authorities to keep an eye on the newcomers and their activities. It soon dawned on Hardo that fleeing violence does not mean escaping from its vicious cycle.


In early April 2022, attackers suspected to be Fulani herdsmen swooped down on Laake village in Bassa Local Government Area in Plateau State, one of the many villages in Nigeria’s Middle Belt where incessant attacks by Fulani herdsmen on predominantly Christian settlements have fueled anti-Fulani sentiment.

Muhammad Hardo had been living there for over a decade with his cattle, but after the attack, an irate mob seized his cattle and forced him out of the village. They accused him and other Fulani people there of giving information to the attackers. "By Allah, I have never sympathized with these people," Hardo asserted. "In fact, I was even accused of being dovish and sympathetic to the Christians by my people."


When he arrived in Bauchi with ten other families from his village, he expected to be accepted and quickly integrated into the local community of Hausa Muslims. But the ruthless attacks on Hausa people in Nigeria’s Muslim-majority northwest, especially Sokoto, Zamfara, and Kebbi, have also fueled anti-Fulani sentiment there. Hardo and his displaced people had to accept stringent conditions, including a pledge not to associate themselves with Fulani militants, before they were allowed to settle in the community.


Peaceful Fulani become targets


Herder-farmer conflicts have been brewing in Nigeria for almost two decades now, with the violence taking on religious and ethnic dimensions. Despite various attempts to stop the violence, Fulani armed groups have emerged as an object of dread, terrorizing and pillaging Nigeria’s northwest and Middle Belt with ruthless campaigns which have killed thousands of people over the last few years. 


This violence makes peaceful Fulanis into targets for reprisal attacks. The mass killings of villagers by rampaging Fulani bandits in Katsina, Sokoto, Zamfara, Niger, Plateau, Benue, Adamawa, Taraba, and Kaduna have fueled anti-Fulani sentiment across the Middle Belt and northwest, with many villagers seeing Fulani as either villains or sympathizers with these attacks. Muhammad Hardo and the other Fulani from his village are among the victims.


Shifting demography leads to disharmony


The fast-shifting demography in northern Nigeria has changed the centuries-old harmony that existed between farmers and herders. Nigeria's growing population has led to a growing demand for meat, thus increasing demand for land for grazing. The north-central part of Nigeria, also known as the Middle Belt, has some of the best arable land in Nigeria. Endowed with good climate conditions and stable rainfall, it has become an attractive destination for herders.


"It was historically free of tsetse flies and trypanosomiasis,” Ayodele O. Majekodunmi, an expert on climate change and Fulani pastoralism, explains. “The absence of trypanosomiasis and abundant pasture attracted large numbers of cattle-keeping pastoralists."


However, most of the residents of this region are neither Muslims nor Fulani. Over the past 20 years, Fulani pastoralists have begun using mass violence to try to secure use of the land for themselves.


As Professor Farooq Kperogi points out, the vast majority of people in the Middle Belt already hold anti-Fulani sentiments because of the role played by the Fulani caliphate-builder Usman Danfodio, who tried to conquer the Middle Belt and enslaved many Middle Belters during the 1804 jihad. It is a memory the residents are unlikely to forget.


In the Middle Belt, where the vast majority of victims of Fulani attacks are not Muslims, reprisal attacks on innocent Fulani can have a religious dimension. These retaliatory attacks can affect even non-Fulani people, as evidenced by attacks on Muslim motorists and passengers passing through these states.


Retaliation attacks


"Religion plays a big role in attacks on Fulani people in Plateau, Benue, and Kaduna,” says John Ayock, a resident of Zangon Kataf in Kaduna State. “Fulani armed groups attack villages populated by Christians in retaliation for the killings of their people while the Christians also retaliate by attacking Fulani and other Muslims." On both sides, he says, many of the victims of these attacks are innocent.


In the Middle Belt, Fulani people often live in remote villages where they are susceptible to retaliatory actions anytime a group of Fulani-speaking criminals attacks other people. "I have never supported their actions," said Samaila Busa, a herder who lost his wife, daughter, and over 80 cows when a group of angry youth stormed his village in Kafanchan to avenge a massacre carried out by Fulani armed groups. "Now, I have lost my family and what I have built throughout my life. I can't explain the pain. It is even more painful because other people see us as criminals."


