Shehu Bello leaned on a staff as he stood guard over his two dozen head of cattle grazing outside Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, and spoke grimly about his two main adversaries: farmers and desertification.
The encroaching Sahara Desert has pushed Bello, a 29-year- old Muslim, about 500 kilometers (310 miles) south from his home town of Shinkafi in search of pasture, and into conflict with communities that see grazing cattle as a threat to their crops. He moved to the Abuja area in 2011 when two of his nephews died and 20 head of cattle were stolen in a clash with farmers.
Fighting between the mainly Muslim herders and largely Christian farmers has killed about 8,000 people since 2005 in the so-called middle belt region that marks the informal divide between northern and southern Nigeria, according to the Brussels-based research organization, International Crisis Group. The violence has fused at times with the four-year-old insurgency of the Boko Haram Islamist group that’s seeking to impose Shariah, or Islamic law, in the country.
“It seems we can’t go anywhere with our cattle these days without meeting farmers who see us as a source of trouble,” Bello said in an interview in the Gwarimpa district outside Abuja. “And we have no choice other than to defend our livelihood.”
The population of almost 170 million in Africa’s top oil producer is roughly divided between Christians, mainly in the south, and Muslims, mostly in the north.
As many as 34 people were killed this month in Plateau state in a clash between farmers and herders, while 37 died in the same area in November. The death toll among herders last year was more than 400, about 360 of them in Plateau, Abdullahi Badejo, national president of Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore, a herders’ association, said in an interview in Kano.
“The root cause of the violence is resources,” Nnamdi Obasi, West Africa analyst at International Crisis Group, said in an interview in Abuja. “The advancement of the desert has done havoc to agriculture, and frictions are arising because of people moving from north to south.”
The desert is advancing as much as 15 kilometers a year, according to Emeka Emordi, a researcher at the University of Nigeria’s Centre for Environmental Management Control. In the past 60 years, the desert has claimed about 351,000 square kilometers (135,136 square miles), almost the size of Germany, of Nigeria’s land, putting 28 million people and 58 million livestock at risk, he said.
“Most of the social conflicts in the middle belt are because of desert encroachment,” Emordi said. “It’s not only causing conflict in the middle belt, it’s being felt already in the south.”
The authorities are focused on the insurgency of Boko Haram, which means “Western education is a sin” in the Hausa language, and President Goodluck Jonathan imposed a state of emergency in the states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe in May.
Sectarian violence not directly related to Boko Haram has killed 3,000 people in the central states of Plateau and Kaduna since 2010, New York-based Human Rights Watch said on Dec. 12.
Communities have “frequently taken the law into their own hands and carried out brutal revenge killings against members of the other community,” the group said in an e-mailed statement.
The central plateau, with its temperate climate averaging 18 degrees celsius (64 Fahrenheit), is particularly attractive to the herders because it isn’t infested with the tsetse fly, the bane of cattle in the humid tropics because it causes sleeping sickness.
With origins in the Futa Jalon highlands straddling Guinea and Senegal, Bello’s Fulani ethnic group for centuries roamed a greener Sahel that extended to Somalia in the east before seeing their livelihood jeopardized by repeated drought and the advancing desert.
The conflict of today has its roots in the early 19th century when Fulani converts to Islam emerged as a clerical class that led a jihad, or religious war, against old Muslim ethnic Hausa states to create the Sokoto Caliphate, an Islamic state, in Nigeria. The Hausa-Fulani aristocracy’s influence stretched across parts of present day Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso and Benin Republic.
Ethnic groups in the middle belt that practiced traditional African religions, many of whom were converted to Christianity by missionaries, resisted the jihadist army until British colonial rule intervened and created the modern nation of Nigeria.
Many Christian farmers in the area suspect the Fulani herders of today are an advance guard in a plan to expand the influence of Islam.
“We know they they still want to take over our land and rule over us,” said John Pam, a member of the Christian Berom ethnic community that has clashed with Fulani herders in recent years in the Barkin Ladi district of Jos, the capital of Plateau state “That’s why we’ll never let them set up permanent roots here.”
While outbreaks of violence between farming and herding communities were first reported about 60 years ago before Nigeria gained independence from the U.K., the clashes have intensified in recent years.
Bello is seeking to avoid the confrontations by moving his cattle between Abuja and Nasarawa state. Occasionally he goes into the capital on some days to do odd jobs to earn cash.
“These days I try to supplement my earnings by going into the city to wash cars,” he said. “Otherwise life in in the bush is where I’m comfortable.”
© Copyright 2015 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.