Fulani Herdsmen: A Nomadic Ethnic Militia?

1.0 What’s in a Name?

Since the 1990s, Nigeria has endured several complex identity-based conflicts. The one under focus in this article, the Fulani Ethnic Militia (FEM) or Fulani Herdsmen, is characterised as a series of ‘deadly ethnic riots’ [source]. These tend to be episodic rather than ubiquitous, and involve widespread hostility and brutal killings.

We stress that most Fulani herders neither support nor belong to the armed herdsmen militias. The use of the term ‘Fulani Herdsmen’ or ‘Fulani Militia’ corresponds to ACELD’s understanding of identity militia, which claims to act on behalf of a larger identity community but does not necessarily represent it [source]. Many Fulanis opposed militia activities, and some Fulanis are often the victim of their attacks. For more discussion on the ethnic stereotype of Fulani, see Mortiz [source] and Ejiofor [source].

This article employs ‘Fulani Herdsmen’ or ‘Fulani militia’ interchangeably to refer to the illicit activities of the violent, armed militia. When referring to the general non-violent Fulani populations, we employ ‘Fulanis’ or ‘Fulani herders’.

2.0 Background

The Fulani (also called Fula, Fulbe or Peul by French) are an ethnic nomadic group. They are one of the most dispersed demographics in Africa [source]. The majority of Fulani are spread across West Africa (Nigeria, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Senegal, and Gambia). Smaller populations often inhabit the Northern parts of Central Africa (Cameroon, Central African Republic), Sudan and Egypt.

Scholarly reports estimate the total population of Fulanis to be over 20m. Nigeria is home to the largest Fulani population [source]. Nigerian Fulani herders own 90 percent of the national herd. This encompasses most of the Bovidae cattle: sheep, goats, and camels [source]. While the primary territory of Fulani herders is the Northern states of Nigeria, increased occurrences of drought, climate change and the Boko Haram (BH) insurgency cause their migration towards the middle belt and Southern Nigeria.

3.0 The Rise in Fulani Militias and Farmer-Herder Conflicts in Nigeria

According to ACELD, the incidence of farmer-herder conflicts is increasing [source]. Causative factors of migratory grazing include:

  • Climate change makes it harder to support herds in the north [source], [source].
  • Infrastructure deficiencies in primary grazing areas and along historical grazing routes [source].
  • Inadequate land-zoning [source]. From 2015-18, Nigeria’s Federal Government attempted to secure free land for Fulani Herders through various bills. Such efforts were consistent with the concept of resource capture, which entails the inequitable allocation and use of state resources using government instruments to benefit a preferred group to the detriment of others [source].
  • Water resource reallocation towards farming and away from grazing land [source].
  • National agricultural policies unfavourable to Fulani Herdsmen [source].
  • Alternate use of grazing lands aided by federal and state governments, and their policies [source].

The rise in FEM-related violence in recent years suggests the aggravation of these factors. Not least, a heightened hostility amongst at least the militia factions of the Fulani. However, factors specific to Nigeria also raise tensions [see below].

3.1 Climate-induced variables

  • Due to the higher variability of climate, intensified droughts in Northern Nigeria and around the Lake Chad Basin significantly decrease crop yields [source].
  • Limited rainfall in primary grazing areas forces Fulani Herdsmen to travel southwards in the dry season, prolonging their migratory drift. Some seek a permanent or seasonal settlement in the Middle Belt and Southern regions. It creates competition for agricultural land, which already faces shrinking due to real estate developments and population pressure [source].
  • Sedentary farmers in agricultural production areas must accommodate the increased grazing needs of herders at the detriment of their crops. This reasoning is underpinned by the extant literature which suggests that climate-related changes (namely, excessive heat and drought conditions), could lead to a proliferation in armed conflicts [source], [source].

