Ethnic and Religious Identities Shaping Contestation for Land based Resources: The Tiv Farmers and Pastoralist Conflicts in Central Nigeria


The Tiv of central Nigeria are predominantly peasant farmers with a dispersed settlement intended to guarantee access to farm lands. The Fulani of the more arid, northern Nigeria are nomadic pastoralists who move with the annual wet and dry seasons in search of pastures for the herds. Central Nigeria attracts the nomads due to available water and foliage on the banks of Rivers Benue and Niger; and the absence of tse-tse fly within the Central region. Over the years, these groups have lived peacefully, until in the early 2000s when violent armed conflict erupted between them over access to farmland and grazing areas. From documentary evidence and focus group discussions and observation, the conflict is due largely to population explosion, the shrinking economy, climate change, non-modernization of agricultural practice and the rise of Islamization. The modernization of agriculture and the restructuring of governance hold the promise to improve inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations.


Modernization’s ubiquitous postulations in the 1950s that nations would naturally secularize as they become modernized has come under re-examination in the light of the experiences of many developing countries making material progress, especially since the later part of the 20th century. Modernizers had premised their assumptions on the spread of education and industrialization, which would spur urbanization with its associated improvements in material conditions of the masses (Eisendaht ,1966; Haynes, 1995). With the massive transformation of material livelihoods of many citizens, the value of religious beliefs and ethnic separatist consciousness as platforms of mobilization in contestation for access to recourses would peter out. Suffice to note that ethnicity and religious affiliation had emerged as strong identity platforms for competing with other groups for access to societal resources, especially those controlled by the State (Nnoli, 1978). Since most developing countries have a complex social plurality, and their ethnic and religious identities were amplified by colonialism, contestation in the political sphere was fiercely fuelled by social and economic needs of the various groups. Most of these developing countries, especially in Africa, were at the very basic level of modernization in the 1950s through the 1960s. However, after several decades of modernizing, ethnic and religious consciousness has rather been reinforced and, in the 21st century, is on the rise.

The centrality of ethnic and religious identities in politics and national discourse in Nigeria has remained conspicuous at every stage in the country’s history. The near success of the democratization process in the early 1990s following the 1993 presidential election represents the time in which reference to religion and ethnic identity in national political discourse was at its all time low. That moment of unification of Nigeria’s plurality evaporated with the annulment of the June 12, 1993 presidential election in which Chief M. K. O. Abiola, a Yoruba from South Western Nigeria had won. The annulment threw the country into a state of anarchy that soon took religious-ethnic trajectories (Osaghae, 1998).

Though religious and ethnic identities have received a predominant share of responsibility for politically instigated conflicts, inter-group relations more generally have been guided by religious-ethnic factors. Since the return of democracy in 1999, inter-group relations in Nigeria have been largely influenced by ethnic and religious identity. In this context, therefore, can then be situated the contestation for land based resources between the Tiv farmers and the Fulani pastoralists. Historically, the two groups have related relatively peacefully with bouts of clashes here and there but at low levels, and with their use of traditional avenues of conflict resolution, peace was often achieved. The emergence of wide spread hostilities between the two groups began in the 1990s, in Taraba State, over grazing areas where farming activities by the Tiv farmers began to limit grazing spaces. North central Nigeria would become a theater of armed contestation in the mid-2000s, when attacks by Fulani herdsmen on Tiv farmers and their homes and crops became a constant feature of inter-group relations within the zone and in other parts of the country. These armed clashes have worsened in the last three years (2011-2014).

This paper seeks to shed light upon the relationship between the Tiv farmers and Fulani pastoralists that is shaped by ethnic and religious identity, and tries to mitigate the dynamics of the conflict over competition for access to grazing areas and water resources.

Defining the Contours of the Conflict: Identity Characterization

Central Nigeria consists of six states, namely: Kogi, Benue, Plateau, Nasarawa, Niger and Kwara. This region is variously termed ‘middle belt’ (Anyadike, 1987) or the constitutionally recognized, ‘north-central geo-political zone’. The area consists of a heterogeneity and diversity of people and cultures. Central Nigeria is home to a complex plurality of ethnic minorities considered indigenous, while other groups such as the Fulani, Hausa and Kanuri are considered migrant settlers. Prominent minority groups in the area include Tiv, Idoma, Eggon, Nupe, Birom, Jukun, Chamba, Pyem, Goemai, Kofyar, Igala, Gwari, Bassa etc. The middle belt is unique as a zone having the largest concentration of minority ethnic groups in the country.

