‘YARDANKO, Nigeria — Inhabitants of this village of mud houses in northern Nigeria say they woke December 12 to find 5,000 cattle chomping through their ripe crops. The grain farmers are mostly of the Hausa ethnic group while the cattle owners are Fulani nomads.
"We sent for the police and district head but in the meantime we couldn't just stand by and do nothing," said village representative Maiunguwa Garba. The dispute in this remote part of Katsina province was settled long before any law enforcement arrived.
The farmers said one Fulani fired an automatic weapon at them when they tried to protect their crops. But once his ammunition ran out the tide turned, according to Garba.
"Then we attacked the Fulani with sticks," said Garba, adding that three Fulani were killed. "We beat them to death," he said.
Not everything Garba said was corroborated. Ardo Rabo, a chief in a nearby village, who is Fulani, said he did not think any of the herdsman carried firearms; if they had some farmers would have died. Rabo also accused the farmers of later committing arbitrary acts of retribution such as beating to death one Fulani herder whose cattle had been nowhere near ‘Yardanko, as well as robbing an innocent Fulani family.
One fact is indisputable: bodies are piling up. In late November, Nigeria made world headlines when Christians and Muslims clashed in the central city of Jos. The bodies of at least 400 Muslims were seen lined up at the central mosque while more than 160 dead Christians were counted in local hospitals and morgues. Yet smaller clashes like the one in ‘Yardanko occur frequently all over northern and central Nigeria and the numbers of people killed are often not even recorded.
The violence is always between various ethnicities and religious groups but its cause is over competition for diminishing resources in what is Africa’s most populous nation of more than 140 million. Food production is not keeping pace with a population growth of more than 2 percent a year. Herders are moving southward in search of new grazing land as the Sahara Desert expands while crop farmers struggle to sustain production levels as water and fertile land become ever scarcer. The competition for land is provoking the deadly clashes.
"We didn't have this kind of violence when I was growing up" said Rabo, the chief. "Nigerians of all creeds used to be able to share resources. Now we see each other as a threat to our survival."
Government policies are also exacerbating tensions, say many observers. In Jos, for example, Christians in the area are officially classified as “indigenous” which entitles them to jobs in government and the military and makes their children eligible for scholarships. Muslims, who are mostly from the Hausa ethnic group, are categorized as "settlers" even though many have lived in Jos for generations. They resent that they are denied the benefits that Christians enjoy.
Politicians talk of changing such laws, said human rights lawyer Hauwa Evelyn Shekarau, “but they are a long way from passing any new legislation — let alone implementing it.” She added, "The politicians have an interest in playing divisive politics to shore up key voting blocks."
In places such as ‘Yardanko, all the inhabitants are Muslim so conflicts are between people of different ethnic groups and social strata. Most of the nomadic Fulani herders are stateless. They wander, as they have for centuries, across un-patrolled borders along vast migratory routes that circle through Niger, Chad, Cameroon, Central African Republic and Nigeria. But the Fulani find their traditional grazing lands in Nigeria are being swallowed up by crop farming.
"I blame our traditional rulers for these problems," said Musa Mohammed, a government official in Katsina. "They parceled out land to crop farmers without thinking about the consequences."
But the farmers of ‘Yardanko say the Fulani herdsmen deliberately provoke them. "They can still pass through this area without encroaching on our land," said Garba, the village representative. "They came here just as we were harvesting." he said of the recent clash, "and we found sacks of our sorghum we left in the fields that had been cut open by the Fulani to feed their cattle."
All agree that the problem is growing. Chief Rabo, who is a Fulani but not a herdsman, said he does not want to take sides in the conflict but he is concerned that it is being provoked by hoodlums and criminals who are seeking personal gain. He said “the situation is becoming increasingly anarchic.”