Vulnerable Narrative: Media Coverage of the Changing Pastoral Conflict in Nigeria
The Nigerian pastoral conflict goes by several names: Fulani Herdsmen Militia, Eco-violent conflict, Middle Belt violence, Christian-Muslim violence, trans-border terrorism, farmers-herdsmen, Fulani extremists, pastoral conflict, just to name a few. The communal violence revolves around herdsmen and farmers. The Fulani herdsmen (predominantly Muslim) have always been in conflict with farmers of any ethnicity or religion, by the very nature that cattle need land to graze and farmers need land to grow crops. Changes in agricultural practices beginning in the late 1980s, however, led to the conversion of low-lying river areas (traditional grazing ranges) into fertile farmland, which bled into disputes over land use rights in these regions. The narrative of this conflict is one of a circular pattern of attacks and reprisals playing out among sociologically and culturally differing ethnic groups within disputed grounds. In search of more land to graze their cattle, some herdsmen are moving further south into a now predominantly Christian farmer territory in the Middle Belt of Nigeria, which is causing more friction with farmers who have not traditionally dealt with the Fulani herders.
But the narrative of this conflict is far more complex than a simple battle over resources. It is easily susceptible to over simplification and sometimes overt distortion in favor of (or against) others in hopes to bend the narrative toward a desired perspective. The vulnerability of this narrative is rapidly evolving and becoming even more jagged. The dramatic recent expansion of social media is allowing more Nigerian voices to weigh in and broadcast to a wider audience. This proliferation of voices, however, is almost inviting a naive interpretation of the conflict, which is so multi-faceted some people in the midst of the conflict do not know what to believe beyond the steady stream of causalities. Set against the background of this communications revolution, the conflict itself is at risk of being hijacked by bad actors (non-state terrorist groups active in the region) and partisan participants seeking to manipulate the perspective on the violence. These dueling viewpoints are shining a new light on the horrors of this conflict, but much of the complexity is being lost in transmission. The uncertainty encompassed in these battling multiple narratives might warp this fragile conflict into something far more dangerous to Nigeria than any trans-border terrorist threat.
Roots of the Pastoral Conflict in Nigeria
Nigeria, a compact country roughly twice the size of California, had an estimated population of 182 million people from over 250 ethnic groups who speak more than 500 languages in 2017 (“Nigeria,” CIA Factbook, p. 628). As of April 2018, Nigeria’s estimated population is between 186–205 million, with urban centers growing at a steady 6.5% rate for the past fifty years. The population boom is stressing Nigeria’s weakening infrastructure and causing slums to ring most of the city centers. With this massive population boom comes a population shift as well, with from 1.76 to 2.5 million people displaced in the northeast part of the country where Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) and Boko Haram insurgencies are most active (Campbell, 2018).
The fast pace of Nigeria’s population growth has not led to a proportionate increase in reliable infrastructure or more advanced education opportunities (Kazeem, 2018). In addition to the lack of these necessities, a deficiency of healthcare and even basic primary education are becoming more apparent in the rural areas as communication between farmers and the transhumance pastoralists continue to erode. Approximately 10.5 million school-aged children attend no school at all, with the most disadvantaged groups being “girls, street children and the children of nomadic groups” (“Nigeria has largest,” 2017). The conflict itself has taken over 300,000 farmer and pastoral children out of schools and in the state of Benue, half of the 24 schools for pastoral children are completely shut down (International Crisis Group, 2018 July 26). There is also a “dearth of information” on the overall health of Fulani children as only a few Fulani settlements have been studied in southwestern Nigeria, but one study has painted a distressed picture of a highly vulnerable class of people in need of intervention to sustain basic nutritional needs (Ekpo, et al 2008).
Changing agricultural practices, environmental pressures, increased desertification, neglected grazing reserves, and breaking down of basic institutions for mitigating disputes are pushing herders southward and into conflict with farmers in the region. Some herders are turning toward violence to acquire land to graze their animals (Higazi, 2018). This multi-faceted conflict can be characterized, although not fully, by “revenge for past attacks, economics of conflict (cattle rustling and armed robbery for gain), resource scarcity, decreasing interdependence of pastoral and agricultural economies, cultural/religious differences between herders and farmers and institutional failures to resolve conflicts as well as the broader political and historical context” (Majekodunmi et al., 2014).