Central Nigeria is also characterized by religious diversity: Christianity, Islam and African traditional religions. The numerical proportion may be indeterminate, but Christianity appears to be predominant, followed by the considerable presence of Muslims among the Fulani and Hausa migrants. Central Nigeria displays this diversity that is a mirror of Nigeria’s complex plurality. The region also covers part of Kaduna and Bauchi states, known as Southern Kaduna and Bauchi, respectively (James, 2000).

Central Nigeria represents a transition from the savanna of Northern Nigeria to the Southern Nigeria forest region. It therefore contains geographical elements of both climatic zones. The area is heavily suited for sedentary life and, hence, agriculture is the dominant occupation. Root crops like potato, yam and cassava are widely cultivated across the region. Cereals like rice, guinea corn, millet, maize, benniseed and soybeans are also widely cultivated and constitute the primary commodities for cash incomes. The cultivation of these crops requires wide plains to guarantee sustained cultivation and high yields. Sedentary agricultural practice is supported by seven months of rainfall (April-October) and five months of dry season (November- March) suitable for harvest of a wide variety of cereals and tuber crops. The region is supplied with natural water through river courses that crosscut the region and empty into the River Benue and Niger, the two largest rivers in Nigeria. Major tributaries in the region include rivers Galma, Kaduna, Gurara and Katsina-Ala, (James, 2000). These water sources and water availability are crucial for agricultural use, as well as domestic and pastoral benefits.

The Tiv and the Pastoralist Fulani in Central Nigeria

It is important to establish the context of intergroup contact and interaction between the Tiv, a sedentary group, and the Fulani, a nomadic pastoralist group in central Nigeria (Wegh, & Moti, 2001). The Tiv is the largest ethnic group in Central Nigeria, numbering nearly five million, with concentration in Benue State, but found in considerable number in Nasarawa, Taraba and Plateau States (NPC, 2006). The Tiv are believed to have migrated from the Congo and Central Africa, and to have settled in central Nigeria in early history (Rubingh, 1969; Bohannans 1953; East, 1965; Moti and Wegh, 2001). The current Tiv population is significant, rising from 800,000 in 1953. The impact of this population growth on agricultural practice is varied but critical to inter-group relations.

The Tiv are predominantly peasant farmers who live on the land and find sustenance from it through its cultivation for food and income. Peasant agricultural practice was a common occupation of the Tiv until inadequate rains, declining soil fertility and population expansion resulted in low crop yields, forcing Tiv farmers to embrace non-farm activities such as petty trading. When the Tiv population was relatively small compared to the available land for cultivation in the 1950s and 1960s, shifting cultivation and crop rotation were common agricultural practices. With the steady expansion of the Tiv population, coupled with their customary, scattered-sparse settlements for accessing and controlling land use, cultivable spaces shrunk rapidly. However, many Tiv people have remained peasant farmers, and have maintained the cultivation of stretches of land available for food and income covering a wide variety of crops.

The Fulani, who are predominantly Muslim, are a nomadic, pastoralist group who are by occupation traditional cattle herders. Their search for conditions conducive to raising their herds keeps them on the move from one place to another, and specifically to areas with pasture and water availability and no tsetse fly infestation ( Iro, 1991). The Fulani are known by several names including Fulbe, Peut, Fula and Felaata (Iro, 1991, de st. Croix, 1945). The Fulani are said to have originated from the Arabian Peninsula and migrated into West Africa. According to Iro (1991), the Fulani use mobility as a production strategy to access water and pasture and, possibly, markets. This movement takes the pastoralists to as much as 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, making the Fulani the most diffuse ethno-cultural group (on the continent), and seen as only slightly impacted by modernity in regards to pastoralists’ economic activity. The pastoralist Fulani in Nigeria move southwards into the Benue valley with their cattle seeking pasture and water from the onset of the dry season (November to April). The Benue valley has two major attractive factors—water from the Benue rivers and their tributaries, such as River Katsina-Ala, and a tsetse-free environment. The return movement begins with the onset of rains in April and continues through June. Once the valley is saturated with heavy rain and movement is hampered by muddy areas threatening the very survival of the herds and shrinking passage due to farming activities, leaving the valley become inevitable.

Contemporary Contestation for Land Based Resources

The contest for access and utilization of land based resources—principally water and pasture— between the Tiv farmers and Fulani pastoralists takes place in the context of the peasant and nomadic economic production systems adopted by both groups.

The Tiv are a sedentary people whose livelihood is rooted in agricultural practices that prime land.  Population expansion puts pressure on available land accessibility even among farmers. Declining soil fertility, erosion, climate change and modernity conspire to moderate traditional agricultural practices in a way that challenges the very livelihood of farmers (Tyubee, 2006).

