The Tragedy of Fulbe Herders

The Tragedy of Fulbe Herders in West Africa

By Lt. Gen. Abdulrahman B. Dambazau (Rtd),PhD



The African Union estimates that there are about 300 million pastoralists, over a quarter of the population, living on about 43% of the continent’s total land mass. In Nigeria, the Fulbe ethnic group is known to pursue pastoralism not only as means of livelihood, but also as a way of life, mostly as nomadic and semi-settled in the various forests spanning the country. The Fulbe pastoralist today is in dilemma. While in the past he relied on his wealth of cattle, today most of the cattle have disappeared, either because of cattle rustling, conflicts, or the consequences of climate change that brought about desertification and drought.

The Fulbe pastoralist group in Nigeria, has remained in his forest, but this time in hiding because of the new criminal trade of banditry and kidnapping for ransom, which many of its youth are involved. While in the past he was easily identified by his stick with which he controlled the movement of his cattle, today he is identified with the AK47 and other light weapons he uses to attack rural communities and also ambush to kidnap passengers and motorists traveling on the highways. The Fulbe pastoralist was known to be humble, kind, gentle, disciplined, honest, and selfless, but today he is perceived as a bandit, murderer, rapist, cattle rustler, and kidnapper. So, what happened?

I believe this One-Day National Security Summit with the theme “Exploring the Contemporary Challenges Facing Pastoralism and Fulbe with a View of Proffering Workable Solution in Curbing Insecurity Across the Nation” co-organized by the Fulbe umbrella organization for cattle breeders, MACBAN, and the Northern Consensus Movement, is an attempt to interrogate the predicaments of the Fulbe pastoralists in relation to the insecurity in Nigeria. It should be noted that contemporary challenges facing Fulbe pastoralists are multifaceted and complex.

Fulbe is an ethnicity, and not all Fulbe are pastoralists. I am limiting my presentation to Fulbe pastoralists, specifically those residing in the forests that span Nigeria from north to south; east to west, and whose preoccupation is cattle herding. One of the challenges of the Fulbe pastoralists is that while their population has experienced exponential growth, the bulk of it is young, therefore they are experiencing youth bulge. This reflects the situation in the country as a whole, and as a matter of fact, the UN has projected that Nigeria’s population would double by 2050, and most of it would be young.

Our concern here are the Fulbe pastoralist youth, most of whom are uneducated (both in Islamic and western education); unskilled; unemployable; and apparently, there is high rate of drug abuse among them. What is the percentage of the children of Fulbe pastoralists that have completed primary and secondary education, even with the in the nomadic education program? What is the percentage that have acquired skills in the various trades available? And what the percentage that have knowledge on the Qur’an and Hadith, since majority of them are Muslims? There is a huge opportunity for the development of human capital in the Fulbe pastoralists communities, which unfortunately have remained stagnant for several decades.

The next dilemma of the Fulbe pastoralists is the fact that after centuries of nomadic or semi-nomadic life, they have shied away from integration into the mainstream society; and past governments have made little or no efforts to integrate the group, therefore they are always forest bound and isolated. In the forests, they neither own land nor properties, but remain tenants that pay rents to landlords wherever their nomadic lifestyle takes them. They do not enjoy infrastructures, such as electricity, water systems, roads, railways, etc.; yet they pay tax and contribute significantly to the economy, at the least by providing sources of protein.

The population of the Fulbe pastoralist is not adequately captured in the general population, if at all, through such systems of national identification number; international traveling passport; Bank Verification Number; driver’s license; population census; etc. The nomadic lifestyle and the inability to acquire the required education deny them the opportunities to be in the civil service; the armed forces; police and paramilitary institutions; the judiciary; and indeed, the private sector, especially the financial institutions. I can bet that the Fulbe pastoralists community has not benefited from the N-Power social welfare project of this government in which billions of Naira have been spent, because in the first place, they have no known address; are mostly uneducated; lack access to the internet or computers; and also such information does not reach them at all.

There is almost total absence of governance in their forest communities, especially arrangements for security, law and order, local administration, etc. Rather, the Fulbe pastoralists communities relied on their traditional rules and regulations governed by Pulaaku which, of course, has been eroded for a long time; and the wisdom of their parents and elders. However, contemporary happenings have shown that the youth have no longer respect their elders not listen to them, and community and family values have eroded.

Climate change which has led to land degradation through desertification and erosion, has resulted in forced migration of the Fulbe pastoralists. Although their lifestyle has always been nomadic, the impact of climate change has increased their movements from north to south in search of greener pastures, thus increasing the frequencies of herders-farmers conflicts in Nigeria. The impact of climate change does not only affect the movements of domestic Fulbe pastoralists, but also transhumance from other ECOWAS countries taking advantage of the Community’s protocol on the free movement of persons, goods, and services within the region.