In the past couple of years, this conflict has grown bloodier with the introduction of guns and “unknown gunmen” armed with AK-47s. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari even acknowledges this change and blames the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s government which has spread Libya’s raided arsenal of weapons throughout the region. President Buhari believes, however, that “Nigerian herders are known to carry sticks and machetes and cut foliage or their animals but these ones are carrying AK 47” (“Fulani herdsmen don’t,” 2018). Like most of the administration, he views the armed attacks as caused by foreign terrorists, not the Fulani herdsmen (“Defence minister blames,” 2018). University of Sydney’s GunPolicy.org estimates that there are over 6 million privately owned firearms in Nigeria and estimates that by 2018, up to an the astronomical high figure of 350 million illicit firearms being trafficked in the country (“Nigeria – Gun Facts,” n.d.)
It is obviously difficult to ascertain how many guns are being trafficked in and out of the country given the impossibility of counting illicit held firearms. There is anecdotal evidence in some media reports surrounding attacks—mostly the attackers being “identified” as herdsmen—that cite the herdsmen using weapons they would not be able to buy themselves and found that the weapons were so sophisticated that “some of them cannot operate the weapons” (The Adamawa Massacre” 2018). In the Guma LGA area, members of the “Fulani militia” when arrested in possession of “AK-47 rifles, charms, handsets and ammunition…. claiming that their colleagues, who ran away when they sighted soldiers, handed them guns” (Young, 2018).
Given the rising number of dead on both sides of this conflict, uncomfortable questions are surfacing in social media. The herdsmen are often hired by the local chapter of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN) or other regional cattle associations to tend cattle. It is now common in some disputed areas to see herders with AK-47s to protect themselves and their cattle from wranglers and other criminal outfits who pose a real and great threat to the herders. What is not clear is who has hired the Fulani, if they are arming them, and whose cattle the Fulani are herding (Akinnaso, 2018).
To reduce this conflict to an economic resource war or one by shadowy hands of the political elites, however, would be a mistake. It is multifaceted with regional factors, ethnic, and cultural overtones that can change multiple times in a local area. Agitating the situation is lack of communication (sometimes different languages) and local government entities or federal authorities who are supposed to mitigate disputes between the farmers and herdsmen. The conflict seems to be taking a more ethnic edge as local ethnic militias are being mentioned more and more in reporting as communities feel authorities are not doing enough to protect their interests and they must take matters in their own hands.
Changing Media Landscape
Even though most Nigerians still get their news from traditional news sources like television, radio, and newspapers (“Nigeria profile – media,” 2017), the violence of the country is being covered by not only digital versions of traditional print newspapers, but a host of emerging social media voices. Over 16 million Nigerian Facebook users make it the company’s biggest African market (Kazeem, 2016). Around 86 million Nigerians have internet access, with most users being “young, educated and urban.” The Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) estimated about 103 million internet users in May 2018 and the number of mobile phone users is estimated to be around 162 million—82-84% of population penetration (“Nigeria’s internet users,” 2018; Adepetun, 2018).
More Nigerians are embracing the 24-hour news cycle and Nigeria’s traditional news media is beginning to adapt to online offerings but are maybe being challenged by online only news sites. Elomobah.com and Sahara Reporters are two main online news publications sites. Premium Times, Cable News, and News-Guru are also “pushing the bounds of incisive and investigative journalism” (Okusaga, 2018). Some of these news sites also run in the traditional print format (most notably The Guardian, Vanguard, and This Day) and are still available in major city centers, but they are now reaching a much wider audience using online formats. Vanguard News, Sahara Reporters, and Information Nigeria all have around 3 million Nigerians following their Facebook pages; Punch Newspapers and Premium Times have about 1.5 and 1.2 million followers respectfully (“Facebook Pages Stats in Nigeria,” 2018).
As usual, the spread of new technology brings new challenges to every society and their struggle for access and freedom of information and a government’s attempts to control the narrative. Reporters Without Borders has leveled that Nigerian “journalists are often threatened, subjected to physical violence, or denied access to information by government officials, police, and sometimes the public itself. The all-powerful regional governors are often the media’s most determined persecutors and act with complete impunity.” Despite these challenges, Nigeria still has over 100 independent media outlets (“Nigeria,” Reporters, 2017). Legally, Nigeria has passed the Cybercrime Act, which has listed “cyberstalking” (section 24) that carries fines and jail terms for anyone who posts messages—or even forwards posts—from a person who knows the story to be “false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another or causes such a message to be sent” (Gov. of Nigeria, 2015). Several bloggers were detained and prosecuted under the law and some people have fled under threat from officials (Nkanga, 2016).
