As with many countries in the Sahel region—including Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso—the ongoing crisis in North Central Nigeria started with the issue of nomadic herdsmen’s right to graze their cattle clashing with the right of local farmers to plant and harvest their crops without damage.
Desertification and climate change in the Sahel and Chad Basin have exacerbated the crisis in recent years.
However, as the Nigerian federal government downplayed the crisis by doing very little to address the issue, or ignored the clashes in some instances, the chaos seems to have taken an unexpected critical dimension involving organized criminal militia groups at best, and jihadist groups linked to Boko Haram, the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda in the Sahel region at worst.
Clashes between local farmers and nomadic herdsmen from the Fulani ethnic group have now turned into seemingly unstoppable rampant massacres, kidnapping and maiming of men, women and children as well as arson attacks and looting.
Violence has been so rampant that the Global Terrorism Index named the Fulani herdsmen as the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world in 2015, after Boko Haram, ISIS and Al-Shabaab.
Calls for the Nigerian government to follow suit have increased in recent years. However, there is a serious counterproductive risk to profile all Fulani herdsmen as terrorists responsible for the gruesome attacks meted out on local communities.
A label of terrorism could plant seeds of division and provoke a serious clash of culture and religion in Nigeria. It could also further push local Fulani herdsmen to seek protection for their cattle from hired mercenaries or jihadist groups in the locale.
The Fulani herdsmen have not identified themselves as an insurgent group. Unlike ISIS or Boko Haram, there is no known existing structure, no leadership control, no political or social goal. Fulani herdsmen don’t claim responsibility for the attacks on local farmer communities.
It is a hasty generalization and a possible risk of alienation to declare all Fulani herdsmen in the region as terrorists.
The experience in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso is that Fulani pastoralists have transitioned from men who want to simply protect their cattle to jihadis capable of launching complex attacks against local communities, as well as state and Western interests.
This is because the Fulani herder-farmer crisis creates a perfect vacuum that can quickly be hijacked by local jihadists. They can exploit the local grievances of Fulani Herdsmen who want access to grazing land, and can bring Nigeria to its knees via ungoverned spaces.
Boko Haram factions, based in Nigeria’s north east, will not hesitate to hijack the ungoverned space and security lapses to carve out alternative territories, stretch Nigerian military resources and divert its focus from the north east, where most resources are deployed to tackle the group’s activities.
Furthermore, as ISIS lost its self-declared Caliphate in Raqqa and Mosul last year, thousands of its foreign fighters are rushing back to Africa via Libya.
Northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram has maintained operations, is a key strategic destination for African foreign fighters, who could easily blend in the north east and north central regions, due to cultural and religious characteristics present there.
While the Nigerian military and the Multinational Joint Task Force ( MNJTF) focus on pushing out Boko Haram factions in the north east, these hardcore ISIS foreign fighter returnees could wrap themselves up in herdsmen clothing and create an alternative space for Boko Haram or ISIS 2.0.
The simple solution could be that affected states and governments apply effective cross-border controls while subsidizing a structured system of mechanization of cattle farming.
But the crisis has gone above and beyond such simplicity, requiring a comprehensive local coordination and investigation between affected and vulnerable state and federal government of Nigeria.
The onus is on the federal and state governments to bring all resources on the ground and carry out a credible and unbiased investigation on the violence and separate the real farmer-herder clashes from acts carried out by other groups.
In the meantime, the fluidity of the crisis deserves a state of emergency in the north central while stakeholders investigate the real and hidden dynamics of the farmer-herder crisis. This should take the shape of a local community-driven initiative.
David Otto Institutional Representative of SECINDEF (Security Intelligence and Defense) Israel-USA International Consulting Counterterrorism in the United Kingdom and collaborating analyst of OCATRY (Observatory against the Terrorist Threat and the Jihadist Radicalization) David Otto is the Director of TGS Intelligence Consultants Ltd and the Preventing Radicalisation and Violent Extremism Programme – Step In Step Out (SISO) – based in the United Kingdom. He is also Senior Counter Terrorism Advisor for Global Risk International.