Photographer: SSOUF SANOGO/AFP via Getty Images

Advancing Sahara Desert Inflames Violent Struggle Over Land

  • Centuries-old disputes between farmers, herders intensify
  • Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Mali grapple with deadly clashes

Festus Ogbonnah used to supplement his teacher’s salary by working as a part-time farmer in southeastern Nigeria until an armed band of herders moved their cattle through his field two years ago and destroyed his crops. He decided to quit working the land.

“I had borrowed money to grow corn and cassava, and I lost everything,” Ogbonnah, 40, said by phone from the town of Opanda. “The herdsmen were armed with assault rifles and we couldn’t do anything about it.” After clashes in April in the nearby town of Nimbo saw dozens of people killed, he said he knew he had made the right decision.

Battles over land and water are intensifying in Nigeria and other West African countries such as Niger, Mali and Ivory Coast, a region that’s battling Islamist militants linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State. As the Sahara desert advances at a rate environmentalist group Fight Against Desert Encroachment estimates at 0.6 kilometers (0.37 miles) a year, herders who traditionally grazed their cattle on arid plains are increasingly being forced onto cropland. By trying to escape the desert, nomads are unwittingly accelerating the desertification of less arid areas, according to the group.

More than 30 people were killed in the northeastern Bouna region in Ivory Coast last year, the worst-ever outbreak of violence there between farmers and herders, while in Niger a November raid attributed to farmers and triggered by the destruction of a cereal plantation left at least 20 people dead. Two separate clashes in Mali this year resulted in almost 50 deaths, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.

While competition for natural resources has triggered most of the violence, ethnic and religious differences compound a feeling of mistrust that’s existed for more than a century. Most nomadic herders are ethnic Fulani, a mainly Muslim people who controlled swathes of West Africa in the 19th century.

In Mali, the collapse of state authority in the north following a 2012 separatist insurgency has made the disputes between the two communities more deadly, according to Dougoukolo Ba-Konare, the head of Observatoire Kisal, a non-government organization that represents the Fulani and other nomadic people in the country.

Settling Accounts

“When the state disintegrated, people started settling accounts among themselves because the government was no longer there,” Ba-Konare said by phone from Paris. Many nomadic Fulani “were left to their own devices in a region with huge economic problems, affected by drought, their herds dying in large numbers -- and took up arms. The absence of the state is a problem.”

It’s in Nigeria, the economic giant of West Africa, where the violence has spiraled out of control.

The main scene of fighting is the central Middle Belt, a major food-producing region, with more than 2,000 people killed last year in Benue state and the southern part of Kaduna state, according to the United Nations Human Rights office. In Benue alone, about 75,000 people fled their homes because of clashes over grazing and farming rights between 2012 and 2016, Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency says.

“The lack of arrests and prosecution of perpetrators, in spite of the scale of the problem and the number of people and regions affected, has created a climate of impunity,” Ravina Shamdasani, a spokesman of the UN office, said in an emailed response to questions.

Prison Terms

While grazing rights are regulated under a treaty agreed to by the Economic Community of West African States that allows border crossings by herders, there’s been a lack of consistency in implementing parts of the treaty such as creating mechanisms for resolving conflicts, according to the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Burkina Faso and Niger have set up a joint committee to control cross-border movements of herders. Ivory Coast in September approved a law that regulates grazing, requiring herders to carry permits if they take their cattle to other countries. The government also made the destruction of crops due to passing animals punishable by up to three years in prison.

But the mistrust remains. Some Malian militant groups are dominated by Fulani, while many farmers in Nigeria’s Middle Belt are worried that Fulani herders seek to expand the influence of Islam. That view has become more widespread since Muhammadu Buhari, a Fulani who owns cattle, became president in 2015, according to Clement Nwankwo, executive director of the Abuja-based Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre.

“What worries and scares most farmers is the air of impunity the herders display and the lack of forceful action against them by law enforcement agencies,” said Ogbonnah, the farmer. “The whole thing has become politicized.”

— With assistance by Kaourou Magassa, and Yinka Ibukun

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