By Maria Mitri
Since 2011, the northern region of Nigeria has been embroiled in conflict leading to the deaths of thousands. Though many factors have compounded on and complicated this conflict, at its core, the violence taking place in northwestern Nigeria is a competition over natural resources between the ethnic Fulani herders and a different ethnic group, the Hausa farmers.
This conflict has devastating consequences for the people of Nigeria as many have been killed or forced from their homes, with most seeking refuge in the nearby Republic of Niger.
Most recently, in the first weeks of January 2022, Reuters reported that more than 300 armed bandits descended upon Nigeria’s Zamfara state and left having killed an estimated 30 civilians after shooting randomly and sporadically. The group raided multiple villages in a region consumed by its own security crisis following conflict between ethnic groups.
Northwest Nigeria has seen a general increase in abductions and violent crimes since the end of 2020. The government has struggled to maintain any semblance of law and order as their economy continues to flounder. In early September of 2021, authorities in Zamfara imposed a telecoms blockade in order to prevent coordination among the bandits, as they have attacked before and were expected to do so again.
However, this blockade has also put Zamfara in the dark, causing very few people to know the true nature of events in the state, especially with authorities who are not forthcoming with information, per Reuters.
As days passed, the death toll in Zamfara climbed to at least 200 following attacks by the gunmen that took place between Jan. 4th and 6th. The Guardian reported that community members were able to return to their homes on Saturday following the military’s capture of the region immediately after the attacks.
The government maintained that 58 people were killed by the armed bandits, but community members like Balrabe Alhaji refuted this, saying that they “... buried a total of 143 people killed by the bandits in the attacks”, according to the Guardian. These bandit attacks were conducted in retaliation against military strikes of their hideouts. After fleeing from the Nigerian army’s attacks, the armed bandits attacked a variety of villages over a few days, killing hundreds and burning homes and harvested produce per the Guardian.
The day before the armed bandits descended upon Zamfara, the military conducted airstrikes against the Gusami forest hideout of the militants, as well as a separate target in the west of the Tsamre village. These airstrikes were successful in the eyes of the government, as more than 100 of the targeted gunmen were killed, a number inclusive of two of the leaders of the armed bandit group.
These forests were a crucial target for the Nigerian government, as a variety of these groups congregate in forests and even wage attacks from their forest hideouts in Nigeria and some parts of Niger. Although these military airstrikes are done in order to eliminate non-state actors that threaten civilians, many civilians are wary of these attacks and fear that they actually provoke the armed groups and lead to more attacks.
The Fulani ethnic group, spread across all of Africa, have its greatest concentrated population living in Nigeria. Most Fulani in Northwestern Nigeria are pastoralists who raise cattle and sheep and may also cultivate crops. The group mostly in conflict with the Fulani, the Hausa people, are the largest ethnic group in all of northwestern Nigeria, and even the southern region of Niger.
Beginning in 2014, the Fulani began attacking Hausa villages, an escalation of the dispersed conflicts over land and water. According to The New Humanitarian, Hausa self-defense groups developed, with the support of the state government, but launched revenge attacks indiscriminately, affecting civilian life and making entire towns unsafe.
In response, Fulani militia, driven into forests by the Hausa vigilante groups, responded with even greater violence and stronger weaponry, with broader support across the region. Despite their claims of self-defense, Fulani militia intimidate innocent communities as often as they intimidate the Hausa they fight against. These groups have displaced more than 200,000 civilians, according to the New Humanitarian, committing crimes of murder and rape throughout the northwest of Nigeria.
The government, in years past, has tried different methods in order to reduce crime, especially among armed groups. In 2016, the state government implemented an amnesty program in which guns could be traded in for cash. However, the money resulted in incentivized gun ownership, the increased criminal activity as a result, and at times, the government’s failure to even pay, according to TNH. Over time, the government’s security provisions grew increasingly weaker as local governmental leaders themselves became corrupted by criminal groups.
Without the reinstitution of an effective and uncorrupt local government in Zamfara, this cycle of criminal activity, abductions, mass killings, and sexual violence will continue to kill and displace innocent Nigerians, and the insecurity localized here will likely spread. Instead of the previous attempts at peace building in Zamfara, like the guns for cash initiative, experts believe peace building must start with disarming the militant groups, demobilizing them, rehabilitating and reintegrating members.
At the root of all of this violence and devastation is the fight over landand water between ethnic groups, an issue which we are bound to see more of as the impacts of climate change grow more severe.