The Gap

Why farmer-herder conflict festers and its impact on Nigeria

Why farmer-herder conflict festers and its impact on Nigeria

One of the most controversial subjects bedevilling Nigeria for quite a while is the issue of the farmer-herder conflict. Although farmers and herders have co-existed in Nigeria since pre-colonial times, they have also had disagreements over certain issues. However, both parties always managed to reconcile and get back into each other’s respective good books.

However, this manageable “bromance” between the duo seems to have evaporated in recent times, particularly since the 1990s. News reports on this farmer-herder conflict are mentioned daily, weekly, and monthly. The data of the yearly statistical compilation of this conflict is mind-boggling and makes one ponder why such a crisis occurs at an escalated level.

Therefore, what is the farmer-herder conflict? What is the background to this conflict in Nigeria? What triggers it, and how does it affect Nigeria and Nigerians?

Meaning of farmer-herder conflict

The farmer-herder conflict refers to the dispute between herders, who are responsible for the care and management of a herd or flock of livestock, and farmers, whose mainstay is the planting and cultivation of crops. It is frequently referred to as conflict involving “pastoralists” or “nomadic” people (the herders) and “agriculturalists” or “settled” people (the farmers).

The conflict occurs mainly in the rural areas where farmers or a farming community, which are mainly sedentary, repeatedly clash with largely nomadic herders over land. The farmers accuse the herders of encroaching and trampling on their farmlands. On the other hand, the herders accuse the farmers of converting their grazing areas into farms, being hostile towards them, and engaging in cattle rustling.

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Therefore, it is accurate to state that the conflict is mostly an agrarian resource problem between two groups competing for scarce resources available. This crisis is particularly common in Africa, where many farmers and herders, respectively. Apart from Nigeria, the conflict is also prevalent in Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Burkina Faso, Mali, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

herder tending cows in the bush

Farmer-herder conflict in Nigeria

As earlier mentioned, the farmer-herder conflict is an age-long problem in Nigeria. This conflict began during pre-colonial times. Although literature detailing the nature of this conflict is sparse, there is evidence of conflict between sedentary farmers and nomadic herders in the 12th and 13th centuries, particularly in the areas that make up northern Nigeria today. The issues were, however, resolved through dialogue between warring parties and the traditional rulers of the affected areas.

By 1923, during the colonial era, there was palpable tension between herders and farmers in Mambila (present-day Taraba State) and Berom (present-day Plateau State). A crisis subsequently erupted between the farmers and herders regularly at the mentioned locations and other places. To reduce the tension during this period, an unwritten agreement was implemented, whereby the herders, mainly of the Fulani extraction, left the Middle Belt area and migrated to the southern part of the country to tend to their cattle. In those areas, their cattle enjoy the ample pasture and green vegetation which the southern region offers.

However, the herders returned to the northern region during the rainy season because their cattle were plagued by trypanosomiasis, a disease transmitted by tsetse flies. With the humid climate not friendly for their livestock, the herders returned to their familiar area of the savannah zone, where they supplied dairy products such as milk to the farming communities. The herders, in return, received grains from the farmers, and their cattle were allowed to graze on crop residues after the harvest. In addition, the cattle left dung on the farmlands, which was used as manure to fertilise the farms.

An institutional means to resolve this conflict was first introduced in the 1950s when the colonial government, in conjunction with local authorities, created grazing reserves in the northern region. This system, known as burti, facilitated the establishment of a large grazing reserve to accommodate the herders in the north. This institutional approach was further intensified with the enactment of the Grazing Law of the Northern Region of Nigeria (NN Law of 1965).

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This 1965 law officially created certain areas as grazing routes for herders to transport their livestock through those designated areas. More importantly, the law also criminalised open grazing in States that had domesticated the Grazing Reserve Law in Nigeria. The law is still operational by virtue of Section 315(1) of the 1999 Constitution, although it remains a regional law and not a federal one.

However, the takeover of government structures by the military in the late 1960s meant that the majority of laws made by democratic institutions were suspended. Hence, the Grazing Law largely ceased to function. The trading of the newly discovered crude oil in commercial quantities in the 1970s and the subsequent development of certain areas into urban centres meant that the government’s attention to animal husbandry and other forms of agriculture began to dissipate. During this same period in the 1970s, the burti system began to show signs of crack as farmers increasingly claimed ownership of lands along designated grazing routes. This led to increased conflict between farmers and herders.

