Search for Common Ground, a leading conflict transformation and peacebuilding INGO, today opened what is bound to be a site of diverse interventions in the herders-farmers conflict raging in Nigeria with a Media Roundtable at which peace practitioners rejected break-up of Nigeria for whatever reasons even as they confronted startling statistical details of the crisis.
Dr Chris Kwaja, the Modibbo Adama University of Technology conflict expert who, along with Bukola Ademola-Adelehin of Search for Common Ground presented the Policy Briefing around which subsequent observations, comments and suggestions revolved had started on the startling disclosure of how violent confrontation between farmers and herders in Benue, Kaduna, Nasarawa and Plateau states has claimed over 6, 500 lives between 2011 and 2015, a higher figure than the 4000 lives claimed by the Boko Haram insurgency during the same period. He put the figure of displacement in these states in the period at 62, 000 with its implications on Nigeria’s food supply and security, the Middle Belt being a predominantly agrarian axis.
Locating the conflict in such factors as climate variability, environmental degradation and socio-political upheavals in the presentation titled “Responses to Conflicts Between Farmers and Herders in the Middle Belt Region of Nigeria”, Dr Kwaja noted the declaration of Nigeria in 2017 as the 56th most vulnerable country to climate change dynamics in the world and the 14th least ready country in terms of adaptation to its impact. Climate change, in his analysis, has been a conflict multiplier in a country of 19.5 million cattle, 750, 000 donkeys, 28, 000 camels, 72. 5 million goats, 41. 3 million sheep, most of them owed by herders who are competing for arable land with traditional farmers at a time desertification has encroached 135, 000 square miles of the land in Northern Nigeria.
His spatial note of the Middle Belt region, the theatre of the conflict, reckons with it in terms of a complex history of identity, culture and belonging, to which citizens who migrate therefrom remain organically attached as for their weddings, burials and such culturally significant entanglements to be held back ‘home’. The same region is also battleground for “commercialisation of cattle theft or rustling” where an “underground and informal criminal economy” is believed to be taking advantage of protracted conflict between farmers and herders. Such suspected criminal groups are said to be benefiting from gaps in security provisioning to carry out their activities, enhanced by easy access to Small Arms and Light Weapons, (SALWs). How criminality has taken a life of its own in the fracture between what had hitherto been a symbiotic relationship between farmers and herders before the fracture was thus one of Dr Kwaja posers for contemplation.
But in an intervention opposed by no one at the Media Roundtable in Abuja, the head of a leading Federal Government of Nigeria’s think-tank on conflict management said the current situation though looks like the road to Somalia. Applying the International Relations concept of Security Dilemma to the current crisis, he located the danger in a rush by every side to acquire a weaponry capacity. However, break-up of Nigeria, he said, is not an option for anybody, saying that he, in particular, could not imagine coming to terms with Nigeria in any other form than presently constituted.
Accepting that the crisis is potentially very destabilising, he attributed part of that to the radicalisation of individuals, communities and groups along ethnic, religious and other divisive identity fault lines at a time of weak or corrupted rural presence of the Nigerian State. Cautioning against too much emphasis on show casing exceptional communities in resilience, the speaker explained how such communities are subsequently made vulnerable by others who demonstrate the ‘strong man’ tactics, making the utility questionable in the eyes of those who have, otherwise, been good examples.
The speaker expressed worry about the perception of each other that is developing and asked for concentration on “governance, governance and governance”. Let us engage government more, he said, disagreeing that it is a crisis about which peace journalism could change much. He was responding to those who were saying that the media, particularly the social media were adding fire to fuel by its representation of the dimensions of the crisis.
Typical of opinion based approach Roundtable, no consensus was arrived at but participants provided perspectives from the diverse points they encounter the crisis. Key issues that came out include the claim by a Senator that this is election year and politicians do not care. One question some speakers wanted pondered upon is whether the people can make the politicians to care by putting a condition that they would not vote if the insecurity continues? Some other participants asked why it is impossible to arrest the militia members who carry out the violence. As a speaker posed it, “Are they spirits? Who own the cows today, was another puzzle that surfaced. There was consensus on this question that the owners are wealthy and powerful individuals who can establish ranches but who, instead of doing so, were allegedly buying arms for whoever they felt like and disregarding early warnings and the necessity for early action.
Several other participants spoke of how the discussion of the crisis so far has left out crucial intervening variables accompanying the conflict. Yet others insisted on attention to the developmental and state dimensions of the conflict, saying that current level of development has contradicted the nomadic pattern of farming, citing the impossibility of tracing the 1965 grazing routes. For such speakers, the question is the developmental incompetence of the ruling elite to anticipate crises of this nature. Heart rendering details of suffering were also presented from both sides especially by participants from Nasarawa and Taraba states while a journalist participant noted how horrifying the security situation in Zamfara is.
Mr Sani Suleiman who coordinates Search for Common Ground’s intervention on the issue in the Middle Belt region told participants the INGO has had a long standing project in the area based in its belief that conflict may happen but violence is not inevitable. He privileged deepening understanding as a way out of intractability, hence the emphasis on mediation, dialogue, cross-cultural peaceworks as much as they engage with security and the policy mill.
Recalling how Search for Common Ground brought together representatives of farmers and herders across Nigeria in 2017, Mr Suleiman said discussion of most of the issues in the conflict remain imprisoned in elite terms, different from how the core conflict parties see it. Adding to the brief, Mrs Bukola Ademola-Adelehin, conflict analysts and colleague declared the Media Roundtable as uniquely designed to bring three blocks of influence into play on the conflict. These are policy makers, scholars and the practitioners of peace.
There is no knowing which think tanks, NGOs and other epistemic caucuses are planning what interventions and which one might come up with the most profound statement on the conflict issue vis-a-vis its resolution. What is clear is that the conflict management phase has begun, hoping to bring some calm after the storm.