Freedom on the Net (2017) reports that people are still being detained and harassed under the 2015 cybercrime law and “media journalists covering sensitive issues as official corruption and communal violence are regularly subject to criminal prosecution.” Freedom of the Net reports the belief that Nigeria is monitoring mobile communications of many journalists under state and federal surveillance laws and regulations. It is also worthy of note that during the Italian company Hacking Team breach of 2015, it was revealed that Nigeria’s Bayelsa State government was actively seeking internet surveillance tools (Emmanuel, 2015). As of yet, however, there have been no signs that the Nigerian government is censoring social media profiles or filtering the internet surrounding the pastoral conflict, but it does seem that they are watching content closely. Nigeria has, however, taken some proactive steps in securing a more open information exchange environment with the passage of the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill in January 2018, but some Nigerians are reserving judgment until they see how the law is implemented (Aginam, 2018).
The internet coverage in social media seems more slanted toward the urban crowd and not the rural narratives, given the location and accessibility of internet. Again, it is difficult to assess the level of internet saturation in the whole country, but it was believed to be 26% in 2016. Frequent power outages, lack of non-English pages for a diverse population, wealth and gender gaps in consumption, and cost of connectivity services all prevent the spread of the internet to more rural spaces (Freedom of the Net, 2017). There is no discernable research that catalogues the rural news habits of those in the pastoral conflict regions, but there are plenty of social media posts appearing to cover this conflict. Nigerian policymakers and decisionmakers in urban areas have sometimes a completely different way of getting the news than their rural counterparts which further complicates the information exchanges around these conflicts.
There is not much academic research on Nigeria’s new media consumption of news surrounding conflicts in the country—save anecdotal Twitter hashtag activism—however, researchers Celestine Gever and Coleman Essien (2017) studied the newspaper coverage of the pastoral conflict in the Nigerian state of Benue. The study concluded that the two main papers, The Daily Trust and Daily Sun, covered the conflict as it was ongoing—mostly on the inside of the paper—but did not follow up on the victims or give any reporting as to what happened in the aftermath (ibid). This type of “breaking news” coverage, with no follow-up reporting, seems systemic throughout the media landscape and one must do keyword and internet searches in order to gather fragments that might give a fuller timeline of crisis events.
Coverage of the Numan Local Government Area Attacks (November–December 2017)
An example of how this communal violence is being reported can be seen through an examination of a series of attacks in Numan LGA in November and December 2017. The Economist begins its article with a detailed account of a herders attack on the farming villages in the Numan Local Government Area in the state of Adamawa and the vicious brutality of the herdsmen in December 2017 (“Fighting between Nigerian farmers,” 2018). It was only in the middle of the article that there are two quick sentences: “The general lack of security also afflicts Fulanis, who say they have taken up arms to protect themselves. Indeed, just weeks before the raid on Lawaru that injured Ms Gidwell, at least 50 unarmed Fulanis, most of them children, were killed in an attack they blamed on farmers” (Ibid). Research points to the Bachama Ethnic Militia as the attackers of the Fulani settlements; the Bachama is the predominate ethnic group in this region’s farming villages. Although the Economist does mention multiple factors that are aggravating this conflict, its visceral opening from a farmer’s perspective colors the reader almost immediately. Since the article did not give the date of the attack on the Fulani settlements, research reveals it occurred in November. Reporting of the violent events shows the numbers of fatalities, injured, and who precipitated the attacks, varied drastically from source to source.
The November 20, 2017 attacks on the Fulani settlements:
Thirty Fulani children and women were killed during the attacks in Numan villages by suspected Bachama farmers and already investigation has commenced to arrest the suspects….According to the North East chairman of Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN), Mafindi Danburam, 45 bodies were buried, with many still missing (“Over 30 Fulani women,” 2018, November 22).
About 20 people, mostly children, were feared killed and several others injured following a clash between farmers and Fulani herdsmen in Numan local government area of Adamawa State last night Monday, November 20th. According to reports, trouble started when a farmer was killed by suspected Fulani herdsmen. The farmers in the community came together and carried out a reprisal attack (Ikeji, 2018, November 22).
About the December 4, 2017 attacks on villages in the Numan LGA:
The expected Fulani reprisal on the Bachama indeed came and it has been even more bloody and deadly. Lawaru, Dong, Kikon, and Shaforon have been sacked and the body count could rise above 50, and include two Village Chiefs. The armed herdsmen attacked in broad daylight and literally mauled the common folk in their path. This is in reprisal for the earlier raiding of a Fulani camp in Kikon that saw to the shocking killing of women and children, itself a reaction to the previous shooting dead of a farmer and his son in an altercation with a herder (Timawus, December 6, 2017).