This conflict between the Fulani herders and farmers in areas in central Nigeria such as Benue and Plateau states and other northern states such as Kaduna, Niger, Nasarawa, Gongola (now Adamawa and Taraba), and Kogi continued to occur in the 1980s and 1990s. The farmer-herder conflict escalated when the country returned to democracy in 1999.

Since the start of the Fourth Republic, the attacks have been vicious as the herders have attacked farmers and vice-versa. The conflict has now extended to the country’s southern parts, particularly in Ogun, Oyo, Osun, Delta, Edo, Imo, and Anambra states. It has largely been fuelled by the competition for the ever-dwindling land and water resources between farmers and herders and urban development.

Also, herders are now retaining their cattle in the south for long periods, including during the rainy season, a situation that they would not have attempted during the colonial era and the early stages of the post-colonial era, thanks to medicine. This development is, however, viewed as inimical by farmers to the development and survival of their farmlands. The majority of the grazing routes also appear to have given way to urban development.

Thousands of people have subsequently lost their lives as a result of these attacks. It is difficult to get the accurate number of attacks and the exact number of casualties because some attacks are underreported or not reported. But according to media reports, more than 19,000 people have been killed, and thousands more have been displaced.

Causes of farmer-herder conflict in Nigeria

Causes of farmer-herder conflict in Nigeria

The farmer-herder conflict occurs in Nigeria due to the following reasons:

Climate change

This is probably the important factor that triggers the farmer-herder conflict in Nigeria. Climate change has led to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns across the world, prompting a warning by the United Nations to the global populace.

The biggest impact of climate change concerning the farmer-herder conflict is the shrinking of Lake Chad. The lake’s size has decreased by 90 per cent over the past 60 years. In addition, camels from the Sahel eat up the leaves from

the trees meant to cover the fragile earth, thereby worsening the situation.

Therefore, the shrinking of this important lake, coupled with the desertification and inadequate rainfall in the northern region, has forced the herders to move further down the Middle Belt and southern Nigeria. This movement by the herders to other places deemed suitable for cattle rearing has led to farmers and herders competing for irrigation for crops and watering of herds, respectively.

Furthermore, erosion in some parts of southern Nigeria has vastly reduced farmlands’ size, forcing farmers to use areas hitherto used by herders as grazing routes for their cattle.

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Destruction of farmlands by cattle

While climate change may be a long-term or remote cause of the farmer-herder conflict, the destruction of farms encroached on by the cattle is the main immediate cause of the squabble. Farmers have complained for a long time that the cattle trample on their farms and destroy their crops, with the herders just watching. The overgrazing of cattle on farmlands constitutes a threat to the farmers, as it makes farming difficult for them.

This often leads the farmers to conduct attacks against the herders and the herdsmen, in return, launch reprisal attacks.

Encroachment of grazing routes

While farmers complain about herders trampling on their farms, herders also accuse farmers of encroaching on the designated grazing routes.

Speaking as recently as 2021, Winnie Lai-Solarin, Director of the Department of Animal Husbandry Services at the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, said there were 415 grazing reserves in Nigeria. Lai-Solarin further disclosed that the 415 grazing reserves are located in 21 states, out of which 141 of them have been gazetted. However, a good number of these grazing routes have been converted to farms.

This encroachment of the cattle path causes friction between the farmers and herders.

Population growth and development of rural areas

The “urbanisation” of rural areas, particularly grazing areas and farmlands, has led to a shortage of space for both farmers and herders to conduct their respective businesses. Buoyed by the sales of crude oil in the 1970s, governments at both the federal and state levels embarked on massive infrastructural developments in the country.

The building of dams and the modernisation of irrigation tools, even though they got the support of the local population, had a damming effect on the environment. For example, the number of lands flooded during the rainy season in northern Nigeria decreased by 50 per cent by the 2000s, compared to the figures of the 1960s. This development has forced many farmers who have lost vast arable lands to move to new lands for farming, some of which are on specified grazing routes.

In the same vein, the development of new projects by the government and the private sector in the rural areas to cater to the country’s growing population has gradually over the pathways that herders used to walk their livestock.