3.2 Human-induced variables

  • Boko Haram’s activities in Nigeria’s North-East make grazing difficult. Frequent clashes between Boko Haram and security force civilians, including the Fulani, to flee the North-East. Forced displacement -combined with the relatively easy access to weapons in a conflict environment- increases the frequency and lethality of clashes with Fulani militias [source], [source].
  • The loss of assets and other means of livelihood during the BH insurgency increases the volume and velocity of forced pastoral displacements. In Borno state alone, ICG reports found that Fulani herders lost around 1m of domesticated livestock at the peak of the BH insurgency [source]. Forced migration, makes it harder for Fulani herders to know which areas and communities they can move to safely [source].
  • Among Nigerians, there are dichotomous constructions of farmers as ‘indigenes’ and Fulani herders as ‘settlers’. These only perpetuate narratives of ‘Fulanisation’ (a term that undergirds anxieties of ethnic and religious domination). The perception of Fulani herders as strangers who have no rights to land. Likewise, the idea that farmers are indigenous and own the land [source], [source].
  • Forced migration creates competition over land with farmers. This is evident by the extant contentions between the Fulani herders and farming communities in the Middle Belt and Southern Nigeria [source]. Fulani herders share the same religion and geographic territory with Boko Haram. As such, there is an increased hostility towards the Fulani amongst farming communities, which are predominately Christian [source]. Although BH does not appear to have a significant presence in the Middle Belt and the South, some farming communities associate any Muslim herder community and armed conflict with BH [source].
  • An absence of substantive land allocation laws and the ineffective implementation of existing ones has led to the marginalisation of the Fulani herders in the core North. In 1965, the Nigerian Government enacted the Grazing Reserve Law to allocate more resources to pastoralists. However, non-pastoralists annexed considerable swathes of land (allocated under the 1965 law). It was facilitated by a lack of government enforcement [source]. Out of the 415 grazing reserves originally earmarked for pastoralists, less than 25% are now used for grazing purposes owing to increased urbanisation, commercial interests, population pressure, and farmland demand [source]. Further, the Nigerian Government introduced an anti-open grazing law that effectively banned pastoralism in Benue and 2017, established the Livestock Guards Militia to enforce the law. The dispute culminated in the Livestock Guards expelling herdsmen from large areas of Benue, seizing and shooting cattle in the process [source].
  • The herder community is getting younger due to demographic shifts [source]. Some ICG reports suggest that young herders often lack the patience or maturity to settle small disputes cordially, compared to their adult predecessors [source].
A Fulani Herdsman photographed with an AK pattern rifle.
Fig.2 A Fulani Herdsman [Credit: Flickr].

4.0 The Fulani Ethnic Militia

According to ACLED, conflicts involving Fulani Ethnic Militias (FEM) defy easy classification. They are not a centralised group, nor do they operate under any specific agenda. Attacks often prove more opportunistic than they are calibrated and well-planned [source].

Demographically, an overwhelming majority of Fulani are Muslim, such that they are seen as associated with jihadist groups. As a result, it has led some exponents in the field to suggest that these clashes are religiously motivated [source]. However, the Fulani Militia is frequently in conflict with groups from the Eggon, Jakun and Tiv communities, highlighting the ethnic nature of FEM conflicts [source].

Despite the uncertainty regarding the militia’s operational nature and long-term objectives, their impacts on Nigeria’s security environment are well-documented and more recent. In 2014, the Global Terrorism Index named Fulani Militias as the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the world [See Fig.3], despite not having featured in any of the previous rankings [source].

4.1 Equipment of Fulani Herdsmen

The possession of notable weapons amongst FEM include:

  • AK pattern assault rifles 
  • Machetes 
  • Knives
  • Light-machine guns
  • Sub-machine guns
  • Shotguns 
  • Hand grenades
  • Mac 4
  • Hilux jeeps
  • Motorcycles

[Source]

The Institute for Economics & Peace found that Small Arms and Light Weaponry were used in 92% of deaths from Fulani militants. Further, the ease of access to weapons resulting from ongoing conflicts in Mali, Libya and the Boko Haram insurgency affords Fulani Herdsmen a considerable weapons arsenal [source].

Fig.3 Fulani Militia is the fourth deadliest terror group in the world [source].

