In July 2018, Muhammodu Bello and his three sons along with their families packed up their belongings and their 300 cattle and left the north central state of Benue, Nigeria, literally in search of greener pastures.
His stay in Benue had been fraught with conflicts over land between him, farmers, and other herdsmen. Over years, land available for both grazing and farming has dwindled and caused conflicts between farmers and herders. Following the death of more than 200 people due to violent clashes between them in the state, he left.
This was not their first time moving. When his eldest son Musa and his brothers were still kids, Bello and his family had migrated to Benue from their homeland Kano—an even more northern state—due to a lack of grazeable vegetation. From 1955 to 2010, average temperatures in Sahelian countries increased by 1 C, while annual rainfall decreased by 4.1 cm.
The five-month journey in 2018 wasn’t easy. During the migration, Bello said he lost up to 30 cattle to theft and infections the cattle weren’t accustomed to. Musa, who was then 24, suffered a bowel infection, causing him to lose one-fifth of his weight.
“We were sure never to be fully asleep in the forests, and my sons would take guards while the family slept,” said Bello. "We did this for over five months until we stopped here in Kwara state.”
Kwara is the southernmost of states in Nigeria’s middle belt and considered the country’s vegetational boundary, made up of an almost equal amount of savannah and forests. If you start from the northern end of the state and drive to its southern edge, you see the landscape of brown tall elephant grasses slowly give way to shorter, greener grass, then to woody shrubs and short trees, and finally to thicker and greener trees.
Perhaps more visible is an increase in nomadic herdsmen and their cattle the more you travel south. Climate change and urbanization are turning the savannah grass plains in the north into deserts, causing herdsmen to migrate south for better forage—and into the path of culturally distinct Indigenous farmers.
For the past decade, as the climate crisis intensifies, the conflict between Nigeria’s herdsmen and farmers has been one of Nigeria’s leading causes of life and property loss, so much so that in 2018, the Global Terrorism Index ranked Nigerian herdsmen as the nation’s second deadliest terrorism group, right after Boko Haram.
According to Amnesty International, in 2020, more than 1,531 were killed because of communal violence between herdsmen and agrarian communities. The year before, Human Rights Watch reported that at least 1,600 people died and more than 200,000 were displaced. Clashes between herdsmen and farmers spread over Benue and neighbouring states, some of which are recognized as the main source for the country’s food production.
“It’s a fight for declining resources,” said Oladosu Adenike, founder of IleadClimate, an advocacy group for the restoration of Lake Chad and the Nigeran Northern Climate. “Kwara state seems to be less hit among the middle belt states because it still has resources to keep up. But what happens when those resources are extinguished?”
In 2019, the Nigerian government launched a 10-year plan to curtail nomadic grazing and boost livestock production, which included converting government-owned ecological zones into ranches. But two years on, the first ranch has yet to be built. The plan faces political and economical blockades, and opposition from stakeholders.
Bello and his family settled in Okuta-Oko, a village located in the savannah forests of Ifelodun, Kwara state’s southern edge. Villagers in Okuta-Oko were first wary of their presence. “The kids would always get into trouble with youth from the village while grazing, and so I approached the village elders,” Bello said, pointing to a village elder sitting beside him, “and made my intentions known. I told them where I was coming from and what we had gone through.”
Months after his arrival, the village assigned a stretch of fallow lands to Bello to graze his cattle, and in exchange he would provide security and help fund development programs. Now, he and his family have grown from occupying a five-hut settlement to about three settlements built close to one another, and are recognized as bonafide members of the village.
Bello maintains a symbiotic relationship with his host community, but sometimes clashes cannot be prevented. Once or twice, his cattle have strayed unguided into farmlands, causing damages. “When this happens, we discuss the incident and they pay for the damages,” said Kabiru Imam, Okuta-Oko’s community chief.
Nigeria’s farmer-herdsmen crisis is multilayered. “There’s an ethnic dimension to it because most herdsmen are Fulanis. There’s a religious dimension. There’s a political dimension,” said Oladosu. “But if you decide to drop labels and view it holistically, this is a fight for survival, a fight for dwindling resources due to climate change.”
For Oladosu, dealing with the crisis would require deep reorientations, cultural adaptations, and provision of grazing reserves, but these are only symptomatic treatments. “If there’s a true way forward, we need to talk about climate change.”
Olatunji Olaigbe is a freelance journalist based in Nigeria. His works have appeared on VICE, Newswire NGR, and HumAngle. Follow him on Twitter.