The rising rate of insecurity in Nigeria has also fuelled the farmer-herder crisis. Crimes such as terrorism and banditry have become so prevalent, particularly in the northern part of the country, that herders cannot take their cattle to graze as frequently as they did to prevent being caught in the crossfire between criminals and security agents. Therefore, some of the herders migrate with their cattle to other parts of the north, notably the Middle Belt, or they move down south, where they clash with farmers over the trespassing of land.

Similarly, farmers in the north, particularly in some parts of the North-Central, North-East, and North-West regions, are terrified to return to their farms due to the state of insecurity. This forces some of these farmers – who are mainly subsistence farmers – to leave their distressed areas and begin farming on other lands. However, some of these lands are designated grazing routes or reserves for herders, and the duo begins to clash over the claim of ownership and right of way.

Farmers who decide to remain in their localities create self-defence and/or ethnic and tribal militias to protect their farmlands, which has further fuelled the violence between them and the herders.

The proliferation of small arms and light weapons

The sudden increase in the number of arms and weapons beyond those needed for legitimate national security contributes in no small way to the farmer-herder conflict in Nigeria. A good number of herders carry with them sophisticated guns while tendering their cattle, and they use them to attack farmers who challenge them over their cattle grazing on their farms.

According to Conflict Armament Research (CAR), three years ago, some of the weapons used in the conflicts between farmers and herders were traced to “stockpiles of Nigerian defence and security forces”. The implication is that the soldiers are conniving with the criminals to facilitate the handover of these lethal weapons to unlicensed persons. These weapons eventually get into the herders’ custody and use indiscriminately to attack farmers.

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Cattle rustling

The act of stealing cattle primarily has been one of the drivers of the farmer-herder crisis in the country. The stealing of cattle gravely affects the livelihood of herders as they are unable to derive economic gain from the work they do.

These rustlers majorly steal cattle while they are grazing on farmlands or in transit through farming communities, keep them in the bush and subsequently sell them to people. In some instances, these rustlers burn down communities as a ruse to distract people from exposing their acts. Herders subsequently conduct reprisal attacks against farmers and the farming community in general and increasingly turn to crime to augment the loss of their cattle.

Poor agricultural practices 

Poor agricultural practices by both farmers and herders have led to deteriorating environmental conditions, especially for land. Due to the poor fertility of lands, farmers migrate to other areas deemed to be rich in soil nutrients.

However, just as with some of the instances mentioned above, these new farms are on designated cattle routes. The farmers claim and insist that their farms are on appropriate lands, incognizant that the lands are official cattle routes. The back-and-forth eventually results in a conflict between the farmers and herders.

Ethno-religious conflict

This has gradually gone on to become one of the major causes of the farmer-herder conflict in Nigeria. There is a serious distrust among the people of the three major tribes in the country – Hausa, Igbo, and Yoruba. Similarly, there is hostility between the adherents of the two major religions in the country: Christianity and Islam.

The farmers, who are mostly Christians and reside in southern Nigeria and the Middle Belt, believe that the attacks by the herders are a plan to Islamise the country and have even drawn parallels between the herders’ actions to the rise of the Fulani of 1804-1808 and the emergence of the Boko Haram terrorist group since 2009.

On the other hand, the herders, who are mainly of the Fulani extraction and are Muslims, believe that the farmers and their communities want to exterminate them because of their religious beliefs and also want to enjoy the fruits of their hard sweat by stealing their cattle. Some of the herders also claim that all lands in the country belong to God, not the government, and, therefore, they can graze their cattle anywhere they deem fit.

Other causes of the farmer-herder conflict in Nigeria include:

  • Breakdown in traditional conflict resolution mechanisms of land
  • Confusion between modern and traditional governance mechanisms
  • Modern agricultural techniques, an increase in cultivated lands, and a decline of pasturelands
  • Porous borders, ungoverned spaces, and the openness of the ECOWAS Transhumance Protocol
  • Harassment of people living in farming communities by herders

Effects of the farmer-herder conflict

Effects of the farmer-herder conflict

The following are the resultant effects of the farmer-herder conflict in Nigeria:

Breakdown of law and order

The immediate impact of a clash between farmers and herders is the breakdown of law and order. Once violence erupts as a result of any sort of disagreement between the warring parties, the affected community becomes disorderly, and if not careful, it results in the Hobbesian state of nature, which is anarchy.

The subsequent outcome is the unruly behaviour of all individuals involved, without any respect for the sanctity of human lives or the authority of the state.