The Fulani pastoralists are a nomadic stock whose system of production revolves around cattle rearing. They use mobility as a strategy of production as well as consumption (Iro, 1991). A number of factors have conspired to challenge the Fulani’s economic livelihood, including the clash of modernism with traditionalism. The Fulani have resisted modernity and hence their system of production and consumption has remained largely unaltered in the face of population growth and modernization. Environmental factors constitute a major set of issues affecting the Fulani economy, including the pattern of rainfall, its distribution and seasonality, and the extent to which this affects land utilization. Closely related to this is the pattern of vegetation, compartmentalized into semi-arid and forest areas. This vegetation pattern determines pasture availability, inaccessibility, and insects’ predation (Iro, 1991; Water-Bayer and Taylor-Powell, 1985). Vegetation pattern therefore explains pastoral migration. The disappearance of grazing routes and reserves due to farming activities thus set the tone for contemporary conflicts between nomadic pastoralist Fulanis and their host Tiv farmers.

Until 2001, when a full scale conflict between Tiv farmers and Fulani  pastoralists erupted on September 8, and lasted for several days in Taraba, both ethnic groups lived together peacefully. Earlier, on October 17, 2000, herdsmen had clashed with Yoruba farmers in Kwara and Fulani pastoralists also clashed with farmers of different ethnic groups on June 25, 2001 in Nasarawa State (Olabode and Ajibade, 2014). It should be noted that these months of June, September and October are within the rainy season, when crops are planted and nurtured to be harvested beginning from late October. Thus, cattle grazing would incur the wrath of farmers whose livelihood would be threatened by this act of destruction by herds. Any response from farmers to protect their crops, however, would result in conflicts leading to widespread destruction of their homesteads.

Prior to these more coordinated and sustained armed attacks that began in the early 2000s; conflicts between these groups over farm lands were usually muted. Pastoralist Fulani would arrive, and formally request for permission to camp and graze, which was usually granted. Any infringement on farmers’ crops would be amicably settled using traditional conflict resolution mechanisms. Across central Nigeria, there were large pockets of Fulani settlers and their families who were permitted to settle in host communities. However, the conflict resolution mechanisms appear to have collapsed due to pattern of newly arriving pastoralist Fulani beginning in 2000. At that time, Fulani pastoralists started arriving without their families, as only male adults with their herds, and sophisticated weapons under their arms, including AK-47 rifles. Armed conflict between these groups then began to assume a dramatic dimension, particularly since 2011, with instances in Taraba, Plateau, Nasarawa and Benue States.

On June 30, 2011, Nigeria’s House of Representatives opened debate on the sustained armed conflict between the Tiv farmers and their Fulani counterpart in central Nigeria. The House noted that over 40,000 people, including women and children, were displaced and cramped into five designated temporary camps at Daudu, Ortese, and Igyungu-Adze in the Guma local government area of Benue State. Some of the camps included former primary schools that had closed during the conflict and were turned into camps (HR, 2010: 33). The House also established that over 50 Tiv men, women and children had been killed, including two soldiers at a Catholic secondary school, Udei in Benue State. In May 2011, another attack by the Fulani on Tiv farmers occurred, claiming more than 30 lives and displacing over 5000 persons (Alimba, 2014: 192). Earlier, between 8-10 February, 2011, Tiv farmers along the coast of the Benue River, in the Gwer west local government area of Benue, were attacked by hordes of herdsmen who killed 19 farmers and burned down 33 villages. The armed attackers returned again on March 4, 2011 to kill 46 people, including women and children, and ransacked an entire district (Azahan, Terkula, Ogli and Ahemba, 2014:16).

The ferocity of these attacks, and the sophistication of the arms involved, is reflected in the rise of casualties and level of destruction. Between December 2010 and June 2011, more than 15 attacks were recorded, resulting in the loss of over 100 lives and over 300 homesteads destroyed, all in the Gwer-West local government area. The government responded with the deployment of soldiers and mobile police to the affected areas, as well as continued exploration of peace initiatives, including establishing a committee on the crisis co-chaired by the Sultan of Sokoto, and the paramount ruler of the Tiv, the TorTiv IV. This initiative is still ongoing.

Hostilities between the groups entered a lull in 2012 due to sustained peace initiatives and military surveillance, but returned with renewed intensity and expansion in area coverage in 2013 affecting Gwer-west, Guma, Agatu, Makurdi Guma and Logo local government areas of Nasarawa State. On separate occasions, Rukubi and Medagba villages in Doma were attacked by the Fulani who were armed with AK-47 rifles, leaving over 60 persons dead and 80 houses burned (Adeyeye, 2013). Again on July 5, 2013, armed pastoralist Fulani attacked Tiv farmers at Nzorov in Guma, killing over 20 residents and burning down the entire settlement. These settlements are those in local council areas that are found along the coasts of rivers Benue and Katsina-Ala. The contestation for pasture and water becomes intense and could shed off into armed confrontation easily.