Among the transhumance crossing Nigeria’s borders from other countries, such as Niger and Chad, are the Bororo, who move like whirlwind across country, not only do they destroy farmlands and cause havoc, but they also contribute to the deteriorating relationship between domestic Fulbe and sedentary farmers in various locations in the country. A contributing factor to this problem is the lack of implementation of the 1998 of the ECOWAS Protocol on Transhumance, which spelt out the rules and conditions for the movement of transhumance across borders within the region.

A few years back before late President Yar’Adua’s amnesty intervention program, the word kidnapping was only associated with the Niger Delta militants, when they were kidnapping oil workers. However, today that word is fully attached to the Fulbe pastoralist, which the southern media tagged as “Fulani killer herdsmen”. The Fulbe pastoralist youth have added the word banditry to their current trademark, and unlike the Niger Delta militant whose victims were mostly oil workers, the Fulbe bandit has made almost everyone his victim so long a person is unfortunate to come across any of its gangs. He is known to invade rural communities in most of the northwest, to abduct people, kill and destroy properties. The Abuja-Kaduna Highway and Kaduna-Birnin Gwari road are particularly attractive to him, and so many people have been traumatized and victimized by his violent criminal activities, and it is because of this situation that the Kaduna state government has recently threatened to relocate three communities along the highway.

Since the train terrorist attack by suspected members of the Ansaru or Boko Haram terrorist group, many people going to Kaduna from Abuja prefer to take a flight to Kano, and then drive to Kaduna from Kano, all in the effort to avoid being vulnerable to kidnappers of the Abuja-Kaduna highway. But not everyone can afford it, therefore many others just brave it and take their chances with the hope that they arrive their destination safely. Traveling by road in most parts of the north west is a nightmare, especially now that the trains have been stopped due to terrorists threats. There is no age or gender barrier for the kidnappers: they kidnap the young and old; women (and pregnant women too) and men; boys and girls, including infants. Many female and male victims reported being raped by their abductors, and many others have been forcefully married off to fellow kidnappers. The ethnicity and religion of their victims are immaterial. The major interest of the kidnapper is the ransom to be paid, which he usually demands in millions of Naira, and on certain occasions he kills his victims even after payments of ransom. The kidnappers also trade-in their victims in exchange for money just as is done to slaves, and actually they enslave their victims.

Although these criminals are a minority in the Fulbe pastoralists community, they have succeeded in creating a perception that all Fulbe pastoralists are violent and kidnappers, resulting in profiling and stereotype. As part of the consequences of their criminal activities, innocent and law-abiding Fulbe pastoralists have been attacked and forcefully ejected from their settlements, and cattle seized or killed, in the southeast and southwest. It was also because of them that some states passed the anti-grazing laws to curtail the movements of pastoralists and their cattle, designed to checkmate their activities. It is also because of their activities of kidnapping students that many schools, including tertiary institutions, in the northwest and north central have remained closed. It is also a fact that their activities have discouraged investments that would have boosted the northern economy, because nobody or institution would invest in an environment pervasive with insecurity.

The violent activities of kidnapping and banditry have made foreign countries to give travel advisory to their citizens against traveling to northern Nigeria. The fact that their activities fall into the definition of terrorism, they have succeeded in worsening Nigeria’s position in the Global Terrorism Index, which the 2022 GTI puts Nigeria as the 6th most terrorized country in the world, among 163 countries assessed. Likewise, with the score of 8.80 points on the scale of 0 to 10 in 2021, Nigeria was the 8th most insecure country in the world, according to Security Threats Index of At the individual level, their violent kidnapping activities have both direct and indirect costs that include loss of life-time earnings; cost of medical treatment; property destruction; loss of productivity; and the trauma experienced by victims, that sometimes lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I must note here that other violent groups, such as Boko Haram, IPOB, and various militant groups in Benue state, Niger Delta, the OPC/Yoruba Nation, etc., also contribute to putting Nigeria in these global positions of terrorism and insecurity, respectively.

All said and done, and on the flip side of the Fulbe pastoralist narrative, is the injustices he also suffers in the society. The Fulbe pastoralist is perceived to be timid and naïve, and for that reason people not only take him for granted, but also want to take advantage of him. When he complains against victimization, either civil or criminal, he rarely gets justice. We have mentioned how he suffers neglect, even though he immensely contributes to the GDP through the non-oil sector. In some instances, especially in the south, he is not recognized as a citizen, and the perception is that he is a foreigner. Others see him as a northerner, even where he has never visited the north and does not know it. One of the major strengths of the Fulbe pastoralist is his capacity to adapt to his environment, and his skills in languages is unparalleled.

