The Nigerian War That’s Slaughtered More People Than Boko Haram

The fight between Muslim herdsmen and mostly Christian farmers has killed more than 60,000 people in the last 15 years. It’s a situation jihadists mean to exploit.

JOS, Nigeria — It may well have been the bloodiest seven days in recent times. In north-central Nigeria, cattle herders and four farming communities armed with guns and machetes waged pitched battles last month. It was the latest round of violence in a long-running fight over grazing rights in the region.

Anyone who’s watched old movies about the Wild West in the United States will remember violent dramas about range wars between cattlemen and dirt farmers. But wild West Africa is far bloodier than anything Hollywood ever imagined.

Hundreds were killed in this one incident—including children who were hacked to death. Houses were razed and properties destroyed before security agents restored peace in the Agatu local government area of Benue state.

Yet little has been reported outside Nigeria about these massacres in the north-central region of the country, because this isn’t essentially a war about establishing a caliphate, the so-called Islamic State is not directly involved (at least not yet), and the actors don’t kill with the same intentions as Boko Haram in the north-east, although that group has exploited some of the horror stories that have emerged from the conflict. Nobody would claim, to use a favorite phrase of President Barack Obama, that this range war presents an “existential threat” to the United States. But it certainly threatens the existence of people in this country.

Over the past several years, herdsmen from Nigeria’s Fulani tribe, who have had a long-running battle with farmers in the central region known as the Middle Belt, are believed to have killed thousands of people in agrarian communities. These massacres have in turn generated revenge killings. Often the attacks are carried out with traditional weapons—bows, arrows, and machetes—and the killings have a ghastly, almost ritualistic appearance.

Since 2001, disputes over land in the Middle Belt have claimed over 60,000 lives. Boko Haram attacks, meanwhile, have resulted in about 17,000 deaths since 2009.

Because the herdsmen are largely Muslim and the farmers are mostly Christian, the potential is there for radicals to exploit the conflict, but its roots are not primarily religious. At least since 1999, bigger herds of cattle have been encroaching on greater parcels of farmland.

To some extent, the violence in the Middle Belt also can be traced to the colonial era.

Before Nigeria’s independence in 1960, the British opened up tin mines in the central Middle Belt area and invited outsiders from other parts of the Nigerian colony to work for them. The area is historically Christian and many of these “outsiders” were Muslim Fulani, the biggest tribe in the north, which is considered the largest nomadic ethnic group in the world.

As the Fulani began to settle in the Middle Belt, their herdsmen increasingly shifted their livestock south into the region in search of pasture, thereby establishing more permanent settlements. The Sahel drought of the 1960s, which drastically reduced their traditional grazing lands in the north, contributed to this movement, and climate change continues to keep up the pressure.

The indigenous ethnic groups have not welcomed this new influx, and the Berom people in Plateau State have been especially resentful.

The Berom are the largest ethnic group in the area. They are predominately farmers, they speak a distinct language, and many are Christians. They complained of the destructive presence of cattle on their land and resorted to killing the herds. The Fulani responded to these overtures of violence with even greater brutality.

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On Sept. 7, 2001, tension between herders and farmers led to the Jos riots in Plateau State, where over 1,000 people were killed in a week. An investigative committee set up by the Nigerian government subsequently found that between September 2001 and May 2004, as many as 53,787 individuals were killed as a result of the conflict.

Recent figures show that over 6,500 lives have been lost in the Middle Belt conflict since 2010, although experts say the actual death toll is likely much higher.

In many parts of the Middle Belt, the violence has led to ethnic cleansing reminiscent of the Balkans. Formerly mixed villages teamed up as a single ethnic group to face the Fulani.

During my September road trip to Jos from Abuja, the cab driver was terrified as we made our way. When we approached Riyom, 50 kilometers south of Jos, he asked me to take off my Fulani-like attire for fear of attacks by Berom. He didn’t care that I wasn’t Fulani, and was quick to remind me that whenever the Middle Belt fighting starts, those involved have no time to ask questions.

“They kill you based on how they perceive you,” he said.

Attacks often begin in the middle of the night, and many of the victims are women and children. In 2011, the violence escalated to include unspeakable acts of cannibalism. In widely circulated videos Christian Berom tribesmen were shown eating the charred flesh of a Muslim Fulani they had killed and roasted. Incident drew condemnation from various Muslim quarters, and a brutal reaction from Boko Haram. The sect’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, cited the incidents of cannibalism against the Muslim population in Jos in his defense of Christmas Day bombings in 2011 that killed 41 people.

But the Fulani herdsmen are widely believed to have taken more lives than they have lost in Nigeria’s Middle Belt.

In 2014 alone, at least 1,229 people were killed by Fulani herdsmen, according to the latest Global Terrorism Index (PDF,) based on data compiled by the University of Matyland. That was up from 63 the previous year. The index ranked Nigeria as the world’s third-most terrorized country, thanks to Boko Haram and the Fulani militants.

“There have been reports of a link between Boko Haram and Fulani militants, particularly in regards to smuggling and organized crime,” said the report. “However, unlike Boko Haram, who are now affiliated with ISIL [another acronym for ISIS] and align with the establishment of a caliphate, the Fulani militants have very localized goals, mainly greater access to grazing lands for livestock.”

Creating even more tension in a religiously divided Nigeria, the country’s former opposition candidate, Olu Falae, a Christian, was abducted last September, taken from his farm for a ransom by Fulani herdsmen in the southwest. The incident created a political war of words between southern political leaders and their northern counterparts.

Many now blame state and local governments in the Middle Belt for not doing enough to address the conflict. There also appear to be inadequate numbers of military and security personnel in the region. In the aftermath of many attacks, villagers said that there were no police or military present, a complaint that is equally common in the northeast where Boko Haram operates.

The Nigerian government’s inability to stop the killings contributes to the growing sense in the country that the state is ineffective.

“The issues in the Middle Belt wouldn’t have been this huge if leaders in the region stayed away from taking sides,” said Hassan Abdullahi, one of the many Fulani in Plateau State who complained about being marginalized by the Christian-controlled government. “They have denied the Fulani any recognition as citizens and are attempting to push us out of the region.”