Table1. Selected Incidences of Armed Attacks between Tiv farmers and Fulani herdsmen in 2013 and 2014 in central Nigeria 

DatePlace of incidentEstimated Death
1/1/13Jukun/ Fulani clash in Taraba State5
15/1/13farmers/Fulani clash in Nasarawa State10
20/1/13farmer/Fulani clash in Nasarawa State25
24/1/13Fulani/farmers clash in Plateau State9
1/2/13Fulani/Eggon clash in Nasarawa State30
20/3/13Fulani/farmers clash at Tarok, Jos18
28/3/13Fulani/farmers clash at Riyom, Plateau State28
29/3/13Fulani/farmers clash at Bokkos, Plateau State18
30/3/13Fulani/farmers clash/police clash6
3/4/13Fulani/farmers clash in Guma, Benue State3
10/4/13Fulani/farmers clash in Gwer-west, Benue State28
23/4/13Fulani/Egbe farmers clash in Kogi State5
4/5/13Fulani/farmers clash in Plateau State13
4/5/13Jukun/Fulani clash in wukari, Taraba state39
13/5/13Fulani/Farmers Clash in Agatu, Benue state50
20/5/13Fulani/Farmers Clash in  Nasarawa-Benue border23
5/7/13Fulani attacks on Tiv villages in Nzorov, Guma20
9/11/13Fulani Invasion of Agatu, Benue State36
7/11/13Fulani/Farmers Clash  at Ikpele, okpopolo7
20/2/14Fulani/farmers clash, Plateau state13
20/2/14Fulani/farmers clash, Plateau state13
21/2/14Fulani/farmers clash in Wase, Plateau state20
25/2/14Fulani/farmers clash Riyom, Plateau state30
July 2014Fulani attacked residents in Barkin Ladi40
March 2014Fulani attack on Gbajimba, Benue state36
13/3/14Fulani attack on22
13/3/14Fulani attack on32
11/3/14Fulani attack on25

Source: Chukuma & Atuche, 2014; Sun newspaper, 2013

These attacks became more formidable and intense since the middle of 2013, when the major road from Makurdi to Naka, the headquarters of Gwer West Local Government, was blocked by Fulani armed men after ransacking more than six districts along the highway. For more than a year, the road remained closed as armed Fulani herdsmen held sway. From November 5-9, 2013, heavily armed Fulani herdsmen attacked Ikpele, Okpopolo and other settlements in Agatu, killing over 40 residents and ransacking entire villages. The attackers destroyed homesteads and farmlands displacing over 6000 inhabitants (Duru, 2013).

From January to May 2014, scores of settlements in Guma, Gwer West, Makurdi, Gwer East, Agatu and Logo local government areas of Benue were overwhelmed by horrendous attacks by Fulani armed herdsmen. The killing spree hit Ekwo-Okpanchenyi in Agatu on May 13, 2014, when neatly 230 armed Fulani herdsmen killed 47 people and razed down nearly 200 houses in a pre-dawn attack (Uja, 2014). Imande Jem village in Guma was visited on April 11, leaving 4 peasant farmers dead. Attacks in Owukpa, in Ogbadibo  LGA as well as in Ikpayongo, Agena, and Mbatsada villages in Mbalom council ward in Gwer East LGA in Benue State took place in May 2014 killing over 20 residents (Isine and Ugonna, 2014; Adoyi and Ameh, 2014) .

The climax of the Fulani invasion and attacks on Benue farmers was witnessed at Uikpam, Tse-Akenyi Torkula village, the Tiv paramount ruler’s ancestral home in Guma, and in the ransacking of Ayilamo semi urban settlement in Logo local government area. The attacks on Uikpam village left more than 30 people dead while the entire village was burned down. The Fulani invaders had retreated and camped after the attacks near Gbajimba, along the coast of River Katsina-Ala and were ready to resume attacks on the remaining residents. When the governor of Benue State was on a fact finding mission, heading to Gbajimba, the headquarters of Guma, he/she ran into an ambush from the armed Fulani on the March 18, 2014, and the reality of the conflict finally hit the government in an unforgettable manner. This attack confirmed the extent to which the nomadic Fulani pastoralists were well armed and prepared to engage the Tiv farmers in the contestation for land-based resources.