According to Abdulrahman Abu Hamisu, a security expert who is also Fulani, "Tackling the primordial difference between Hausa-Fulani and other ethnic groups in the Middle Belt requires a concession from both sides, but given the gravity of enmity that exists between them, it is hard to see how this crisis would end."


These reprisal attacks also happen in Nigeria’s majority-Muslim northwest, where Fulani attacks against Hausa Muslims have created a backlash. Zailani Ardo, a Fulani man from Zamfara State, lost his family to such a reprisal attack. "My wife and daughter were on their way back from a family wedding in Anka when they were stopped and killed by Na Mada's men,” he said, referring to the vigilante commander Danmudi Na Mada. “Signs of torture were visible on their bodies," he said, while fighting back tears. With most of his cows having been rustled and facing increased ethnic profiling, Zailani and a tiny number of his people migrated to Jada Local Government Area in Adamawa State, where they found refuge. He now works as a guard.


Danmudi Na Mada had been both praised for protecting Hausa Muslim people in Gusau, Zamfara State, and accused of waging an ethnic cleansing campaign against Fulani people. He was killed by Fulani militants in a reprisal attack on 24 April 2022.


"You need to understand the problem before you fix it, but unfortunately, the mainstream media have created a situation whereby people see the whole Fulani people as villains or terrorist sympathizers," said Captain Sadeeq Shehu, a retired former director with the Nigerian Air Force who is now an adjunct professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.


"The key to understanding the problem,” Shehu says, “is to acknowledge that a large number of Fulani ethnic groups in Nigeria not only distance themselves from the campaign of terror unleashed by their brethren but also bear the brunt of the terrorism."


Internecine conflict


The president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, a Fulani, has been accused by many of being sympathetic to the Fulani attackers, but there is no evidence to back up this theory, according to Shehu.


"Buhari has managed to weaken Boko Haram in the northeastern part of Nigeria, but he has indeed failed to address the problem of farmers-herders conflicts which often metamorphose into internecine wars even between the warring Fulani factions."


Shehu is of the view that Nigeria’s policymakers and its National Intelligence Agency are aware of the difference between the Fulani armed groups and the vast majority of Fulani who are peaceful; this is why they are still treating the case with caution.


It is against this backdrop that Sheikh Ahmad Mahmood Gumi, a Kaduna-based cleric, has tried in vain to raise the plight of Fulani herdsmen who are first pushed into crime after losing their cows and properties then end up waging a brutal war of reprisal against any group of people they view as responsible for their plight. His efforts have not gained traction due to the massive anger against the terrorists.


It has become much harder for the authorities to consider giving Fulani militants an amnesty or to negotiate with them. The amnesty programme introduced by Zamfara State Governor Bello Matawalle provided an exit for those willing to repent and renounce violence, but the amnesty was short-lived as the government failed to bridge the rivalry that exists between the warring Fulani warlords fighting over turf. Some went back to the forests to fight while others renounced violence, but without cows and or the security needed to rear their cattle, life became unbearable for many of the repentant bandits.


As the banditry and kidnapping continue to haunt millions of people, it will be difficult to stop the ethnic profiling of Fulani people for now. Asked whether there is a need for people to separate the wheat from the chaff regarding the ethnic profiling of the Fulanis, Sada Lamurdez, a lawyer who lives and works in Kaduna, believes it is unlikely.


"The attackers don't target their fellow Fulani people there, and sometimes the attackers are shielded by the very same Fulani people living a stone's throw from Christian villages,” she says. “I am not generalizing, but many such people are victims of their mischief. A lot of them surreptitiously connive with the criminals. You can't blame the victims of Fulani terrorism for not liking the people behind the attacks."


Bashir Aliyu Limanci is a freelance essayist who writes about gender, education, and the clash of civilization in northern Nigeria. His writings cover a wide range of issues such as religion, extremism, and politics of memory.