More than 100 innocent people were killed while many more were injured in another round of communal violence between the Bachama ethnic group and Fulani herders in Numan and Demsa areas of Southern Adamawa State….The recent crisis erupted in the past two weeks when armed men suspected to be Bachama invaded a Fulani community one afternoon when their men were away and murdered at least 48 children, six women and a man, according to figures from community leaders (“Adamawa’s killing fields,” December 9, 2017).
The attacks on Dong and Lawaru villages of Numan Local Government Area in Adamawa State at the beginning of the year left 79 persons killed….Still, no arrest has been made and the suspected herdsmen have carried on with impunity, ravaging other villages in the state….He further explained that the incident started when the Fulani herdsmen encroached into the farms of some farmers in Tambo Village with their cows and when the farmers accosted them they started shooting at the farmers, killing one and injuring four persons (“The Adamawa Massacre” 2018, January 15). [Note there is no mention of the attack on the Fulani settlement in November.]
“…Adu [Fulani herdsman], who has since fled the area and taken refuge in Mayo-Belwa, claimed that 73 persons were killed in the attack on his community. The Adamawa State Police Command had reportedly put the death toll in the Shaforon attacks, as reported in The PUNCH Newspaper of November 21, 2017, at 27. However, the police Public Relations Officer, Abubakar Othman, later reviewed the figure and came up with 53 (Livinus, 2018, March 3) [Note there is no mention of the reprisal attack by the herders in Numan LGA in December.]
The narrative of a single set of attacks has begun to take sides and omits that which does not “justify” the violence from the other side. The University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database (National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (GTD), 2018) reports the November incident as a total of 30 dead, and the attackers to be “Bachama extremists.” GTD listed the December 4th events over five entries (one for each location attacked) leading with the Lawaru, Dong, and Kiken attacks with “unknown” fatalities, but a total of 7 fatalities other associated killings on the same date in the same region. Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (2018) have two separate entries for the attacks in November 20, 2017, stating two actors of “Bachama Ethnic Militias” and “Fulani Ethnic group” with a total of 30 dead. The December event they listed as between a “Bachama Ethnic group” and “Fulani Ethnic militia” and also listed a total of 30 fatalities. It is impossible to determine the “original” altercation that led to these tragedies from any available source.
Some Nigerians are using their voices to highlight the nuances of the conflict and government response to the violence (Martins, 2017). Bloggers and users of social media are expressing their visceral reactions to the attacks and opining who is to blame for the circular and seemingly endless communal crisis. Despite the high potential of viral misinformation, using social media to express opinions can promote a healthy exchange of ideas and information in any society. There are also sites that are attempting to show multiple sides of the conflict. Omoyele Sowore runs the New York-based Sahara Reporters, the popular “Wikileaks of Africa” due to coverage of conspiracy theories and has several articles on this crisis. Another political blog “Ompojuwa.com,” points out several sides of the conflict, but like most bloggers, is not completely non-biased. Rightly, however, writer Abdulrhman Usman Leme (2017) highlights a very real dangerous problem in “reporting” on the pastoral conflict as he laments that Nigeria’s media has an:
“obsession with one-sided narratives….For instance, the pre-dawn attacks in some parts [of the country] was widely reported to be perpetuated by “unknown gunmen” between 2010 and 2012. ‘Unknown Gunmen’ easily became a lazy way to report the news as opposed to actually investigating the attacks or the people behind it. The label was later switched to tagging every clash as a ‘reprisal attack by suspected Fulani herdsmen’ without reporting the original attacks that prompted these reprisals….The media keeps reporting the crisis with political and ethno-religious undertone, giving room for ethnic profiling of the entire Fulani race, accusing them of undertaking an ethnic cleansing agenda against the ‘Northern Minorities’.”
It is unknown how much information is coming directly from these rural communities. It is known that satellite phones were used in the country, because they were banned in Borono when it was believed that Boko Haram is using them to coordinate attacks. It is “undeterminable” what regulations on the satellite phones are in other parts of Nigeria (McKinley, 2017).