The contestation for access to pasture and water resources not only destroys crops but also contaminates water beyond usability by local communities. Changing resource access rights, and the inadequacy of grazing resources as a result of increasing crop cultivation, set the stage for conflict (Iro, 1994; Adisa, 2012: Ingawa, Ega and Erhabor, 1999). The disappearance of grazing areas being farmed accentuates these conflicts. While the Nomadi pastoralist movement between 1960 and 2000 was less problematic, pastoralist contact with farmers since 2000 has become increasingly violent and, in the last four years, deadly and extensively destructive. Sharp contrasts exist between these two phases. For instance, movement by nomadic Fulani in the earlier phase involved whole households. Their arrival was calculated to effect formal engagement with host communities and permission sought before settlement. While in host communities, relationships were regulated by traditional mechanisms and, where disagreements arose, they were amicably resolved. Grazing and use of water sources was done with respect for local values and custom. Grazing was done on marked routes and permitted fields. This perceived order appears to have been upset by four factors: changing population dynamics, inadequate governmental attention to pastoralist farmers’ issues, environment exigencies and the proliferation of small arms and light weapons.

I) Changing Population Dynamics

Numbered about 800,000 in the 1950s, the number of Tiv has risen to over four million in Benue State alone. The 2006 population census, reviewed in 2012, estimates the Tiv population in Benue state to be nearly 4 million. The Fulani, who live in 21 countries in Africa, are concentrated in northern Nigeria, especially Kano, Sokoto, Katsina, Borno, Adamawa and Jigawa States. They are a majority only in Guinea, constituting about 40% of the country’s population (Anter, 2011). In Nigeria, they constitute about 9% of the country’s population, with a heavy concentration in the North West and North East. (Ethnic demographic statistics are difficult because national population census does not capture ethnic origin.) The majority of nomadic Fulani are settled and, as a transhumance population with two seasonal movements in Nigeria with an estimated population growth rate of 2.8% (Iro, 1994), these annual movements have impacted conflict relations with the sedentary Tiv farmers.

Given population growth, areas grazed by the Fulani have been taken over by farmers, and the remains of what constitute grazing routes do not permit strayed movement of cattle, which almost always results in the destruction of crops and farmlands. Due to population expansion, the scattered Tiv settlement pattern intended to guarantee access to cultivable land has led to land grabbing, and reduced grazing space as well. Sustained population growth has therefore produced significant consequences for both pastoral and sedentary production systems. A major consequence has been armed conflicts between the groups over access to pasture and water sources.

II) Inadequate Government Attention to Pastoralist Issues

Iro has argued that various governments in Nigeria have neglected and marginalized the Fulani ethnic group in governance, and treated pastoral issues with official pretense (1994) in spite of their immense contributions to the country’s economy (Abbas, 2011). For instance, 80 percent of Nigerians depend on pastoral Fulani for meat, milk, cheese, hair, honey, butter, manure, incense, animal blood, poultry products, and hides and skin (Iro, 1994:27). While the Fulani cattle provide carting, plowing and hauling, thousands of Nigerians also earn their living from “selling, milking and butchering or transporting herds,” and the government earns revenue from the cattle trade. In spite of this, government welfare policies in terms of the provision of water, hospitals, schools and pasturage have been negated in respect to the pastoral Fulani.  The government’s efforts to create sinking boreholes, control pest and diseases, create more grazing areas and reactivate grazing routes (Iro 1994 , Ingawa, Ega and Erhabor 1999) are acknowledged, but seen as too little too late.

The first tangible national efforts towards addressing pastoralist challenges emerged in 1965 with the passage of the Grazing Reserve Law. This was to protect herders against intimidation and deprivation of access to pasture by farmers, cattle ranchers and intruders (Uzondu, 2013). However, this piece of legislation was not enforced and stock routes were subsequently blocked, and disappeared into farmland. The government again surveyed the land marked for grazing in 1976. In 1980, 2.3 million hectares were officially established as grazing areas, representing a mere 2 percent of earmarked area. The government’s intention was to further create 28 million hectares, out of 300 areas surveyed, as a grazing reserve. Out of these only 600,000 hectares, covering only 45 areas, were dedicated. Over all 225,000 hectares covering eight reserves were fully established by government as reserve areas for grazing (Uzondu, 2013, Iro, 1994).  Many of these reserved areas have been encroached upon by farmers, due largely to governmental inability to further enhance their development for pastoralist use. Therefore, the lack of systematic development of the grazing reserve system accounts by the government is a key factor in the conflict between the Fulanis and farmers.

