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Nigeria’s herdsmen: Climate Refugees, Resilient Migrants or National Security Threats?

As a child brought up in an ethnically divided nation, every Fulani (fulbe) person was usually described as a Herdsman (pastoralist) or gateman. The gateman was the derogatory term used by other tribes to describe these people. To be fair, every tribe had a derogatory term for the other.  My knowledge of the Fulani tribe played along their historical nomadic nature – a socio-cultural group who migrate from one place to another in search of livelihood.

Importantly, stories told to children in the Southwest was that the urge to migrate was a genetic component of an average Fulani man and even by nurture they are raised to move from one geographical space to another. This is partly true, as some historical and ethnographic data has traced their ancestry from the Mediterranean to other parts of Africa such as Senegal and Mali.

However, limiting the reason for migration to genetics or the drive for socio-economic independence would be a reductionist approach.  Historical data and current discourse in Nigeria’s political arena points to the fact that the Fulani man is a pastoralist that migrates in search of grazing land for its animals, however, can become a security threat. This discourse is not far from the truth considering the recent spates of violence unleashed on farmers by herdsmen in the northern, eastern and south-western part of Nigeria. Nonetheless, two things are wrong with the trajectory of this discourse. First it ignores the underlying factors and contexts of these migrations, and second,it limits national discussions to ethnically biased solutions mainly tailored towards adaptive resilience than concrete risk measures.

The current discourse on herdsmen in Nigeria ignores or underplays the fact that the number of migrations witnessed in the last 3 decades by pastoralists, were caused by environmental changes such as desertification or droughts in existing graze lands.  Under global environmental discourse, these types of migration induced by climatic impacts on land and forest have been termed as a form of climate or environmental migration. Importantly, people who are forced to move from one place to another due to climate-induced change(s) are regarded as environmental or climate refugees. The concept of climate refugees has been around for more than three decades and was first introduced in the mid-1980s and framed as environmental refugees. At this period, scholars articulated the issue of environmental and climate change as an imminent threat to national security of states and argued that this phenomenon will potentially trigger climate-induced migrations. As a result, calls were made for urgent policy attention as climate-induced migration was considered a ”pathology” to be prevented.

The fact that the concept of environmental or climate refugees was rendered governable in the name of threat to sovereign security perhaps explains the Nigerian government’s stance towards this issue. Although one cannot categorically say that herdsmen in Nigeria were considered environmental refugees in 1964 when the Nigerian Grazing Reserve Act was established. Importantly as the grazing reserve act came into force before any scientific or policy framing on environmental refugees. However, historical documents from this period show that the enactment of the act was an attempt to improve access to pasture and reduce potential conflicts that might arise with existing communities as a result of pastural migration.  As such one can opine that while the reasons for migration were not addressed, it effects on national security and sovereignty was hugely important to the Nigerian government.

By and large, this attempt of preserving the fragile peace in Nigeria pre-empted the creation of the National Agricultural Policy in 1988 which declared that at least 10% of land (9.8 million acres) belonging to the federal government of Nigeria be allocated as grazing reserves. The emergence of the 1988 act gainfully coincided with the contextualization of environmental migrants in global politics. Again whether this new framing of climate refugees had a significant effect on Nigeria’s implementation of the grazing policy or not is one subject to a lot of debate.

By early 2000s, the framing climate refugees gained significant momentum in international security discourses. This concept was consistently used even though there was no legal status for people affected by the effects of climatic change and no evidence suggesting that these people engaged in cross-border migrations. A study from (Methmann and Oels 2015) shows that this line of discourse was mainly centred on resilience building- with suggestions that in the face of environmental or climatic threats, affected population will prepare themselves and will take up responsibility to become resilient (either through migration or adaptive measures adopted in order to become robust to climate threats). Interestingly, this seemingly new resilience strategy had already gained grounds in Nigeria for more than a century (with the numerous policies on grazing areas). As predicted affected population (herdsmen) moved based on climatic changes, however, this strategy created a worse effect. Rather than create a “culture of preparedness” or adaptiveness, it bred the country’s worst nightmare; a threat to its national security.

As such numerous ethnic conflicts between herdsmen and local communities hinged on religious differences in Nigeria between 2000-2009 had socio-economic and ecological undertones. Put simply they were simply a fight for scarce resources between climate migrants and host communities. Putting it in Malthusian language, when too many people compete for the same scarce resources, there is a higher probability of conflict ensuing. With the current violent situation involving herdsmen in Nigeria, it seems more plausible that the global discourse on climate migrants as easy preys for terrorist organizations is closer to reality. Recent observations in Nigeria somewhat supports these assertions as a number of security analysts have begun to raise concerns suggesting that as the country wins her war against terror, Boko-haram members are slowly metamorphosing into herdsmen. At this point distinguishing the wheat from the chaffs would prove more difficult than expected.

Unfortunately rather than dealing with the root causes and situate the debate in the context of climate change, the Nigerian policy maker and the people he/she represent are pandering to ethnically divisive framing.  How then do we tackle this challenge? Personally, I think an ethnically charged country like Nigeria does not deserve ethnically motivated policies. What is needed in this case is a risk-oriented policy or transformational form of resilience. This will possibly include:

  • The introduction of risk financing policies (covering exposure data, property value, distribution and post-compensation payments) for communities hosting herdsmen
  • An insurance system covering probable damages that might occur in host communities harboring herdsmen.
  • The introduction of land-use mitigation strategies (creating vulnerability scenarios, agro-forestry, afforestation and forecast based action programs) on lands shared by host communities and herdsmen.
  • The re-introduction of grazing reserve areas and the securitization of cattle routes.

In sum, one cannot deny the security implications of herdsmen migrating within the country.  With the recent socio-economic state of Nigeria and other ethnic groups feeling largely unsafe with the presence of herdsmen in their communities, there is a need to take active security measures. However, fueling fear or dissenting discourse will not solve the problem, it would only aggravate issues. As such, it is critical to problematize this discourse in a different way that renders the presumed evilness of herdsmen as the only straw that would break Nigeria’s integration — to a more questionable cause like climate change and its influence on individual struggle for scarce resources.


Olufolahan Osunmuyiwa

Olufolahan Osunmuyiwa is a final year PhD researcher at the Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM) at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her general research interests are renewable energy policy, global environmental policy and governance, Corporate Social Responsibility and International Law. She holds a Bachelor degree in International Relations from Covenant University (Nigeria), an M.A in International Relations from Eastern Mediterranean University (Cyprus).