from Nigeria north-central region, made up of the country’s capital, Abuja, and six other states, is home to several ethnic minority groups. Over 200 languages are spoken here. The region is vulnerable to several forms of conflict – between ethnic and religious groups; people who trace their ancestry to a state and people who simply lived there for a while; people who raise livestock and those who farm.
The data presented in my doctoral thesis show that over the past decade, 1,412 incidents of conflict have been reported in the region and 7,399 deaths in the north-central states of Benue, Plateau, Kogi, Nasarawa, Niger, Kwara and the Capital Territory federal.
The escalation of violence has deeply disrupted the local economy. Agriculture, the mainstay of the region’s economy, has been hard hit. Many farmers in the affected areas have abandoned their farms for fear of being attacked. And following the conflict between herders and farmers, the Nigerian government lose estimated annual revenue of $13.7 billion.
Previous studies on violence in Nigeria have mostly looked at what drives it in urban centres. Few have included rural communities.
In my recently published article paper, I sought to identify the factors contributing to violent conflict in rural and urban areas of north-central Nigeria. I wanted to be able to provide information for the policy response of federal and state governments.
My study has led me to conclude that building and strengthening community resilience must become an important policy objective of the government to foster peace in the region. Resilience involves communities adopting measures to live in the midst of conflict and cultivate peaceful coexistence.
I interviewed 555 heads of households and conducted 10 key informant interviews with relevant stakeholders – residents, youth, community and religious leaders as well as state and non-state security actors. I searched for information on broader issues behind the violence in the north-central region.
I have found a number of mutually reinforcing factors that promote violent conflict in the region. They included:
1) the rise of criminal groups and criminal activities,
2) hate speech,
3) the inability of governments to protect most citizens from violent crime,
4) political intimidation of the opposition by the ruling party,
5) the over-militarization of public space,
6) increasing demographic pressure,
7) the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, and
8) open pasture.
I analyzed four of the factors that residents ranked as the main drivers of instability.
Small Arms and Light Weapons: Violence and threats of violence in the region largely occur against a backdrop of widespread poverty, rising unemployment and drug abuse. On 42.7% of the region’s population is poor. The region too accounts for 10% of drug users in Nigeria.
To this is added a proliferation of small arms and light weapons, especially those made locally. Nigeria has more 6 million small arms in circulation. In Bénoué and Plateau states, locally manufactured weapons have been in use for approximately 50% of crimes committed. Additionally, reports show that ammunition from at least 21 different countries has been used in conflicts between herders and farmers in north-central Nigeria.
During election cycles, politicians have been known provide young people with ammunition to intimidate political opponents. Youth gangs have been hired and armed by politicians to fight their political opponents, steal ballot boxes and generally rig the vote. After the elections, the gangs kept the weapons and used them to develop criminal enterprises.
I interviewed residents about the impact of arms trafficking on security. Respondents said that the country’s porous borders, particularly in the north, facilitate the flow of weapons from neighboring countries such as Chad and Cameroon. They said the trails taken are mostly unknown to security agencies.
Militarization of public space: From 2015 to 2020, six soldiers operations were launched in the central-north region. They were expected to deal with armed conflict and violent crime, including cattle rustling, armed banditry, and clashes between herders and farmers.
But those interviewed said the soldiers’ conduct had worsened the security situation and strained civil-military relations. Military officers acted unprofessionally and violated human rights.
Failure of governance: Respondents from Plateau and Benue states said that poor governance had resulted in widespread poverty, unemployment, corruption and insecurity. These conditions create frustration and an environment conducive to the eruption of violent conflict.
People also alleged that the police were ineffective and took bribes to ignore raids on villages, destruction of property and other incidents. This was confirmed by an investigation by Amnesty International report.
Ban on free grazing: Over the years, rural communities in Benue and Plateau states have witnessed incessant clashes between pastoralists and sedentary farmers. Farmers accuse herders of grazing their cattle on their farms and destroying their crops. Ranchers say this is happening because farmers are blocking their grazing roads.
In 2017, the Benue State Government enacted the Law on prohibition of open air grazingeffectively banning cattle grazing in the state.
The state government created a Livestock Guard to enforce the ban. Afterwards, guards clashed with Fulani herders and expelled them from large areas of Benue, seizing and slaughtering livestock. It triggered large scale attacks by herders on farmers in Benue.
As my study shows, all conflict drivers point to widespread governance failure. The Nigerian government at all levels must address these factors.
Political solutions to security problems must include strategic improvement of border security, collaboration between federal and state governments, active intelligence gathering, better community policing, and stronger ammunition control policy. Such concerted efforts can strengthen surveillance and stem the flow of weapons and drugs. Prompt arrest and diligent prosecution of perpetrators of violence could also have a deterrent effect.
Since it will never be possible to prevent all conflicts from leading to violence, building and strengthening community resilience in the face of violent conflict must become a policy objective of all levels of government in Nigeria. This means that the government must support and strengthen the efforts of communities to build bridges between warring groups, promoting peace and security.
The conflict associated with open grazing must be resolved through a pragmatic national livestock transformation plan.