III) Proliferation of Small Arms and Light Weapon (SALWs)

By 2011, it was estimated that there were 640 million small arms circulating around the world; of these, 100 million were in Africa, 30 million in Sub-Saharan Africa, and eight million were in West Africa. Most intriguing is that 59% of these were in the hands of civilians (Oji and Okeke 2014; Nte, 2011). The Arab Spring, especially the Libyan uprising after 2012, seems to have exacerbated the proliferation quagmire. This period has also coincided with the globalization of Islamic fundamentalism evidenced by Nigeria’s Boko Haram insurgency in north eastern Nigeria and Mali’s Turareg rebels’ desire to establish an Islamic state in Mali. SALWs are easy to conceal, maintain, cheap to procure and use (UNP, 2008), but very lethal.

An important dimension to contemporary conflicts between Fulani pastoralists and farmers in Nigeria, and particularly in central Nigeria, is the fact that the Fulanis involved in the conflicts have been fully armed upon arrival either in anticipation of a crisis, or with the intention to ignite one. Nomadic Fulani pastoralists in the 1960-1980s would arrive in central Nigeria with their families, cattle, machetes, locally made guns for hunting, and sticks for guiding herds and rudimentary defense. Since 2000, nomadic herdsmen have arrived with AK-47 guns and other light weapons dangling under their arms. In this situation, their herds are often deliberately driven onto farms, and they will attack any farmers who attempt to push them out. These reprisals could occur several hours or days after initial encounters and at odd hours of the day or night. Attacks have often been orchestrated when farmers are on their farms, or when residents are observing a funeral or burial rights with heavy attendance, yet when other residents are asleep (Odufowokan 2014). In addition to being heavily armed, there were indications that the pastoralists used deadly chemical (weapons) against the farmers and residents in Anyiin and Ayilamo in Logo local government in March 2014: corpses had no injuries or gunshot woods (Vande-Acka, 2014).

The attacks also highlight the issue of religious bias. The Fulani are predominantly Muslim. Their attacks on predominantly Christian communities in Southern Kaduna, Plateau State, Nasarawa, Taraba and Benue have raised very fundamental concerns. The attacks on residents of Riyom in Plateau State and Agatu in Benue State—areas that are overwhelmingly inhabited by Christians—raise questions about the religious orientation of the attackers. Besides, armed herdsmen settle down with their cattle after these attacks and continue to harass residents as they attempt to return to their now destroyed ancestral home. These developments are evidenced in Guma and Gwer West, in Benue State and pockets of areas in Plateau and Southern Kaduna (John, 2014).

The preponderance of small arms and light weapons is explained by weak governance, insecurity and poverty (RP, 2008). Other factors relate to organized crime, terrorism, insurrection, electoral politics, religious crisis and communal conflicts and militancy (Sunday, 2011; RP, 2008; Vines, 2005). The way in which nomadic Fulanis are now well armed during their transhumance process, their viciousness in attacking farmers, homesteads and crops, and their settlement after farmers and residents have fled, demonstrate a new dimension of intergroup relations in contestation for land based resources. This requires new thinking and public policy direction.

IV) Environmental Limitations

Pastoral production is heavily animated by the environment in which production occurs. The inevitable, natural dynamics of the environment determines the content of the pastoral transhumance production process. For example, nomadic pastoralists Fulani work, live and reproduce in an environment challenged by deforestation, desert encroachment, the decline in water supply and the nearly unpredictable vagaries of weather and climate (Iro, 1994: John, 2014). This challenge fits the eco-violence approach theses on conflicts. Other environmental conditions include population growth, water shortage and the disappearance of forests. Singularly or in combination, these conditions induce movement of groups, and migrant groups in particular, often triggering ethnic conflicts when they advance to new areas; a movement that likely upsets an existing order such as induced deprivation (Homer-Dixon, 1999). The scarcity of pasture and water resources in northern Nigeria during the dry season and the attendant movement southwards to central Nigeria has always reinforced ecological scarcity and entailed competition among groups and, hence, the contemporary armed  conflict between the farmers and the Fulani (Blench, 2004; Atelhe  and Al Chukwuma, 2014). The reduction in land due to construction of roads, irrigation dams and other private and public works, and the search for herbage and available water for cattle use all accelerate the chances for competition and conflict.


The paper adopted a survey research approach that makes the study qualitative. Using primary and secondary sources, data was generated for descriptive analysis. Primary data was generated from selected informants with practical and in depth knowledge of the armed conflict between the two groups. Focus group discussions were held with victims of the conflict in the focus study area. The analytical presentation follows a thematic model of themes and sub-themes selected to highlight the underlying causes and the identifiable trends in engagement with the nomadic Fulani and sedentary farmers in Benue State.

Benue State as a Locus of the Study

Benue State is one of the six states in north central Nigeria, coterminous with the Middle Belt. These states include Kogi, Nasarawa, Niger, Plateau, Taraba, and Benue. The other states that constitute the Middle Belt region are Adamawa, Kaduna (southern) and Kwara. In contemporary Nigeria, this region coincides with the Middle Belt but not exactly identical with it (Ayih, 2003; Atelhe & Al Chukwuma, 2014).