The truth is that the Fulbe pastoralist does not have a national identity due to his nomadic lifestyle. Probably, he can only be identified by the type of clothes he wears, the stick he holds, and the cattle he possesses. In the forests where he lives, he drinks water from the same source his cattle drink; he does not enjoy healthcare facilities, therefore relies on alternative medicine of herbs, leaves and other natural substances to take care of his health; he construct temporary shelter made of shrubs and leaves to protect himself from the sun and rain, and he is not considered for government housing planning for citizens; and there are no security posts, such as police stations, established for the security of his communities, therefore he relies on informal or traditional means of security, including settlement of disputes. In short, the Fulbe pastoralists does not enjoy citizenship in all its ramifications, and because majority of them live below the poverty line, they are among the most marginalized groups in Nigeria. Today, he does not own cattle as the symbol of his wealth, and as a matter of fact, many of them only keep custody of cattle belonging to the elites.

The Fulbe pastoralist is also a victim of violence and cattle theft, particularly in Zamfara, Katsina, Kaduna and Benue states, from where stolen cattle are transported to Lagos and Aba cattle markets to be sold. A major predicament he faces has been elite land grabbing, especially those who decide to be semi-sedentary or even sedentary. There are many instances in which he suffers collective punishment for offence committed by his kins, consequently violence is also unleashed on his communities by the local vigilante or Yan Sakai, as they are popularly known. The Yan Sakai do take the laws into their hands, and it is alleged that they even do as much as the Fulbe “bandits” to include cattle rustling, rape of Fulbe women, and killings of innocent people.

The story is that the Fulbe banditry is usually a reprisal response on members of the vigilante whose villages have been identified by the Fulbe bandits. It got to point whereby anyone from the towns or villages that went to the forest to farm was likely to not to come out alive; while any Fulbe that went to the town or villages, particularly on market days, was equally not likely to go back to his Ruga alive. This “war” poses significant threat to food security in Nigeria, in addition to threats from climate change. Gradually, the situation turned into ethnic conflict between the pastoralists, who are predominantly Fulbe, and the farmers, who are predominantly Hausa, a situation which requires more of the deployment of conflict management skills to resolve than the use of force.

In most cases of indigene-settler disputes and ethno-religious conflicts, the Fulbe pastoralist mostly falls into the trap of victimization. We saw that in the Zangon Kataf, Kafanchan and Jos violence of the 1980s and 90s, in which several of their families that had lived in the areas for more than a century were wiped out. We also witness how IPOB has been attacking them in the southeast, and also the attack on their settlements by the Yoruba Nation secessionist leader Sunday Ighoho.

The Fulbe pastoralist has become a monster and the king of the forests, which he has taken over control using threats, intimidation, and violence, even against the older generation. The older Fulbe pastoralist also lives in fear of the young. It seems that the only leadership existing among the group is that of the violent gangs. Even at the level of cultural organizations we see the rivalry between MACBAN and Kautal Hore, the reason why these organizations are not in position to handle the situation. Fulbe pastoralists have made enemies of the rest of northern Nigeria due to the violence the criminals among them are daily unleashing indiscriminately on peace-loving citizens. For them, there is no hiding place, they attack on the highways, roads, communities, or even individual homes, to abduct at will. They have completely denied people not only the freedom from fear, but also the freedom from wants. Farmers, including those with huge investments, have abandoned their farms for fear of kidnappers. It was reason why, as the Minister of Interior, I set up the Agro Rangers as part of the NSCDC to protect investments for both farmers and law-abiding pastoralists.

It is important therefore that this security summit looks for practical solutions for the kidnapping pandemic that leads to daily loss of lives and destruction of properties. In order to deter the criminals among the Fulbe pastoralist communities, it is important that the criminal justice system comes strong against all those arrested for such violent crimes, to prosecute them, and if found guilty, be subjected to maximum punishment. Next, the integration of the Fulbe pastoralist into mainstream of society should be given priority, and though a long-term strategy, and considering all that I have said in this presentation, it is not going to be an easy ride, even though it can be done.

The implementation of government’s National Livestock Transformation Plan (NLTP) approved in 2019, an attempt to modernize livestock rearing, would provide the foundation upon which the integration would be mounted. Beyond the idea of the UN Great Green Wall in the Sahel to checkmate the southwards movement of the desert, states and federal governments, and the private sector, should raise special funds for establishing ranching communities, particularly in the vast lands in the north west and north east, with all necessary facilities to enable the pastoralists settle down permanently. After all, government has been subsidizing agriculture, especially for farmers, and the production of livestock should be part of the government efforts to increase revenue.

We must also clean up the stable, and by this, I mean, with the help of the NDLEA, the society must work on the drug abuse among the Fulbe pastoralist youth. We must ensure justice and pursue human capital development that would improve the education and health of the Fulbe pastoralist to open more opportunities for him for self-development in the society. To do this, access to quality education and healthcare facilities should be provided for the Fulbe pastoralists, in addition to skills acquisition. Finally, we must block his access to weapons and clean up all the weapons already in circulation within his environment. On this note, I wish you a successful security summit.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Translate »
%d bloggers like this: