Cheta Nwanze, Head of Research, SBM Intelligence

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The resurgence of pastoral conflicts in Plateau State 15 Nov 2017

Fulani herdsmen herding livestock in a Nigerian farm
Fulani herdsmen herding livestock in a Nigerian farm /Photo: World Bank/arne Hoel


For about four years, violent pastoral conflicts in Plateau State had significantly de-escalated. But the diminished violence in the ‘Home of Peace and Tourism’ had very little to do with increased security by government’s security agencies. Neither was a ‘ceasefire’ necessarily negotiated by the Nigerian state to stop the interethnic crises that have rocked Plateau fairly regularly since 2001. Based on research carried out by my organisation, there is evidence that the 'peace' that reigned in that period was due to activities of the ethnic militias that took it upon themselves to defend their communities.
    
Plateau State bore the brunt of the farmer-herdsmen clashes that escalated in the last couple of years. The Tarok militia in the state, in collaboration with other ethnic militias, most notably the Eggon in Nasarawa State, and Jukun in Taraba State, systematically carried out reprisal attacks on settler Fulani communities, many of whom were not culpable for the atrocities committed by their nomadic kinfolks.

But over the last several weeks, there have been a series of violent attacks in the state. In the early hours of September 4, at least 20 people were hacked to death in Ancha village, in Bassa Local Government Area. Nine other people were severely injured in the deadly attack that was carried out by gunmen suspected to be herdsmen. On October 16, suspected Fulani herdsmen attacked the Nkiedonwhro village, also in Bassa LGA. Depending on news reports, this attack, the third on the local government council in weeks, left between 20 and 40 people dead.   

The attack in Nkiedonwhro occurred in spite of a dusk-to-dawn curfew put in place by the state government. There are disturbing allegations of conspiracy by the security forces to abet some of these attacks. Nobody knows if these stories are true or false. But from Plateau to Nasarawa; from Benue to Kaduna States, the stories have a common thread. In many places in which attacks have occurred, there were prior warnings and signs of impending trouble. These concerns were reported to relevant security agencies. Yet, nothing was done to prevent the attacks that eventually occurred.

Moreover, soldiers have reportedly embarked on disarmament exercises of militias – what should be considered a commendable effort. However, the coincidences that often follow such exercises are usually nomadic herdsmen attacks. People in Jos claimed that Fulani communities had warned their kin, prior to the attack in the Nkiedonwhro village. A recent statement by the leader of the Mzough-u-Tiv in Benue State, alleged there was a significant build-up of armed Fulani militiamen at Agatu, on the border between Benue and Nasarawa.  

Curiously, the recent incidents in Plateau have not affected any Tarok community. There are concerns that more ethnic militias could emerge, following the lead of the Tarok, Jukun and Eggon people who formed their own militia to safeguard life and property. If this happens, the proliferation of arms could devolve into a much wider security crisis for the country.

The social and economic costs of the pastoral conflicts cannot be quantified. From the North-west geopolitical zone (GPZ), the North-central GPZ, to the three zones in Southern Nigeria, the story is the same. Armed herdsmen attack a community supposedly to avenge a transgression allegedly committed against it by a person or group of people from the targeted community. In confirming the attack on Ancha village, the Plateau State Commissioner of Police, Peter Ogunyanwo, said preliminary investigation indicated that Fulani gunmen were the perpetrators. He said they were out to avenge the killing of a young boy. But till date, there has been no arrest. Across the country, no indictments have occurred for similar criminal activities, even as justice continues to elude the victims.   

Without a doubt, the degenerating security situation that allows armed herdsmen to have the free reign to terrorize rural communities has implications for the long-term socio-political and economic well-being of the country.

Like the troubled states in the North-central GPZ, Plateau provides a vital link between the vast agricultural lands in the North-east and the bourgeoning populations and cities in the Southern region of the country. Plateau is also a veritable agricultural powerhouse in its own right, producing such cash crops as acha, a grain known as “hungry rice,” and millet. Staple foods like yams, sorghum (an active ingredient in many locally-produced alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks), corn, cowpeas, fruits and vegetables all have a home in Plateau.

Fulani herdsmen graze their cattle on the tsetse-free plateaus, from which the state got its famed name. The cattle-farmers supply milk to the Nasco milk factory at Vom, in Jos South LGA. Successive Plateau State governments have invested in creating a modern agricultural powerhouse for growing the state’s economy, currently Nigeria’s 20th biggest. The idea has been to pivot the state’s economy away from its traditional dependence on mining and pastoral agriculture.

A 2008 government programme calls for the creation of three Agricultural Services and Training Centres spread across the state’s three senatorial districts of Kassa/Vom, Mangu and Shendam. The programme also aims to rehabilitate the Panyam Fish Farm, the Kuru Livestock Complex and expand the Plateau Agricultural Development Programme. Under this plan, the government aims to engage 95,200 farmers, create about 1,100 jobs, attract investors to the state, enhance the entire agricultural value chain and ultimately grow the state’s coffers. However, the plan remains largely unimplemented because there is little investment impetus in communities where the security of life and property is not guaranteed.

As an illustration, in 2012, Nigeria’s land borders with Niger and Cameroon were shut on the orders of then-President Goodluck Jonathan as part of a wider security plan to stem the tide of violent attacks by the Boko Haram insurgent group in some northern states, including Plateau. As a result, Plateau State experienced an unprecedented and little-reported egg-glut as supply chains to other northern states and the export market were disrupted for more than a month.

This led to significant economic losses in the state and higher prices in supply markets across the region, extending as far as Abuja, the nation’s capital. In response, the Jonah Jang administration approved the state purchase of eggs with a ₦30 million grant. Following the intervention, the egg market stabilised, preventing the collapse of a ₦10 billion poultry industry in the state. It was a textbook example of how insecurity can wreak real economic stress on livelihoods – one that we might be reprising with the ongoing pastoral conflicts.

At the federal level, the government has granted a concession to General Electric in an attempt to resuscitate the ailing national rail service. Both the major North-South rail lines, the Western Line linking Nguru in Yobe to Lagos, and the Eastern Line linking Maiduguri to Port Harcourt, intersect via a Jos-Kaduna link line. Significant economic linkages, supply routes and the wider national economy will be at risk if the region’s security concerns are not adequately addressed.

It is vital to the economic interests of the whole of Northern Nigeria, a region already economically behind its relatively richer southern neighbour, that acceptable, wide-ranging solutions are found to the slowly-escalating farmers-herdsmen clashes. If the other ethnic groups in Plateau – which produce the bulk of the eggs, tomatoes and other staples that consumers in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Ibadan, Port Harcourt, Enugu and other cities consume – unleash reprisal attacks like the Tarok and Jukun did, the state’s security situation will lead to more devastating impacts than just dramatic news headlines.

Cheta Nwanze is Head of Research at SBM Intelligence.