Benue state has 23 local government areas that are the equivalent of counties in other countries. Created in 1976, Benue is associated with agricultural activities, as the greater proportion of its over 4 million people draw their livelihood from peasant cultivation. Mechanized agriculture is at very low level. The state has a very unique geographical feature; having the River Benue, the second largest river in Nigeria. With many relatively big tributaries to River Benue, the state has access to water all year round. The availability of water from natural courses, an expansive plain dotted with few high lands and a clement weather coupled with two major weather seasons of wet and dry period, make Benue suitable for agricultural practice, including livestock production. When the tsetse fly free element is factored into the picture, the state more than any fits well into sedentary production. Crops that are widely cultivated in the state include yam, maize, guinea corn, rice, beans, soya beans, groundnuts, and a variety of tree crops and vegetables.

Benue State registers a strong presence of ethnic plurality and cultural diversity as well as religious heterogeneity. The dominant ethnic groups include the Tiv, who are the obvious majority spreading across 14 local government areas, and the other groups are the Idoma and the Igede. The Idoma occupy seven, and the Igede two, local government areas respectively. Six of the Tiv dominant local government areas have large riverbank areas. These include Logo, Buruku, Katsina-Ala, Makurdi, Guma and Gwer West. In the Idoma speaking areas, Agatu LGA shares an expensive area along the bank of the river Benue.

The Conflict: Nature, Causes and Trajectories

Put starkly, the farmers-nomadic Fulani conflicts arise from the context of interaction. The pastoralist Fulani arrive to Benue state in huge numbers with their herds shortly after the onset of the dry season (November-March). They settle near the banks of the rivers in the state, grazing along the riverbanks and obtaining water from the rivers and streams or ponds. The herds may stray into farms, or are deliberately herded into farms to eat growing crops or those already harvested and yet to be evaluated. The Fulani used to settle in these areas with the host community peacefully, with occasional disagreements mediated by local authorities and peacefully settled. Since the late 1990s, new Fulani arrivals were fully armed ready to confront resident farmers on their farms or homesteads. Vegetable farming on the riverbanks were usually the first to be affected by cattle while arriving to drink water.

Since the early 2000s, the nomadic Fulani that arrived Benue began refusing to return to the north. They were heavily armed and prepared to settle, and the onset of the rains in April set the stage for engagement with the farmers. Between April and July, varieties of crops germinate and grow, attracting cattle on the move. The grass and crops growing on cultivated land and left to fallow appear more attractive and nutritious to the cattle than the grass growing outside such lands. In most cases crops are grown side by side with grass growing in the uncultivated areas. The cattle’s hooves cramp the soil and make tilling with hoes difficult, and they destroy growing crops, causing resistance to the Fulanis and, conversely, attacks on resident farmers. A survey of the areas where the conflict between Tiv farmers and Fulani occurred, such as Tse Torkula Village, Uikpam and Gbajimba semi urban area and villages respectively, all in Guma LGA, shows that armed Fulani with their herds firmly settle after driving out Tiv framers, and have continued to attack and destroy farms, even in the presence of a detachment of military personnel stationed in the area. Moreover, heavily armed Fulani arrested the team of researchers for this work after the team concluded a focus group discussion with farmers who had returned to their destroyed homes and were trying to rebuild them.


One of the primary causes of the conflicts is the trespassing on farmlands by cattle. This involves two things: the cramping of the soil, which makes cultivation using traditional means of tilling (hoe) extremely difficult, and the destruction of the crops and farm produce. The intensification of the conflict during the cropping season prevented farmers from cultivating or to clear the area and allow for unrestricted grazing. Crops such as yams, cassava and maize are widely consumed as herbage/pasture by cattle. Once the Fulani have forced their way to settle and occupy space, they can successfully secure grazing, especially with the use of arms. They can then reduce farming activities and take over cultivated land. Those interviewed were unanimous regarding this trespassing on farm lands as an immediate cause of the sustained conflict between the groups. Nyiga Gogo in Merkyen village , (Gwer west LGA), Terseer Tyondon (Uvir village, Guma LGA) and Emmanuel Nyambo ( Mbadwen village, Guma LGA) lamented the loss of their farms to incessant cattle trampling and grazing. Attempts by farmers to resist this were repelled, forcing them to flee and subsequently relocate to temporary camps at Daudu, St. Mary’s Church, North Bank, and Community Secondary Schools, Makurdi.