5.0 Parallels with Boko Haram

Despite alleged connections between BH and Fulani militants, particularly with regard to organised crime and smuggling [source], BH is now affiliated with ISIL and aligns with the establishment of a caliphate. Fulani militants, in contrast, have very localised material concerns, mainly greater access to grazing lands for livestock.

However, many Nigerians no longer distinguish between Fulani herders and BH. They view both as a singular terrorist front whose sole aim is to Islamise Nigeria [source]. Fears of Islamisation exacerbate ethno-religious violence and vitriolic rhetoric against Fulani herders. Southerners reacted to perceived Islamisation and ‘Fulanisation’ with the formation of regional vigilante outfits such as Operation Amotekun, which is supported by the Yoruba majority in the South-West and the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) in the South-East.

Southern resistance to perceived Islamic incursions, as well as ongoing discrimination against Fulani people in southern Nigeria, provoked retaliatory actions from northern political groups. For instance, the Miyetti Allah, a herders’ advocacy union, issued threats against northern residents of southern origin and blocked shipments of farm products to the south [source].

5.1 Fulani Militias’ Direct Association with Boko Haram?

The Jamestown Foundation found that members of BH routinely disguise themselves as Fulani herders to carry out attacks in rural Nigeria [source].

After bandits kidnapped over 300 schoolboys from North-West Nigeria in 2020, Shekau (former leader of BH) claimed the attack. In so doing, he released exclusive video footage of the hostages, who claimed to be prisoners of Boko Haram [source]. Whilst it seems that Shekau’s soldiers did not kidnap the students themselves, they appeared to have contact with the kidnappers to make the operation look as if it were the work of BH. The Hudson Institute found that BH offers technical support and training to Fulani bandits, as well as weapon exchanges. Not least, bandits obtain ransom from the government and use money through the BH network to smuggle weapons into the North-West region [source].

6.0 Fulani Herdsmen versus Ambazonia-Biafra

Prior to the Anglophone crisis, Fulani herders clashed with sedentary farmers over land use in Cameroon’s North-West region. Further, Amnesty International reported that Ambazonia separatists (known locally as ‘Amba Boys’) routinely commit violent attacks against the Fulani community. The motivations for such attacks usually coalesce around the preferential treatment of the Fulani by security forces. Not least, Fulani herders lack support for the Anglophone cause [source].

According to the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, Amba boys have abducted at least twenty Fulani herders. They killed an estimated fifty herders, stole cattle, and extorted an estimated $18,600 in ransom payments [source].

In the North-West, the Fulani herders side with the Cameroonian Government [source]. As a result, it is commonplace for Cameroonian security forces to funnel weapons to Fulani herders [source].

The Ambazonia Defence Forces (ADF) see their 2021 alliance with IPOB as a critical outlet to halting Fulani-led attacks. According to Foreign Policy, Carpo Daniel, the deputy defence chief of the ADF, stated that the alliance would aid in their fight against Fulani herders [source].

In 2016, IPOB issued a statement, in conjunction with the Movement for the Actualisation of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), demanding that all ‘Fulani Herdsmen’ retreat to northern Nigeria. Both IPOB and MASSOB stated that they could no longer guarantee the safety of Fulani Herdsmen because they ‘can no longer tolerate the systematic killing of our people and invasion of our land in the name of cattle grazing’ [source].

IPOB members routinely use incendiary language, referring to Fulani Herdsmen as ‘terrorists’ to incite violence. For instance, Radio Biafra frequently disseminates Facebook posts that indict the Fulani community. It often uses the Fulani Herdsmen as a front to demand a Biafra referendum [source].

7.0 Conclusion: Rise of the Fulani Herdsmen?

With a continued spate of conflicts between herders and farmers, we are unlikely to see a reprieve in violence. A revival of Ambazonia-Biafra relations will likely incentivise cross-border ethnic violence and coalesce around a common enemy: the Fulani Herdsmen. Given potential affiliations with Boko Haram, however, Fulani Herdsmen pose an existential threat to Nigeria’s unity.

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