When searching for particular attacks through keyword searches, one can find raw photos on blogs or Facebook pages that show carnage that would definitely be censored as they sway the narrative drastically toward one side of the conflict, but the information is not always accurate. Linda Ikeji, an extremely popular Nigerian blogger (Martins, 2017), posted “Shocking photos of little children killed in fresh Adamawa Fulani/Farmers clash (graphic)” cited above. However, the post is written as if it the victims were farmers when they were actually Fulani. One has to look in the comments to read several people vilifying the herders and even a couple of people trying to correct the misattribution. With the lack of accurate reporting in rural areas where most of the violence occurs—and the only “officials” arrive in the aftermath—it is often impossible to decipher the true breadth of this conflict. With, hopefully, best intentions, social media is bringing the conflict to a global audience, but with it, disinformation or only partial information.
Federal Government Reaction
Defence Minister Mansur Dan-Ali states that the “remote and immediate causes of herdsmen-farmers clashes [are] on the blockage of cattle routes, the establishment of anti-grazing laws by some states and the existence of local militias” (Usigbe, 2018). Dan-Ali continues that “there is nowhere in this country where arms are allowed to be carried other than by legitimate security forces. So, anybody carrying any arm is doing so illegally” and believes the killings are being done by “foreign terrorists” (“Defence minister blames,” 2018). Nigeria’s administration states that Islamic State of West Africa (ISWA) is “using foreign terrorists and recruiting young men to fight and kill innocent persons in order to exacerbate tensions along the country’s ethnic, religious and regional fault lines.” But, as the article points out, these attacks that ISWA is said that have perpetuated “revolves around farming and grazing lands, which does not fit into the ISIS terrorist group’s world-wide ideological agenda” (“ISWA Terrorists in Benue?” 2018).
The Defence Minster does not give any specifics on how the government will tackle the increase in violence and gives no mention of the Fulani militia, just that Nigeria is “stabilizing the situation” (“Fulani herdsmen don’t,” 2018). The government is attempting to control the narrative but seems to be placing blame on foreign terrorists or those who are manipulating the herdsmen, rather than the violence that is occurring at the hands of a “militia element” among the Fulani herdsmen. This narrative is actively being countered by well-meaning Nigerians who are using social media to post graphic pictures and personal accounts of the horrors about what is “really going on,” which is further convoluting efforts to discover what really happens during these bouts of violence.
As the death toll rises in these areas, global audiences are taking notice. Some are over simplifying the complexities and focusing solely on the religious overtones. At a press conference between President Buhari and US President Donald Trump, in April 2018 for example, Trump offered a pretty stark version the conflict that there is a “very serious problems with Christians who are being murdered in Nigeria, we are going to be working on that problem very, very hard because we cannot allow that to happen” (“Fulani Herdsmen don’t,” 2018). A Forbes article (Ochab, 2018) covering the April meeting characterized Trump’s grasp of the conflict as “ignorant,” but also leans toward sources that view the whole conflict through an overly simplistic lens focused on the religious overtones.
It is clear that the narrative outside the country is beginning to take a more one-dimensional form than those who are familiar with the nuances in country. And yet, it cannot be ignored that the conflict is exasperating longstanding ethnic and religious divides; the conflict runs the risk of becoming more ideological are already being seen in the fringes of new media.
Increasing Marginalization of the Fulani
The increasing vilification of the entire Fulani herdsmen in general, is actively being countered by the voice of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association (MACBAN) which seems to be one of the few organizational voices of the Fulani herdsmen. The organization are countering the anti-grazing laws as discriminatory and challenging them through several country justice systems. But the MACBAN does not claim to speak for all Fulani herdsmen, as some herders are members of other associations like the Miyetti Allah Kautal Hore Association. Others regions of high communal violence are calling upon the government to label the Fulani a terrorist organization (Adeyemo, 2018). A court case asking for the Fulani to be labeled a terrorist group in Taraba was making its way through court and was due to be decided on June 21. The day before the judgement, the Justice presiding received an appointment to a higher court which forced all his cases to the next legal year (Odunsi, 2018; Tsa, 2018).
Claims of genocide have been leveled at both the Fulani and the farmers (“Plateau Killings,” 2018 and McGregor, 2017). Some people make the differentiation between the Fulani herdsmen, and “armed Fulani militias masquerading as herdsmen” in their posts to blogs or news sites (Nnanna, 2018); others do not. In an attempt to get the spiraling violence under control, some states are enacting anti-open grazing laws, which, in effect, make it impossible for the Fulani to graze their cattle legally with in these states. As of March 2018, the Nigerian States of Benue, Tarbara, Ekiti, and Ebo have enacted anti-open grazing laws aimed at stemming the violence (Higazi, 2018). In some parts of Benue, militias are being formed to drive out Fulani herdsmen in the State. They are armed with slingshots (“Anti-grazing,” 2018), but people argue the move is useless since, “it makes no practical sense that a group of unarmed men will confront a marauding band of the world’s fourth deadliest group armed to the teeth with AK-47s and AK-49s.” (“Anti-grazing, 2018). It has been countered, however that some of these sometimes “overzealous” militias in Benue states are actually also armed with AK-47s (“Youth group backs,” 2018).