Another immediate cause of the conflict is the question of water use. Benue farmers live in rural settlements with little or no access to pipe borne water and/or even a borehole. Rural inhabitants resort to water from streams, rivers or ponds for use for both consumption and for washing. Fulani cattle contaminate these sources of water through direct consumption and by excreting while walking through the water, making the water dangerous for human consumption. Another immediate cause of the conflict is the sexual harassment of Tiv women by Fulani men, and the rape of lone female farmers by male herdsmen while the women are collecting water in the river or streams or ponds away from their homesteads. For example, Mrs. Mkurem Igbawua died after being raped by an unidentified Fulani man, as reported by her mother Tabitha Suemo, during an interview at Baa village on August, 15, 2014. There are a plethora of cases of rape reported by women in camps and by returnees to destroyed homes in Gwer West and Guma. The unwanted pregnancies serve as evidence.

This crisis in part persists because of vigilante groups attempting to arrest Fulanis who have deliberately allowed their herds to destroy crops. Fulani herdsmen are then persistently harassed by vigilante groups and, in the process, unscrupulous vigilantes extort money from them by exaggerating the reports against the Fulani. Weary of monetary extortion, the Fulani resort to attacking their tormentors. By rallying community support in their defense, the farmers cause the attacks to expand.

Closely related to this extortion dimension by vigilantes is the extortion by local chiefs who collect money from the Fulani as payment for permission to settle and graze within the chief’s domain. To the herdsmen, the monetary exchange with traditional rulers is interpreted as payment for the right to pasture and graze their cattle, regardless of whether on crops or grass, and the herdsmen assume this right, and defend it, when accused of destroying crops. One kindred head, Ulekaa Bee, described this in an interview as the fundamental cause of contemporary conflicts with the Fulanis. A counter attack by the Fulani on residents of Agashi settlement in response to the killings of five Fulani herdsmen was based upon traditional rulers receiving money for the right to graze: for the Fulani, the right to graze is tantamount to land ownership.

The socio-economic effect of the conflicts on the Benue economy is enormous. These range from food shortages caused by farmers from four LGAs (Logo, Guma, Makurdi, and Gwer West) being forced to abandon their homes and farms during the peak of the planting season. Other socio-economic effects include the destruction of schools, churches, homes, government institutions like police stations, and the loss of lives (see photographs). Many residents lost other material valuables including motorcycles (photo). Two symbols of authority that were destroyed by the rampaging of the Fulani herdsmen include the police station and the Guma LG Secretariat. The challenge was in a way directed at the state, which could not provide basic security and protection for farmers. The Fulanis attacked the police station killing the police or forcing their desertion, as well as farmers who had to flee their ancestral homes and farms in the face of Fulani occupation (see photo). In all of these instances, the Fulani have had nothing to lose except their cattle, which are often moved to safety before launching attacks on farmers.

To resolve this crisis, farmers have suggested the creation of cattle ranches, establishment of grazing reserves and determination of grazing routes. As Pilakyaa Moses in Guma, Miyelti Allah Cattle Breeders Association, Solomon Tyohemba in Makurdi and Jonathan Chaver  of Tyougahatee in Gwer West LGA have all argued, these measures would meet the needs of both groups and promote modern systems of pastoral and sedentary production.


The conflict between the sedentary Tiv farmers and nomadic Fulani pastoralists who practice transhumance is rooted in the contestation for land based resources of pasture and water. The politics of this contestation is captured by the arguments and activities of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association, representing nomadic Fulanis and livestock breeders, as well as the interpretation of the armed confrontation with sedentary farmers in ethnic and religious terms. Natural factors of environmental limitations such as desert encroachment, population explosion and climate change have combined to exacerbate the conflicts, as have land ownership and use issues, and the provocation of grazing and water contamination.

The Fulani resistance to modernizing influences also deserves consideration. Given environmental challenges, the Fulanis must be persuaded and supported to embrace modernized forms of livestock production. Their illegal cattle rustling, as well as monetary extortion by local authorities, compromise the neutrality of these two groups in terms of mediating inter-group conflicts of this kind. The Modernization of the production systems of both groups promise to eliminate the seemingly inherent factors underpinning contemporary contestation for land based resources between them. Demographic dynamics and environmental exigencies point to modernization as a more promising compromise in the interest of peaceful co-existence in the context of constitutional and collective citizenship.


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This paper was presented at the International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation’s 1st Annual International Conference on Ethnic and Religious Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding held in New York City, USA, on October 1, 2014. 

Title: “Ethnic and Religious Identities Shaping Contestation for Land based Resources: The Tiv Farmers and Pastoralist Conflicts in Central Nigeria”

Presenter: George A. Genyi, Ph.D., Department of Political Science, Benue State University Makurdi, Nigeria.


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