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The Solution to Nigeria’s Ethno-religious Violence Lies in its Traditional Value Systems

The advent of colonial rule weakened the informal land tenure system and resource use arrangement that was already in place, thereby undermining herder-farmer peaceful coexistence.

Reports emerged on the 9th of June 2022 about an attack on some communities in the southern part of Kaduna State, Northwest Nigeria, where about 32 people were killed, with many houses and a church razed down. The Kaduna attack is one of many similar attacks in the area and across the length and breadth of the country in recent times. It is connected to a history of political and ethno-religious conflicts between herders and farmers in the southern part of the state. These conflicts express in many ways the failure of the Nigerian post-colonial state to look for solutions to the increasing ethno-religious violence within its own traditional value systems.

The herder-farmer conflicts in Nigeria cut across several states in both northern and southern parts of the country, with the conflicts reaching an alarming level in most cases.

With regard to the recent tragedy, the residents of southern Kaduna, who are predominantly Christians even though ethnically and linguistically diverse, have had lingering violent ethno-religious conflicts with the mostly Muslim Fulani pastoralists over land use and access. The areas of confrontation revolve around grazing disputes and cattle rustling, the outcome of which is the death of several thousands of people and the vandalization of property in the past twenty years. 

In Nigeria, clashes between herders and farmers date back to the pre-colonial era. However, their frequency and scope at the time were limited because of the indigenous conflict management system put in place by the traditional government institutions to address the conflicts.

There is evidence that during that period, traditional leaders and institutions managed the affairs of the people, administered justice and resolved conflicts in different localities with certain unwritten laws. With their influence, they set up a mutually beneficial structure characterized by the complementarity of farming and herding activities such as cattle entrustment, dung and stubble exchange which promoted peaceful coexistence between herders and farmers and supported increased productivity and sustainable agricultural practices.

The Fulani traditional institutions in particular had a unique social structure called Ruga which comprised of an elected official who regulated grazing activities within his group and selected grazing areas and migratory routes. The official also took responsibility for conflict resolution within Fulani groups and between his kinsmen and farming groups.

Unfortunately, the advent of colonial rule saw the Europeans appropriate indigenous lands to themselves through questionable privatization. This made control of and access to lands by both the herders and farmers more competitive and restive. It also weakened the informal land tenure system and resource use arrangement that was already in place, thereby undermining herder-farmer peaceful coexistence.

Moreover, “The imposition of Western styles of government by the European colonists reduced the powers and relevance of the traditional rulers such that since Nigeria’s independence, the political statuses of traditional rulers have gone from bad to worse with far-reaching consequences for governance and administration in Nigeria,” as Prof. Bamitale Omole, a renowned professor of international relations, has argued.

As of today, the Nigerian government’s military and political efforts at solving the herders and farmer conflicts have failed. In 2019, these efforts led to the introduction of the controversial Rural Grazing Area scheme, which was later suspended. It was replaced with the Livestock Intervention Programme (LIP) which will see the Federal Government establishing eight large herders’ settlements in each of the six pilot states, namely Adamawa, Kwara, Niger, Bauchi, Kaduna and Gombe. But, as the Kaduna attack shows, this programme too has not yielded significant results.

One of the major factors considered as being responsible for the failure of the government’s peace and security and conflict resolution efforts is the diminished power of traditional leaders and institutions. In other words, the post-colonial Nigerian state has failed to harness the relevance of traditional political institutions in the country in addressing its hydra-headed security challenges.

We have situations where the political class has publicly ridiculed traditional leaders and institutions through negligence, undue interference and political malfeasance. Even in the recent attacks in Kaduna, there have been complaints from traditional rulers in the conflict-affected communities about how the government does not carry them along in dialogues and peace, security and conflict resolution programmes. 

Yet, history and reports show that the involvement of traditional leaders in conflict resolution plays a very significant role in the day-to-day lives of Africans. They are usually more accountable and responsible than any other group (like police, military or court). They are also the most reliable authorities to take preventive action against conflicts.

There are several examples of notable farmer-herder conflicts in Nigerian that were successfully resolved through the intervention of the traditional institutions, namely the over seven years’ farmer-pastoralist conflict in Lata town, Kwara State, which was resolved by the Kwara Emirate Council in 2005 after several efforts by the state government had proved fruitless; the grazing rights conflict in Kainji National Park which was resolved in 2004 by the Borgu Emirate Council of Niger State; the grazing rights conflict in Zamfara State resolved by the combined efforts of Gusau and Birnin Gwari Emirate Councils of Zamfara and Kaduna states respectively in 2002; the Hadejia-Nguru Wetlands farmer and pastoralist conflict resolved through the intervention of Hadejia Emirate Council of Jigawa State; the international farmers and pastoralists conflict in Jibiya Local Government of Katsina State at the entry point from Maradi, Niger Republic, which was resolved by Katsina Emirate Council in 2003.

Clearly, the Nigerian government must, as a matter of urgency, recognize and harness the relevance of traditional institutions and values systems in conflict prevention and management to bring a lasting solution to Nigeria’s many national security challenges of which the herder-farmer crisis is very prominent.

Nigeria’s national security and stability has wider implication for the West African sub-region and indeed the rest of Africa given its political and economic status on the continent. Looking inwards and finding local and indigenous knowledge and practical solutions is the way forward towards finding peace and stability in the country.


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