DISPLACED: People who have fled attacks by Fulani herdsmen on villages in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, queue for food donated by charities at a school in Kafanchan. Pictures: Obi Anyadike/IRIN
DISPLACED: People who have fled attacks by Fulani herdsmen on villages in Nigeria’s Middle Belt, queue for food donated by charities at a school in Kafanchan. Pictures: Obi Anyadike/IRIN
DIFFERING VIEWS: Moses Berde, head of Goska village, Mahmood Suleiman, district head of
Dangoma village fives minutes away from Goska village, and Pastor Gordon Matum.
DIFFERING VIEWS: Moses Berde, head of Goska village, Mahmood Suleiman, district head of Dangoma village fives minutes away from Goska village, and Pastor Gordon Matum.

Goska is five minutes up the road from Dangoma in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region. But divisions between the two villages run so deep they threaten the unity of Africa’s most populous nation.
Bullet holes and burnt-out buildings in Goska are evidence something terrible happened there.

Moses Berde, the village head, explains that more than 40 people were killed and over 100 homes destroyed in back-to-back attacks on December 24 and 25.

The villagers accuse their Fulani neighbours in Dangoma of hiring armed Fulani pastoralists from outside the area to carry out the attacks. The interlopers now graze their cattle on Goska’s rich farmland, driving off anyone bold enough to venture near.

Dangoma is a more prosperous version of Goska, reflecting the value of cattle over crops. Its elders assemble as district head Mahmood Suleiman recounts his community’s version of events.

“What happened was between Goska people and herdsmen from outside,” he says. “But people are pointing accusing fingers at us.” He then accused Goska of attacking Dangoma on December 25. Seven people died, he says - though there is no visible evidence of the raid.

The area around Goska and Dangoma, the south of Nigeria’s north-western Kaduna State, has been a hot spot of communal violence since the 1980s. The latest bout began last September. Some of its victims are crowded into the grounds of a primary school in the railway town of Kafanchan, waiting for food provided by the Catholic Church and well-wishers.

Pastor Gordon Matum has registered more than 2590displaced men, women and children for handouts. There are people here from Goska and other villages. All have fled attacks by Fulani herdsmen.

“We’ve never terrorised, but we’re the ones that are terrorised,” Matum says. “We've been peaceful, but we will defend ourselves, even though we don’t have arms.”

He is angry over what he sees as a partisan state government that refuses to acknowledge the scale of the displacement: “Where is the government? They are totally silent about internally displaced people. (Governor Nasir) el-Rufai said southern Kaduna people are exaggerating the scale of the attacks, but he hasn’t come here.”

Nigeria’s Middle Belt straddles the divide between the largely Muslim north and a majority Christian south. It is an ethnically and religiously diverse zone, plagued by conflict over farmland, grazing areas and stock routes. In southern Kaduna these clashes have pitted the pastoralist Fulani against farmers who see themselves as “indigenous” to the area.

According to a report by SBM Intelligence, a Lagos consultancy firm, pastoral/farmer clashes in the Middle Belt accounted for more deaths than Boko Haram last year.

In Kaduna State alone, between 10 000 and 20 000 people have died in communal conflict since 1980. Among the most vicious episodes was the political violence triggered by the presidential election result in 2011, which continues to feed hostilities.

When Muhammadu Buhari lost to incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, from the south of the country, Christians and other ethnic groups were attacked in northern Kaduna; their churches, shops and homes destroyed on the presumption they had supported Jonathan. In southern Kaduna, Christians retaliated by killing Muslims. Among those trapped by the violence and slain were Fulani herders from outside the country.

Haruna Osman is the Kaduna State chair of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders' Association, a Fulani lobby group. He reels off incidents in southern Kaduna in which Fulani are still being killed.

But in seeming to concede that in the latest violence most of the victims are farming communities, he says: “Ask them why our people were attacked. What happened in 2011 is the genesis of what is happening now.

“No Fulani man will give up seeking revenge. (Fulani) from outside (Nigeria) were killed. They will not seek permission from me (to retaliate). But no Fulani man will attack first. We’re the minority (in southern Kaduna).”

Taking a swipe at the vexed issue of citizenship in Nigeria, where full rights are accorded only in your “home state", he says Fulani have been in the region for centuries; it is their stock routes the colonial road builders followed.

“We are also Nigerians! Give us our share of the land!” he demands.

In identity-driven conflict, any member of a rival group can be attacked in retaliation for a perceived original wrong committed by that community. If a cow tramples a farmer’s field, all Fulani get blamed. The cycle of revenge broadens the conflict.

It also obscures an element of simple criminality. People aren’t just singled out because of ethnicity or religion, but because looting and cattle rustling are profitable. Rival communities also share a perception of the security forces and judicial system as partisan, and/or incompetent. Not surprisingly, they take the law into their own hands.

The politicisation of ethnicity and religion is seen as the core of the problem. Mohammed Bello Tukur, legal adviser to the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders' Association, sees the “demonisation” of herders as a tactic by the opposition “to hang President Buhari”, a Fulani.

He blames a “scaremongering”, southern-dominated media for “connecting dots in pockets of incidents” and deliberately conflating the conflict with the jihadist north-eastern insurgency of Boko Haram.

But that is not the view from Goska, or among the displaced in the primary school. The common thread in all their stories is of sudden attack, being outmatched by men armed with AK-47s who boasted of political connections.

Demarcated stock corridors and gazetted grazing reserves were envisaged as ways to avoid farmer/pastoralist competition for land and water points. They could also provide the development services to encourage the settling of the nomadic population.

But grazing routes have been squeezed by expanding commercial holdings. According to one study, less than 3% of the grazing reserves “have been acquired, and these are poorly managed”. Most of the land has been appropriated by corrupt political and private interests.

A new grazing reserve bill was rejected last year, largely due to opposition from southern senators. Atta Barkindo of the Kukah Centre, an interfaith policy forum in Kaduna, explains why: "It’s seen as a land grab. The government would also need to find compensation for subsistence farmers, and that will never happen."

Tukur and Chidi Anselm Odinkalu, former National Human Rights Commission chair, argue for a forward-leaning livestock development programme to address “access to water, grazing, agricultural extension services, and access to markets” for both farmers and pastoralists. There is also a raft of NGO-led mediation efforts under way over the Middle Belt conflict. But Odinkalu worries that these initiatives lack real leverage.

Urgency is needed because Nigeria is fast-approaching the 2019 election, and the violence will inevitably be politicised and stoked. “If there is no movement this year, forget about it, as the election calendar will overwhelm everything,” Odinkalu says.

The levels of distrust run subterranean deep on both sides. The disdain, the subtle asides, the othering, is painful to behold.

Otherwise genial Berde is matter of fact in his assessment: “A Fulani is a Fulani; he cannot be trusted.” Asked if there could ever be reconciliation with his neighbours, his response is less than inspiring: “By God’s grace.” - IRIN News

Obi Anyadike is editor-at-large and Africa editor of IRIN News