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Farmer-Herder Relations in Nigeria: Historical antecedents and the way forward for social cohesion

Written by Chukwudi Gbadebo Njoku
Research Fellow, Building Blocks for Peace Foundation

In West Africa, herders have had a long history of migrating and establishing relationships with various sedentary farming populations with which they coexist, cooperate and compete for shared renewable resources (Cabot, 2017). This migration and the nature of their interaction with  farming communities are often influenced by factors such as; individual and communal differences, changes in pastoral and farming systems, lack of social structure to institute cooperation, the decline of water and pasture, climate change and so on. The interactions between settled farmers and herders is inevitable, because the social interaction between them is regarded as fundamental. This however has birthed clashes between herders and their hosts and entangled them in a tussle for land, water and natural resources. Notwithstanding the increased conflict between them in recent times, both parties have enjoyed a history of harmonious and symbiotic relationship characterized by exchange of goods and services (International Crises Group, 2017).

Historical antecedents of conflict between farmers and herders in Nigeria

In the pre-colonial era, records of conflict between herders and farmers were lean. Adebayo (1991) made mention of competition between both groups in the 12th and 13ths centuries, without reference to violence. The socio-economic interaction between both groups showed to be symbiotic where farmers and herders had a stake in the well-being of the opposite group (Davidheiser and Luna, 1996). The symbiosis was characterized by complementarity of farming and herding activities such as cattle entrustment, dung and stubble exchanges which were mutually beneficial and supported increased productivity. There also existed a social structure called Ruga, created by some Fulani groups in the pre-colonial era to preserve the harmony between both groups. The Ruga was an elected official who regulated grazing activities within his group, selecting grazing areas and migratory routes. The official also took responsibility for conflict resolution within Fulani groups and between his kinsmen and farming groups (Ellwood, 1995).

The colonial period was marked by an emergence of modifications in the social and physical landscapes that undermined the cooperative system that existed between the herders and farmers in the north of Nigeria. The changes reduced the pastoralist-farmer compatibility and weakened the informal land tenure and resource use arrangement that was already in place. For example, the colonialists introduced systems of conflict management alien to the locals and thus ineffective. More so, the interest of the colonial administrators were in policies that supported the manipulation of their subjects for different purposes, such as laws regarding land ownership which availed large expanse of land to the Europeans through privatization (Davidheiser and Luna, 1996). This reduced indigenous peoples and herders’ control and access to land, thus making the resource scarce and enhancing environmental degradation. The colonial period also introduced improved medical knowledge and medicine to man and cattle. The increased adaptability to diseases and the sense of security during the colonial era also gave impetus for southern expansion of herders who were hitherto in some cases restricted to some areas due to threats of armed raids on their herds (Blench, 2010).

The conflicts between both groups in recent time is worsened by urbanization, increasing need for farmlands and grazing lands, increased desperation for pasture and water, migration and sedentarization of herders at new, unfamiliar, socio-cultural communities, proliferation of arms, the collapse of the Ruga system and so on. Different from these anthropogenic factors are the natural factors such as climate change. For example, the significant decline in average rainfall in Africa’s arid and semi-arid zone since the 1970’s have been associated with modifications in land tenure and domestic modes of agricultural production (Galaty, 1994; Davidheiser and Luna, 1996). The present era is marred by endless reports of bitter resentment and violent conflict between pastoralist and sedentary farming groups. One early incidence reported in Williams (1991) occurred in the early 1990’s at Muri, a community domiciled by sedentary farmers in the former Gongola State (now Taraba) where local people resented the appropriation of land for large scale ranches in their community. It was also reported that in 1989, scores of violent clashes occurred between herders and farmers in different parts of Nigeria (Adebayo, 1991). The conflict may easily be perceived as a continuation of ethno-religious struggles that predate the colonial era, but the relative absence of such widespread conflict throughout Nigeria’s pre-independence history suggests more contemporary factors are to blame (Omilisu, 2016).

Impact of the conflict in Nigeria 

As a multi-ethnic entity, the  impact of herder-farmer conflict in Nigeria cannot be overemphasized. The incidents are recurring and the effects  on human lives and livelihoods are worrisome.  Report has it that since 2016, more than 3600 lives have been lost as a result of the farmer- herder conflicts. Also nothing less than 62,000 people have been displaced in the middle belt region where the conflict is mostly concentrated. Many farmers and herders have lost their homes and lives as well (Nweze, 2005), while experiencing dwindling productivity in crop production and herds.  This conflict has reportedly cost the country an average of $2.3 million (47 percent) of its internally generated revenue (Assessment Capacities Project Thematic Report – ACAPS, 2017).

Ruins of a community affected by the conflict in Wukari, Taraba State,
Photos: Chukwudi Njoku (2020)

Efforts by the Nigerian government

There have been efforts by past and present government administrations to curb the menace occasioned by the farmer-herder conflict. Before the collapse of the first republic, the government’s Grazing Reserve Act of 1964 provided grazing areas and paths for the passage of livestock, but after 1966, the paths  became moribund and overtaken by other anthropogenic activities (Relief Web, 2018). More recently, bills have been presented by lawmakers such as the National Grazing Routes and Reserve Bill 2012 and the National Grazing Reserve Bill 2016 which sought to establish new grazing reserves and routes in each State of the Federation. However these bills have been unsuccessful. This is largely due to criticisms and distrust of the outcomes by different regions. For instance, southern leaders and groups fear that the bill is an attempt to seize power and colonize the region. Similarly, in mid-2019, Nigeria’s Executive wing proposed to establish Rural Grazing Area (RUGA) settlements all over the country in a bid to check the conflicts and improve agricultural productivity. The RUGA programme sought to settle migrant pastoral families and other animal farmers in an organized place with provision of necessary and adequate social amenities (Daily Trust, 2019). This too met a dead end and  was eventually shelved as different groups  accused the process as  a plot to “Fulanize” the country.