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Loss of life and/or permanent injury

This is perhaps the gravest of the consequences of the farmer-herder conflict. Violence in any form hurts, damages, or even kills people. This affects all persons involved: farmers, herders, residents of communities, government and public officials, security officials, and the entire citizenry.

The fighting between all the parties involved leads to persons being killed. As mentioned earlier, over 19,000 people have reportedly lost their lives in Nigeria due to this conflict since 1999. Others who are lucky to survive sustain varying degrees of injuries, to the extent that it results in the amputation of parts of their body.

Destruction of livelihoods and properties

Aside from the loss of lives, various private and public properties and livelihoods are also destroyed. This represents the destruction of the farmlands for farmers and their homes, as well as the massive heist or killing of cattle belonging to herders. As a result, both farmers and herders are unable to derive financial gains from their hard work, a situation that can plunge them into poverty and mental instability.

This destruction also creates a nightmarish experience for citizens in utilising these facilities and equipment as their non-functionality decimates the livelihoods of millions of citizens in the affected areas where the violence occurred. Also, due to the destruction of properties, some people automatically become internally displaced persons (IDPs) as their homes no longer exist.

Lesser food production

As a result of the conflict, there is lesser production of food as there may be little to nothing for farmers to salvage and harvest from their destroyed farms, or there is a lack of fertile lands for them to migrate to and plant new crops. Also, some farmers may not be encouraged to continue farming as they are fearful for their safety or may conclude that their investment will not be safe, and they would not want to see their hard work destroyed in the flash of an eye.

In the same vein, the crisis does lead to a shortage in cattle that herders tend to, as some of their livestock either perish or get stolen during the attacks. Due to this shortage and some of the herders’ unwillingness to probably continue the business due to the impact of what they suffered, there is a lack of essential foodstuff derived from cattle, such as meat and milk. This leads to…

Expensive food items

The decrease in food production and the conflict, in general, lead to a deficiency in the food supply. Herders from the north are unable to come down south or provide their suppliers with enough cattle or dairy products, while farmers in the south are deprived of selling grains and other produce adequately to their northern buyers.

The resultant effect of this deficiency is that food is in short supply. This scarcity, therefore, makes food to become expensive and difficult to get for the citizens. People may have to spend more than what their budget requirements just to ensure they can buy food.

Remember the food crisis in 2021 and how farmers in the north protested against the farmer-herder conflict in Oyo State and decided to implement a food blockade. The crisis that erupted when the Amalgamated Union of Foodstuffs and Cattle Dealers of Nigeria (AFUCDN) stopped food supply to southern Nigeria for just over one week was huge, as the prices of items such as tomato, onions, rice, beans, and livestock soared hysterically.


Conflicts and warfare, such as the farmer-herder conflict, are the common human cause of famine. As conflicts lead to the destruction of crops and food supplies, as well as the disruption of the distribution of food, there is an extreme scarcity of food, as explained earlier.

However, this scarcity can become so extreme that even people who have the purchasing power to get foodstuff at a higher price will not be able to do so because of the food’s unavailability. This results in widespread and acute malnutrition, which subsequently leads to death by starvation or the contraction of diseases.

Lack of unity

Although the farmer-herder conflict is primarily between a subset of people, it affects the entire country. Due to the mistrust between the majority Muslim north and the dominant Christian south, there is hardly a purpose of oneness between this group of people.

Such a lack of unity is inimical not only for business purposes but also for national development.

Solutions to the farmer-herder crisis

  • Review and utilisation the already-designated grazing reserves by the federal and state governments
  • Establishment of modern cattle ranches by state governments
  • Improvement of the security situation, with the police, military, and other paramilitary security agencies playing prominent roles to restore law and order
  • The military and intelligence services should curtail the spread of small arms and light weapons
  • Facilitate regular engagement between all actors, including herdsmen, farmers, state and local governments
  • Utilise respected individuals and mediation groups to facilitate dialogue between the farmers and herders
  • Need to encourage community policing to help in intelligence gathering about the conflict and transmit such information to the law enforcement agencies
  • Stop activities that make the country vulnerable to climate change
  • The Nigerian government should advocate for the amendment of the ECOWAS Transhumance Protocol to reflect current realities

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Gabriel is a trained political scientist, and a qualified and versatile communications professional who has worked as a journalist and Public Relations executive. He has a knack for content creation and development and is a keen digital native interested in all things good.
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