An Analysis of the Fulani-Christian Conflict in Nigeria

Published November 29, 2019 by Christopher Wadibia

Popular media and news consumers, when queried about religious violence in Nigeria, would undoubtedly note the Boko Haram insurgency - the onset of which dates back to 2002 when Mohammed Yusuf, a charismatically conservative northern Nigerian imam radically fanatical about espousing an anti-Western message, founded the deadly extremist Islamist terrorist group - as Nigeria's, and indeed, one of all of Africa's most notorious and lethal protracted religious violence case studies. However, in truth, the Boko Haram insurgency is not even the most statistically deadly and economically impairing ongoing instance of religious conflict within the Nigerian state: the Fulani-Christian conflict, which is the subject of this blog post, easily claims this disreputable designation. While the origins of the Fulani-Christian conflict can be traced back to the onset of Nigeria's Fourth Republic in 1999, the British colonial legacy, wherein the proceedings of the Berlin Conference of 1884 and 1885, which legally sanctioned imperial control of the territories that constitute contemporary Nigeria - subjugating these lands underneath British hegemony - which were composed of hundreds of entirely distinctive tribes (each with their own intimately cherished language, culture, and ways of life), should be noted as relevant nodes in the series of events contributing to the long history of this conflict.

A young African man farming*

Geography plays an especially pertinent role in assessing the Fulani-Christian conflict. Nigeria's traditionally nomadic Fulani people, the population of which numbers approximately fifteen million, are concentrated in the northern half of the state. The Fulani are a herding populace that adheres to the Islamic faith. As northern Nigeria's lands become increasingly arid and unfit for cattle grazing (due to the ecologically detrimental effects of climate change), the Fulani move southward in search of more suitable lands on which their cattle - the lifeblood of their community's existence - can peacefully graze. However, as Fulani herdsmen move south and nomadically annex southern farmlands and rice fields - especially those permanently owned by Christian farmers - outbreaks of violence aimed at Fulani communities whose cattle trample southern farmland crops occur, and retaliatory reprisals targeting Christian farmers ensue. Between 2015 and 2018 outbreaks of Fulani-Christian violence claimed more than four thousand lives. A majority of scholarly attention that suggests policy solutions to stymie this conflict often analyses President Muhammadu Buhari's non-intervention policy (Buhari himself is a Fulani); all the while the number of casualties continuously rises whilst the notion of government-sponsored military intervention to reinstitute peace and order appears an aloof fantasy. Instead of waiting on government agents to get involved, interested actors in and outside of Nigeria (i.e. global civil society, government ministries, etc.) should prioritise engaging and partnering with faith-based organisations (FBOs) in order to bring the conflict to an immediate end.

A recent article on the Fulani-Christian conflict in The Guardian highlighted an instance of NGOs working in Nigeria's Nasawara State - in the Middle Belt region which is home to a disproportionate number of the conflict's violent outbreaks - organising meetings in which Fulanis and Christians affected by the conflict met together after a deadly reprisal and mutually forgave each other. Such an illustration highlights an appetite for reconciliation among actors from both sides. However, sidelining FBOs (deliberately or unintentionally) from employing their moral and communal influence as tools for peacemaking entirely disregards the reconciliatory power of religion in a society where religion is an objectively dominant force. Scholars from a range of disciplines note the impressive extent to which Nigeria's FBOs have increasingly displaced the state on developmental issues; perhaps it is time for FBOs to displace the state on matters pertaining to peace and order, as well.

Christopher Wadibia is a second year PhD Theology and Religious Studies Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge and an Honorary PhD Scholar at the Woolf Institute.

At the Woolf Institute Research Day 2019, Christopher's presentation examined the Fulani-Christian sectarian violence in Nigeria and this conflict's involvement in Nigeria's 2019 presidential election. Listen to his presentation here.

*Photo credit

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