Way forward

i.      Reestablishment of the Ruga

The Ruga is a social structure which was very effective in the pre-colonial era. The Ruga went hand-in-hand with the burti which were migratory routes set aside solely for herders to graze their cattle. While the burti may be obsolete, the role of the Ruga is crucial for social cohesion and conflict resolution between both groups as it ensures that each Fulani clan is responsible for the actions of their people. This may also be supported with the Jangali (cattle tax) which was to aid in funding the supervision of the activities of herders.

ii.     Increased engagement of traditional rulers and stakeholders in the conflicts

It is paramount that traditional rulers are involved in the process of ameliorating the crises between both groups. Traditional leaders in Jalingo and Serti Local Government Areas of Taraba State have highlighted that they are not adequately consulted by the government, especially at the federal level before decisions are made on the conflicts that occur in their domain. Farmers and herders have also called for the government to involve their leaders in finding solutions to the problem. It is also paramount that the farmers and herders who are victims and actors in the conflicts are sufficiently involved at every stage of peacebuilding and cohesion activity initiated by the government, civil society organizations and other concerned groups. The youth who are mostly blamed as perpetrators should also be adequately carried along in the decision making and implementation of the peacebuilding process.

iii.   Adoption of modern agriculture techniques

There is an unprecedented increase in the number of farmers who need more portions of land to farm and herders with larger herds of cattle who need more grazing areas. These dynamics are geared by an increase in human and livestock population, whereas land is fixed. There is thus an urgent need to transit from the traditional crop and livestock farming methods adopted by farmers and pastoralists. While these methods may have worked successfully in the past, they have become less sustainable today. Modern farming implies crop and animal husbandry using science and technology to increase productions. On the one hand, for crop farming, modern techniques such as greenhouse farming, urban agriculture, precision agriculture for crop suitability assessment and so on can be adopted.  On the other hand, ranching has become a more viable alternative for cattle breeding. It would provide an opportunity for the herders to stay in a particular location and care for their cattle.


The conflicts that emanate from pastoralists and farmers interactions in Nigeria have assumed unprecedented violent dimensions and has far reaching impacts on the people and the country as a whole. While the policies, inventions and negligence of the colonial and post colonial administrators, amongst other factors have been blamed for instigating and escalating the conflicts, lessons can notwithstanding be drawn from the past for transformative solutions. It is imperative that workable measures be put in place by the government to check the conflicts.  This can be in form of a framework for peaceful coexistence between local farming communities and pastoralists groups supported by legislations, such as the traditional Ruga administrative system once practiced in the pre-colonial era. 


ACAPS (2017). Thematic Report: Nigeria. Farmer–Fulani Herder Violence in Benue, Kaduna and Plateau States. Retrieved August 2019 from 

Adebayo, A. G. (1991). Of man and cattle: a reconsideration of the traditions of origin of pastoral Fulani of Nigeria. History in Africa, 18, 1-21

Blench, R. (2010). Conflict between Pastoralists and Cultivators in Nigeria. Review Paper prepared for DFID, Nigeria. Cambridge.

Cabot, C. (2017). Climate Change and Farmer–Herder Conflicts in West Africa. Climate Change, Security Risks and Conflict Reduction in Africa. Hexagon Series on Human and Environmental Security and Peace. 12, DOI 10.1007/978-3-642-29237-8_2

Daily Trust (2019). Why FG is establishing Ruga settlements – Presidency. Published on July 1, 2019. Retrieved July, 2019 from

Davidheiser, M. & Luna, A. M. (1996). From Complementarity to Conflict: A Historical Analysis of Farmer-Fulbe Relations in West Africa.

Ellwood, W. (1995). Nomads at the Crossroads. New Internationalist 266. 

Galaty, J. G. (1994). Rangeland tenure and pastoralism in Africa, in Fratkin et al 1994:  91-112.

International Crises Group (2017). Herders against farmers: Nigeria’s expanding deadly conflict. Africa Report, No. 252. Retrieved February 2019 from

Nweze, N. J. (2005). Minimizing farmer-herder conflicts in FADAMA areas through local development plans: Implications for increased crop/livestock productivity in Nigeria. Paper presented at the 30th Annual Conference of the Nigerian Society for Animal Production, held 20th – 24th March; 2005.

Omilisu, M. O. (2016). Roving terrorists or innocuous cattle grazers? Between herdsmen’s economic survival and community annihilation in Nigeria. Cultural Relations Quarterly Review. Summer, 2016.

Relief Web (2018). Growing impact of the Pastoral Conflict. Retrieved August 2019 from

Williams, G. (1991). What disequilibria? people, land and food in Nigeria. Les spectres de Malthus.

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