It is even being rumored that these militias are being armed by the local governments. The Emir of Kano, an LGA in Tarabra, “alleged that 800 Fulani people were killed on the Mambilla Plateau by a government-sponsored militia with some of the perpetrators given political appointments.” The Emir highlights a regional chairman’s radio address calling to kill all the Fulani—which is vehemently denied by the Governor. The Mambilla attack referenced is the set of events that rocked the Mambilla plateau in June 2017. Reportedly, the crisis began when a Fulani man won a land dispute in court that led to a Mambilla man’s arrest. The farmer’s kinsmen attacked the Fulani and cycle of attacks and reprisals began. The article notes the violence as “the last straw,” as the two sides had been in the government assembly arguing over the Taraba Anti-grazing Bill which led to MACBAN calling for protests against the bill (June 2017, “Eyeball to eyeball”).
The only article that seemed to cover the aftermath of these attacks was a release of suspects in the case in January and a statement from the Governor of Taraba stating: “The truth of the matter is that there has never been genocide against Fulani in Taraba. What the Emir [of Kano] is talking about was a communal clash between the Fulani and the Mambila in the Sardauna Local Government Area of the state in June last year. In that communal clash, both sides suffered casualties and the figure of deaths from both sides put together was nothing close to genocide.” The governor did ask for the chairman to step aside and was suspended, but the official report did not indict him in the incident (Umar, 2017). Violence spread through this region after the release of the suspects as the Miyytti Allah argued “frustrated efforts to seek justice for the families of the alleged 800 persons that were killed…has also emboldened the perpetrators and their cohorts to carry out more attacks on the Fulanis” (Haruna, 2018).
Lost in Transmission
Nigerian journalist-in-exile, Ahmed Salkida, writes a blog that featured an exclusive that is further feeding the ambiguity of the changing pastoral conflict. His article has been shared over several different blogs and news sites and has now become circular reporting. The article states that Sarkin Yaki (purportedly an alias used by regional leader Buba Jaudu) a self-proclaimed “Fulani Herder’s Militia” leader has over “800 rifles, machine guns; Fulani now have bombs and military uniforms” (Salkida, 2018). Although not specific in what attacks his militia took part, Yaki states that the violence began when a praying Fulani was attacked by a farmer who was then killed in an altercation. The article suggests that over 500 Fulani fighters are part of Boko Harman, and many of those have “climbed to privileged commander positions.” Attacks and hierarchy of a much more organized militia group to “defend” Fulani herders, if proven true, will mark a definitive dark turn this conflict. Yaki states the Fulani were told that “every single Fulani should leave Bachama kingdom, not only Fulani you said all Muslims too.” (ibid). These audio tapes are not confirmed or reported by anyone else, but there was a phone number attached to the report. If true, this type of statement is troubling, given its direct link to the desire for not only a whole ethnic group to leave an area, but all the adherents of one religion, which sharpens the ideological edge of this conflict even more. The “Exclusive” has been making its way into keyword searches and, if proven true, highlights how incredibly vulnerable this narrative is to outside manipulation by bad non-state actors already violently forcing their ideological goals in the northeast part of the country.
Hijacking the Vulnerable Narrative
Perhaps the one fact that is not disputed in any of the narratives surrounding this conflict is that the violence and death are getting worse. The International Crisis Group (2018) has estimated that around 1,300 people have died in the conflict since January 2018. Most of these deaths have occurred in Adamawa, Benue, Nasarawa, Plateau, and Taraba States. The lack of transparency at all levels of government and the addition of social media gaining prevalence in rural spaces not normally widely covered by traditional media, not only make this conflict difficult to analyze, but also difficult to determine if the pastoral conflict is being hijacked by the more religiously-driven ideological bad actors like Boko Haram and ISWA. As President Bahari confessed, the pastoral conflict is a “very long historical problem.” Yet the violence is inching dangerously close to yet another familiar narrative: a whole people feeling suffocated, marginalized, subjected to laws by their own government that make their way of life illegal; villains or not at the outset, villains they will become. In the coming year, whoever controls the narrative will define this conflict—to whatever nuance they desire—and will ultimately control who will live and who will die.
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