Farmers and herders hope Nigeria's next leader ends feud

Nomadic cattle herders and farmers are fighting in near-daily clashes that have left thousands dead in eastern Nigeria and hundreds of villages affected. Both farmers and herdsmen hope the next government would settle their bloody feud.
Nomadic cattle herders and farmers are fighting in near-daily clashes that have left thousands dead in eastern Nigeria and hundreds of villages affected. Both farmers and herdsmen hope the next government would settle their bloody feud.
Image: Luis TATO / AFP

Kemuel Samari knows just who to blame for the attack on his village that killed 21 of his neighbours and forced him to flee with only the clothes he was wearing.

He points the finger at nomadic cattle herders who are engaged in clashes with farmers like him that have left thousands of people dead in central Nigeria.

But he also blames President Muhammadu Buhari, under whose administration there has been a resurgence of violence in the long-running dispute over land and water.

"We've suffered and we're still suffering because of this government," Samari told AFP in Dowaya, his village in Adamawa state that was partially burnt in last July's attack.

Nigerians vote for a new president on Saturday, a week later than intended after a postponement because of logistical difficulties.

Analysts believe dissatisfaction with Buhari's handling of the farmer-herder crisis could see him lose support in the central states most affected.

'Fighting like gods' 

Samari said he plans to vote for Atiku Abubakar, a former vice-president who is seen as the main challenger to Buhari in his quest for a second term.

"We believe Atiku will bring change," he added.

The northern part of Adamawa still suffers attacks from Boko Haram insurgents. In the south of the state, there are frequent clashes between farmers and herders.

Both sides say they want the next government to settle the bloody feud.

"We need government to interfere in this matter," said Aliyu Nuhu, secretary of a herders association in Ngurore, a cattle market town in Adamawa.

"That we are fighting like dogs is wrong."

'Trying to dominate' 

With some 190 million people, Nigeria is Africa's most-populous country and is almost evenly split between a Muslim-majority north and largely Christian south.

The agricultural central states are more religiously mixed - and also where the farmer-herdsmen clashes have been worst.

With the sedentary farmers mostly Christian and the nomadic herders Muslim, the clashes have long been exploited along ethnic, religious and political lines over the years.

As violence flared again in the last two years, Buhari has been accused of backing the herders, who like him are ethnic Fulani Muslims.

Abubakar is also a Fulani Muslim, and his home state of Adamawa is on the Middle Belt's eastern flank.

There, herders claim the farmers have burned fields after harvesting to deny grazing land to their cattle.

"They're trying to dominate this place to raise their cows," said Linus Gajere, a hunter in the farming village of Dasso.

Dasso was once a bustling community with a Catholic mission school. Now it is an eery collection of houses gutted during a January herdsmen attack that killed 20.

Residents abandoned the village in fear.

The police and military often have no presence in rural communities like Dosso.

Security instead falls to traditional hunters armed with home-made guns, spears and bows and arrows.

On a recent afternoon, they fanned out in the fields across Dasso to protect against herdsmen incursions. In the distance, a single gunshot was heard.

"In fact, we love Buhari, but for the killings," said Geoffrey Nyada, an official in Ngolla, a village not far from Dasso.

"That is why people vote for Atiku," he said.

A volatile mix

On the other side, herdsmen say farmers have committed similar atrocities against them.

Adamu Alkali, a mediator with the herdsmen association in Ngurore, remembers the night he was woken from sleep as attackers entered his house and killed his sister-in-law and newborn niece, then burned their bodies.

"The government can fix this problem because the government is everything," he said.

Nigeria's leaders have for decades mulled formalising grazing paths or establishing ranchlands to prevent clashes. But that has met resistance from state governments.

On the campaign trail, Buhari has vowed to crack down on the fighting as part of a wider pledge to improve security. Abubakar has made few specific policy pledges on the subject.

Tog Gang, who manages peace building projects for Mercy Corps in Nigeria's Middle Belt, said top-down solutions such as the creation of cattle ranches are unlikely to work.

Many farming and herdsmen communities aren't even on speaking terms.

"How can you even address conflict issues between parties when the parties don't even live together?" he asked.

The bitterness is palpable in Dowaya, just off a busy road where the skeletons of huts destroyed in last year's attack stand empty.

"Whenever a herdsman sees you, he kills you like an animal," said Samari.

"If we see one of them, we kill them like animals. That's the level it's reached."

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